Archive for May, 2012

When images mean vastly different things to different people: TIME magazine cover analysis

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

As a mother and a graphic designer/visual artist, I was very interested in the controversial TIME magazine cover highlighting its feature on Dr. William Sears and the the philosophy he espousesattachment parenting.

I’ve posted my personal take on this “parenting philosophy” in the secret. And has a very good commentary on the cover from an attachment parenting viewpoint.

Here, I’ll discuss the chosen cover image and its effectiveness from a communications standpoint.

First, the chosen cover:

Do you think TIME is aiming to portray what this mother is doing as good, or even normal?

Does the child look OK? Is he comfortable, relaxed, happy? (It should be noted that this is an actual mother and child, they are not models, and she actually does still breastfeed him. He is 3.)

In my view, the answers to all of these questions are NO.

The woman’s pose is somewhat defiant, though her stare is one of relative equanimity.

The child has to stand on a chair to reach her, rather than her coming to the child’s level.

Now, a contrasting cover shot that didn’t make the cut:

The child is in arms, eyes closed and the mother is seated.

She is non-combative, still with the look of calm on her face, but with her head tilted toward the child and her arms cradling him. He is in his own, peaceful, private world, unaware of the camera.

In spite of the child’s size, it’s far less jarring than the first photo. It probably still would have raised eyebrows in a culture where most don’t breastfeed past 6–12 months, but not as much as the chosen image.

My thoughts on the imagery and the public reaction:

In reading lots and lots of online comments on the cover—from people who did read the article, but mostly people who apparently did not read it (they didn’t know the mom and son were real, for example)—I found a range of reactions but they generally fell into some main categories.

Skeeved out

Many, many of the commenters felt this image of a preschool-age child breastfeeding was “gross, sick, repulsive and perverted” and expounded with comments accusing the mother of exploiting the child, saying that he is going to be made fun of when he’s older, saying this is going to make him “go gay,” and so on. Even as a proponent of breastfeeding for as long as is mutually agreeable to mother and child, I can understand how the average joe or jane citizen might find the image at least a little bit off-putting simply because the majority of Americans think breastfeeding is something for infants only and it’s not something they’re used to seeing. Still, I found many of the negative reactions to be needlessly angry and hostile. The jokes at the child’s expense were not funny to me

Pissed off, type A

Another sizable crop of reactions were defensive, likely focusing on the headline, “Are You Mom Enough?” Many women were offended by what they viewed as yet another endorsement of breastfeeding being pushed on them. The über-popular blogger Scary Mommy mocked up the cover expressing this, and her followers on Facebook mostly rallied in agreement. This is an interpretation I didn’t quite understand, admittedly not only because my own experience puts me in a very pro-breastfeeding place, but also because to me it seemed clear that TIME was not trying to present the practice depicted as something necessarily positive. The “Are You Mom Enough?” headline seemed to me to be sarcastic and when coupled with the assertion that “…attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes…” it is made clearer that TIME was looking at this style of parenting with a critical eye, certainly not endorsing it wholesale (if at all).

Along with this sort of defensiveness, though to a lesser extent, was another, more predictable sort, complaining about the woman’s attractiveness and that she could not possibly be a breastfeeding mother and look like this. I’d say this might have been another strategy choice by TIME to inflict just a little pang of jealously among women, for not only are they competing in the area of “good mothering” but also in “hotness.”

Pissed off, type B

A smaller handful, mostly attachment parenting supporters, felt the cover was sensationalist for their own reasons: it not being representative of the reality of extended breastfeeding—which is usually considered to be breastfeeding for more than one year, but is not usually done quite so…shall we say…flagrantly as is depicted in the cover cover image. Indeed, one of the critical comments from a non-supporter of this kind of parenting snidely questioned whether this mom would pull her son aside for some breast milk after soccer practice if orange wedges weren’t good enough. Realistically, most people who breastfeed, still, at these older ages do it perhaps once or twice a day for bed time or quiet time alone at home.

Also the singular focus on breastfeeding for an article that was supposed to explore attachment parenting overall (of which breastfeeding is an important part, but only one of eight tenets) was puzzling to those who understand AP. This picture didn’t capture the spirit of attachment parenting that parents who practice identify with—mostly that it is very child-centered. (I think most people familiar with and supportive of attachment parenting would have preferred the second photo I show above.) Overall, it seemed to offend attachment parent proponents, though I did see one (and there could likely be more, but this is definitely a minority view) commenter that thought the cover was great in its defiance and her look of just daring someone to give her shit about how she chooses to raise her child.

Generally pissed off and fed up

Perhaps the most common response of all among those identifying as mothers was disgust at a media outlet once again “pitting women against each other” or “fueling the mommy wars.” These comments were often tagged on to those expressed by the previous A and B “pissed” versions, encompassing a range of secondary views on the matter, but generally saying “leave moms alone,” “we’ve had enough” and “we won’t play this game!”


So, what message did the cover convey? TIME skeeved out and pissed off a lot of people!

Obviously, it meant different things to different people—as images often do. But in this case, the meanings seemed particularly disparate.

If TIME sought to critique attachment parenting harshly, I would say it was somewhat effective conveying this with the cover, but not entirely. Many—moms especially—missed that point and were put on the defensive, thinking the question was straightforward and assuming they weren’t “Mom Enough” according to whatever this standard TIME was reporting on was.

If TIME was aiming to bring forth a better understanding of attachment parenting, the cover image was a huge fail, because it’s depicting something with many nuances in an extreme manner. It could be argued that TIME was trying to show one facet of attachment parenting—the so-called extremist—but I’m not sure that its audience is well-versed enough in the subtleties to actually understand that.

Some people chided TIME as a cheap rag scrambling for relevancy that has pulled stunts like this before, with a history of being provocative (Hitler as Man of the Year, 1938). Others reluctantly cheered its business savvy and marketing brilliance for stirring the pot and creating controversy to push sales, regardless of the quality of journalistic integrity.

I suppose it matters what your metric is—sales or clear messaging that gets your point across. Not knowing TIME’s aim (though I have my own suspicions) it’s not clear whether its message was conveyed, but if I had to call it, I’d say it’s a win in the attention grabbing/sales side but a lose in the clear messaging side—that much seems obvious.