When I posted an embarrassing photo of myself—nursing bra exposed—with Gloria Steinem, I had no idea it would touch a nerve in so many women.
Every once in a while, a very "real" private moment pops up on social media, garnering a very public response. Case in point: "BBC Dad." Amid the deluge of images showing perfectly curated rustic weddings and Pinterest-inspired birthday parties, there is something comforting and universal about this kind of blooper caught on film—one that captures the exact moment when real life crashes in.
Not long ago, I posted such an image on Facebook. Here’s what happened: Gloria Steinem, an alumna of Smith College, where I was teaching, was in Northampton, Massachusetts, to speak. I wasn’t able to attend, because I had in tow my two children: my infant daughter, Sydney, and my 5-year-old son, Marlow. We were in a café when Steinem walked in—as elegant as ever at 82.
It wasn’t my first time meeting her. While working on my biography of Helen Gurley Brown, Enter Helen, I interviewed Steinem about the late Cosmopolitan editor, who popularized the tiresome phrase "having it all." Now, as my still-nursing baby smacked her lips in her stroller nearby and my son began smelling individual packages of Airheads candy, I reintroduced myself to Steinem. To my delight, she remembered me. But hearing Sydney’s wails, I cut her off midsentence—"That’s my baby!"—and took off. A few minutes later, baby calmed, boy bribed with chips, I asked Steinem for a picture, and she graciously obliged.
Well, nothing’s perfect
I knew the image was funny when I posted it along with the caption "Well, nothing’s perfect." (I mean, my maternity bra is photobombing Gloria Steinem!) But the reaction I’ve gotten since has been pretty surprising. It’s not just comments. People have been stopping me in the street to talk about The Photo. In a way, it says as much about them as it does about me. It’s a bit like a Rorschach test. Everybody sees something slightly different.
"You are being photographed: ‘the woman who has it all’ with the woman who fought for your right to have it," one girlfriend said. A male colleague saw it and focused on my son, who’s competing with the most famous feminist of all time for my attention.
"I could not have dreamed up a more perfect picture to sum up the complexity of being a woman in this moment... the challenges of being a mother, a professional," commented a single friend who’s in her mid-30s.
"The expectation that we should always be perfectly composed is unrealistic."
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When I saw the photo, I thought, "Whoa, hot mess." But also: "OK, I’ll let myself off the hook—it was a tough day, and at least I’m smiling." I didn’t realize it at the time, but in accepting myself, foibles and all, I was actually practicing an essential element of self-compassion, which I learned about only recently from Melissa Miller, PhD, a therapist in Amherst, Massachusetts. Miller uses this mindfulness-based approach with her clients, many of whom are women in their 30s and 40s. As she explained to me, "Self-compassion comprises three main parts: being kind to ourselves, like we might be to a friend or loved one; recognizing the reality of our ‘common humanity’ or shared experience; and being aware of our current experience-slash-emotion without judging it."
Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with social media, but occasionally it really helps to have those "friends" chime in, offering I’ve-been-there’s. Everyone can relate to feeling exposed, vulnerable, less-than-perfect, but we just don’t see these images enough—not in magazines or in newsfeeds. My snapshot with Steinem seemed to be saying something about this common humanity. I just wasn’t sure what. In an attempt to decipher it, I asked a few friends why the photo struck a chord. One friend, a college professor in her 40s, confided that she always felt like "a giant leaky boob" when she was breastfeeding, so my shot made her remember feeling exposed as a new mom.
Yep, that’s my bra showing
My former neighbor Jen, onetime "fashion PR gal" who is now a mom of two living in the burbs and working in corporate communications, took it a step further, noting the photo “laid bare a fear we have as working mothers: that we may be exposed—as frauds, as not being good enough, not pretty enough, not put-together enough, not doing enough. And in your photo, you were exposed in a shot with a feminist icon! Plus, you’re wearing the dreaded mom bra: flesh-toned, wide straps, the workhorse of over-the-shoulder boulder holders. It’s not a bra meant to be seen in public; it’s the bra that’s hidden under stained tees and loose dresses. We all have that bra.”
Another working-mom friend, Nancy, used her subway commute home to send me a stream-of-consciousness screed against the impossible expectations and double standards that working mothers face: “As women today, an insane amount is asked of us! Work like you don’t have kids. Parent like you don’t have a job. Be a sexpot in the bedroom. Lose the baby weight in six months! Nurse for a year (preferably on Instagram). Even feminism is harder than it used to be! You have to read about inter-sectionalism, reflect on white privilege…we are now judging each other on how well we protest. So here you are literally leaning in to the woman who started it all. You look tired, and a little resigned.”
It’s just life—no apologies needed
Suzannah, a mom of two girls who works as an assistant principal at a Brooklyn, New York, high school for immigrant students, talked about guilt. She and her husband both work full-time, but as she put it, "He doesn’t arrive at work with an apology on the tip of his tongue. Nor does he hem and haw over the time he spends with our girls or brood over having been too exhausted to give them quality time when home. That’s all me. Women are just socialized this way. When I saw your photo, it really captured that struggle for me. But you did not apologize. And for the next day, as I carried that image with me, neither did I."
I carried that image with me, too—literally. Shortly after it was taken, I interviewed for a new position to be an arts and culture editor at my local newspaper. I still had to figure out childcare and, well, everything. "This is my life right now," I told my prospective boss, showing him the The Photo on my phone. "It’s not easy," I said, but I assured him, "I can do this." I got the job. I start next month.