“Not ur mama's maternity bras...designed by @badgalriri, approved by baby RZA,” reads one Instagram caption for singer Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line of lingerie. Rihanna cradles her 17-month-old son RZA as he breastfeeds. The photo in question is quite clearly a high budget, glitzy editorial shoot, but nevertheless – a “brelfie” is a brelfie.
Brelfie is a portmanteau for “breastfeeding” and “selfie,” and it’s a trend where women snap photos and videos of themselves breastfeeding their children and post the evidence to social media. Rihanna isn’t the first celeb to snap (or be snapped in) a brelfie, and it’s no novel concept since the term was considered to be on the rise back in the mid-2010s. But, while some women see their breastfeeding photos as an act of empowerment or normalization for motherhood, others think it could just be narcissistic exhibitionism.
Feeling Influenced by the Influencers? That’s Their Job, After All…
During a baby’s first few months of life, he or she will need nourishment several times a day (and night). Sure, some women can’t do it naturally for one reason or another, but breastfeeding is part and parcel of the natural human condition. After all, an infant’s development is largely dependent on nutrition received to grow a healthy body and mind. The World Health Organization suggests that mothers breastfeed their children exclusively for the first six months of their life, and then while she begins to introduce complementary foods she can (and probably should) continue to breastfeed.
Breast milk is perfectly tailored through evolution as a complete source of nutrition for an infant with balanced proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, antibodies, and hormones. Our bodies are so mechanically sophisticated that throughout a mother’s breastfeeding journey, her milk changes to match her infant’s developmental needs. This beautiful process is worthy of awe and may make a woman feel respect for her body and a deeper sense of connection to her newborn child.
In her research of the #brelfie, Clemson University’s Sarah Beach pointed out how images of breastfeeding have existed for centuries and that this social media trend is “merely one small piece in a wider puzzle concerning motherhood and body politics.” The brelfie also has an inherent sales function, whether intended or not. Some women who post brelfies have no additional agenda, but since some celebrities or influencers are in essence salespeople for lifestyles or particular products, the brelfie also serves a profit-driven function.
Model Chrissy Teigen recently posted a photo breastfeeding her daughter Esti, which doubled as an advertisement for a breastmilk collection product by Haakaa. In the caption, she gushes about how Haakaa’s Ladybug Silicone Breast Milk Collector is a “perfect breast pad alternative” for women who would rather save every drop of breastmilk instead of simply soaking it up with a nursing pad. But some Instagram users weren’t so keen on her choice to advertise her breastfeeding journey.
“Not sure why she has to show this as every new Mom is going through the same,” writes one user. Another posed the simple question of why we (the average social media user) need to see this type of content, and another mentioned how Teigen has four nannies. Indeed, the photo could appear as performative, but for other women and mothers this sort of photo serves an educational or inspirational purpose.
Many comments on Teigen’s post exclaimed interest in the product or came from older mothers who wished that a product like that existed decades ago when they were breastfeeding. But one commenter suggested: “share with your friends not the world.”
Breastfeeding isn’t an easy endeavor. It can be exhausting, painful, and could force a woman to change her entire schedule to be able to feed her infant several times a day. Some babies refuse to be bottle-fed, and others may burp or spit up entire feedings after each session. Mothers additionally deal with the added stress of balancing social norms – in some conditions, it’s acceptable to breastfeed more openly, but in other cases, some feel that they have to find and wear discreet nursing clothing or pack specific products to cover themselves up.
Some celebrities keep it real and raw, wearing minimal makeup and dressing down in their brelfies, but others like Rihanna or supermodel Gisele Bundchen showcase a more glamorous side of motherhood. Indeed, these women have more resources to manage motherhood in a smoother manner, and it could appear a bit out-of-touch to market maternity, but the celebrity brelfie could play a part in increasing awareness and understanding of the breastfeeding process.
The Good That Could Be Accomplished with a Brelfie
Both the male gaze and the female gaze can provide different cultural functions for women’s breasts. They’re a point of attraction for mating purposes, they’re an integral element of the female identity, and they also serve as an accent for women's fashion design. Some scholars assert that breastfeeding is actually a “holistic act and is intimately connected to all domains of life – sexuality, eating, emotion, appearance, sleeping, parental relationships.”
Taking all that into consideration, it begs the question – what’s the most legitimate use of the boob? Biologically speaking, while breasts certainly serve to attract mates by signaling fertility, we have them as the means to provide nourishment for our children.
With that in mind, the brelfie actually could combat over-sexualization while establishing a deeper sense of normalcy and understanding of the breastfeeding process. This is why brelfies have become known as key acts of “lactivism,” another portmanteau that combines lactation and activism to promote a breastfeeding-friendly culture.
In a HuffPost op-ed titled “In Defense of the ‘Brelfie,’” writer Jennifer Brenan made the case for brelfies as a way to increase awareness of this biological need. She explained that when she was pregnant with her first child, she was frightened by the fact that she’d have to breastfeed. Having no idea what it looked like, nor how she would logistically do it, Brenan said she felt “so self-conscious” and “struggled” after she finally used her breasts “in the way they were biologically intended.”
Brenan suggested that if she had had a better idea of what breastfeeding actually looked like, then she could have had much more confidence and feel less shame post-partum. Additionally, Brenen pointed out how children should be exposed to more evidence of breastfeeding (rather than the woman being fully covered or just bottle feeding) so that they can understand it’s normal.
