What does it mean to be a woman in 2018?
Are the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s not shifting? Are the female of the species finally learning to express themselves in all their complex wonder, without worrying about being judged, harassed or criticised?
The answer to this is almost certainly still, ‘No’. But we may just be getting there.
Step forward Carlee Benear: a Texan mother-of-three children, aged 6, 4 and 18 months, who’s been dividing opinion through her Instagram account.
Carlee is an artist and ‘researcher of life’, who started practising yoga while breastfeeding, after the birth of her second child. As she says, “My yoga journey started after the birth of my second child. I wasn’t willing to go through postpartum depression again, so I actively committed to the journey within.”
Her Instagram account, which has over 65,000 followers, features pictures and videos of her doing gravity-defying, advanced yoga poses, often while breastfeeding her now 18-month-old daughter.
Before we even get on to the fact that Carlee is managing to breastfeed her daughter while standing on her head and tying herself in knots, the issue of breastfeeding itself can divide opinion.
Breastfeeding is one of the single most important things we can do for our children, but it has attracted controversy for the last decade. The fact that a woman has to ‘get her breasts out’ can cause offence, with some establishments actually asking them to go and do so in the toilets, due to complaints.
The other issue is that the child breastfeeding is clearly not a babe in arms any more. She’s walking and independent, and this is another topic that divides opinion. Many mothers who choose to breastfeed for longer find that they are questioned, often by other mothers – “Oh? Are you still feeding? Surely your baby is too old for that now?”
However, the World Health Organisation recommends that babies are fed up to the age of two year ‘or beyond’, which suggests there is no upper limit for when to stop breastfeeding.
The truth is that breastfeeding is usually done up to the age of around three in most of the third world, and the health and emotional benefits of the practice are well-publicised. It’s just that here in the West we basically start to get a bit cringey when the child can ask for a feed. However, according to figures released by Unicef, while breastfeeding rates have increased in the UK since 2005, they’re still very low, with only 17% of mothers breastfeeding exclusively at three months, and a tiny 1% still breastfeeding axclusively at 6 months.
Here’s Carlee on why it works for her, “Breastfeeding yoga has helped me combat postpartum depression and has made my breastfeeding journey free of any bumps in the road, such as mastitis, worry of lacking in supply, getting over those first few weeks of tenderness, let down control and the stresses of being needed around the clock – to name a few. