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The Breastfeeding Seen 'Round the World

(AP Photo/Peter Kramer)

On Feb. 6, ABC's "Nightline" aired a story about Salma Hayek's humanitarian trip to Sierra Leone. In a brief scene, the actress picked up a local woman's infant son -- and breastfed him. Little was made of it at the time, but days later, the clip suddenly went viral -- played over and again on blogs and TV, fodder for tabloid stories, magazine essays, late-night talk-show gags.

Hayek, a new mom at the time of filming, said she was making a statement against malnutrition: Mothers were being pressured by their husbands to stop nursing early because of cultural taboos against having sex with breastfeeding women. So why did this story churn on through a weeklong news cycle? Maybe it was the powerful subtext of OMG Salma Hayek's breasts tee-hee-hee!

"This is why the United States is so messed up," groaned Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina. "It's a disconnect from who we are as living human animals. It's the objectification of the female body, the reliance on technology and our medical-legal atmosphere, plus the concept of the mommy wars, where women are pitted against each other." She added: "We need to relax!"

Yet the reaction was largely positive. ("WOW! That is very generous of her!" read a typical comment on the usually snarky Contrast to the 1999 incident in a Glen Burnie, Md., day care when a visiting mother picked up a stranger's crying baby and started nursing. Police were called, prosecutors investigated and state lawmakers rushed out a bill to make it illegal to breastfeed someone else's baby. (It failed.)

Why the difference? You could write a dissertation on class and race, probably. "It was in Africa, and she was there as an ambassador for UNICEF," said Labbok. "She was doing it as a noblesse oblige."

In other Salma Hayek news, she got married Saturday in Paris, to French luxury-goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault, father of her 17-month-old daughter Valentina.

By The Reliable Source  |  February 17, 2009; 1:04 AM ET
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