We know that babies cannot source their own nourishment, and we know that breastfeeding them (if possible) is in their best interest for healthy development. For these reasons alone, breastfeeding should carry less of a taboo as it’s not entirely fair to assign shame to a genuine biological need. Shouldn’t we promote, not stigmatize, a process that could lower infants' risks of respiratory illnesses, infections, diarrhea, sudden infant death syndrome, and even learning disabilities?
Increasing awareness for breastfeeding could also impact a mother’s own health outcomes: While a woman is recovering from birth, breastfeeding can help her uterus return to the size it was before her pregnancy, and it could reduce postpartum bleeding.
As many as 1 in 10 mothers experience the infection known as mastitis while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, knowledge about mastitis may not be common enough, even among medical professionals. If a woman doesn’t fully empty her breast or bacteria enters her breast from her own baby’s mouth, she risks developing mastitis. There’s no way of knowing how many women have learned about mastitis from celebrity moms like Troian Bellisario or Tiffany Thornton who have posted brelfies and discussed their own personal struggles, but the celebrity exposure could hypothetically help raise awareness.
Studies have also shown that women who breastfeed may have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, breast and ovarian cancers, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, as well as osteoporosis. Reducing the feelings of embarrassment and anxiety about how and when to breastfeed a baby can also significantly help a mother’s mental health while her body is recovering from the very physically demanding experience of pregnancy and birth.
The Potential Downsides To Posting Your Brelfie
A brelfie could positively influence a woman to embrace her nature if the woman who comes across it can actually breastfeed. But, by the same token, a woman who isn’t capable of breastfeeding or perhaps even getting pregnant may feel excluded. Furthermore, a woman who needs to get back to work to make ends meet may feel like she’s failing her newborn.
Can a brelfie be included in body positivity discourse? Some may feel inclined to say no, since it’s a physical representation of a normal biological function, and oftentimes body positivity culture contains purposefully incendiary or overtly sexualized content. But, since brelfies are indeed an intimate look at a woman’s body and could be seen as her excessively baring her skin, what may be empowering from the woman’s perspective could be seen as oversharing from another onlooker’s perspective.
Is it oversharing when Artemisia Gentileschi painted her Madonna and Child, showing the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ? Some art historians would argue that this Renaissance depiction of biblical figures was intended to reveal an exemplary woman’s role in providing nourishment for her young. Depictions of women – particularly the Virgin Mary – served as examples for girls to guide their behavior.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta is a 500-year-old work of art that depicts the Virgin Mary nursing Christ in a similarly serene manner. Her breast is once again exposed, so could this be classified as oversharing, or does it serve as a positive encouragement and model behavior for mother and child?
The difference between breastfeeding in classical art and breastfeeding in personal snaps posted on social media is that the latter can be seen as attention-seeking behavior. Let’s be real – any sort of photo that you personally upload and publish for either a small audience of family members on Facebook or a large swath of eyes on a public Instagram profile is done so for attention.
That’s not to say that brelfies are inherently exhibitionist narcissism, especially since many mothers may be driven by a sense of pride for making it to that milestone. But rather than turning the breastfeeding process into a third-person spectacle like in fine art, it may backfire by turning breastfeeding into a spectacle for self-promotion.
Though the study was about vacation selfies, researchers have found that if you’re constantly endeavoring to document your life for “self-presentational concern,” then you might not fully savor the moment. It doesn’t matter if you’re spending time staging a beautiful brelfie or are taking a raw, realistic photo without any glam whatsoever, by over-documenting and then oversharing, you risk reducing personal fulfillment and instead are relying on other people’s eyes and input for instant gratification.
Posting a selfie (yes, just a normal, clothed one) can feel empowering. But, it may also have some adverse effects. Scholars have suggested that selfies can lead to worsened objectification, cyberbullying, or marginalization. If you’ve got thick skin, perhaps you could look past the haters, but if you’re understandably sensitive to malicious comments, oversharing could make you feel pretty poorly about yourself.
You should also take into consideration the hot-button concept of consent. Just like how your child cannot provide him or herself with her own nourishment, your child is simply not developed enough during breastfeeding ages to vocalize comfort or concerns about his or her own personal right to privacy.
As the mother, you bear the burden of deciding how much you’ll expose your child to the public eye. It’s really worth getting a bit introspective and asking if the ROI on a brelfie is worth the potential regret your child could feel in the future when he or she is old enough to understand the implications of such intimate photos.
Before you post any intimate element of your life, whether something as seemingly innocent as a family photo or something more invasive to your bodily privacy like a breastfeeding selfie, you should pause and consider your “why.” Seeing shares, likes, comments, or followers flow in may give you a fleeting sense of success, but these vanity metrics can actually backfire and make us feel worse in the end.
If you do opt to snap a brelfie or two (and perhaps even choose to post one), it may be in your best interest to really noodle on your “why.” If that “why” includes capturing intimate moments for other people’s eyes to see and hoping to gain some clout from it, all you’re essentially doing is allowing other people to validate your identity. You don’t get those first few blissful moments of baby-time back. Sure, you can take a picture and relive the memories, but it may feel even better to simply practice a bit of mindfulness and count your blessings while living in the moment.
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