Belfast Telegraph

Sophie Donaldson: Is a photograph showing a model breastfeeding a symbol of female empowerment or a cynical stunt?

Sports Illustrated may have missed the email, but subjugating women went out with Weinstein, says Sophie Donaldson

Think Burberry, and what comes to mind? Cara Delevingne, perhaps, who has lent her smouldering gaze and signature brows to the brand's fashion campaigns over the past few years. Or perhaps you think of its classic camel trench, the last word in understated luxury.

You probably wouldn't associate hooliganism with the heritage brand, but go back 10 or so years and that's exactly what Burberry's infamous check represented, so much so that some English pubs would refuse entry to anybody wearing the tartan print.

To reverse a brand's identity in just over a decade is no mean feat. A mammoth amount of behind-the-scenes work would have gone into changing our perception of Burberry, bit by bit, until suddenly all we wanted to wear in 2015 was an oversized monogrammed poncho, courtesy of Christopher Bailey's AW14 collection for the fashion house.

Last week, Burberry shipped considerable criticism for physically destroying more than £28m of finished goods, a third of which were products from its beauty inventory.

The company incinerated unsold clothes, accessories and perfume, simply to protect its brand and stop products from being heavily discounted.

While the criticism is understandable, it doesn't change the fact that Burberry's decade-long rebrand has been a masterclass in public relations, in which teams of people work like marionette puppeteers to subtly, but powerfully, realign our subconscious association.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue may want to take note. Since female subjugation became unfashionable sometime around November of last year, the annual publication has found itself in a rather awkward position.

It would appear that a magazine that features nearly naked women solely for the gratification of its overwhelmingly straight, male readership could be seen as more than a little out of touch.

In an attempt to reposition its brand while also keeping its customer base happy, the magazine has been on a ham-fisted mission to make the Swimsuit Issue, and all that it entails, feminist-friendly.

It started earlier this year with a photo-shoot titled 'In Her Own Words'. The black-and-white shoot featured various women, completely naked, with words like 'Feminist' and 'Mother' scrawled over their bare skin.

The shoot was promoted by editor MJ Day as a set of images that were intended to empower women to feel better about their bodies.

Presumably, we were to close our eyes as we flicked through the dozens of other pages in the magazine featuring buxom models writhing around on various stretches of beach, which would surely quell any stirrings of empowerment we might have felt from In Her Own Words.

Last week, the magazine held its annual swimsuit model search for its next issue. Sixteen were chosen to walk the runway at Miami Fashion Week, with the hope of making it on to the magazine's hallowed pages.

One of the hopefuls, Mara Martin, had her five-month-old daughter backstage.

Rather than handing her daughter to her husband, who was also backstage, she continued to breastfeed her baby (whose ears were protected from the music by a pair of headphones) as she walked the runway.

Unsurprisingly, the photograph of a bikini-clad Martin on the catwalk with her daughter clamped to her breast instantly went viral.

Social media commentators hailed it as liberating, a powerful visual statement that has the potential to dispel the taboos surrounding breastfeeding in public.

Lest we think that this was anything other than an impromptu decision made by a working mother to simply feed her child and not orchestrated by a powerful media conglomerate, Day insisted, "It was very spontaneous", adding: "When I was talking with the girls backstage prior to the show beginning, I saw that Mara's baby was sleeping and peacefully nursing. I asked Mara if she would want to walk and continue to nurse.

"I loved the idea to be able to allow Mara to keep nursing and further highlight how incredible and beautiful women are."

We will never know to what extent this was planned - although you have to wonder why they had tiny little baby headphones to hand - but regardless, Day and her cohort at the Swimsuit Issue are no doubt beside themselves with glee.

Marching women up and down a catwalk in their smalls is considered so aggrandising that even beauty pageants want to distance themselves from the spectacle, with Miss America announcing last month it will no longer feature a swimsuit section in its competition.

So, how to make your archaic flesh parade palatable for 2018?

For good measure, among the 16 finalists was a Paralympian and several plus-size models, but a breastfeeding Martin was a coup.

Not only does it neatly fit into the Swimsuit Issue's shoddily formed identity as a pro-woman publication, but the scene also managed to distract from the fact that the Swimsuit Issue is just that; a Lycra-clad cog in a wheel that is kept spinning by each year's new crop of lithe, hopeful women wearing very little and the men who hungrily consume their image.

Fionola Meredith returns next week

Belfast Telegraph


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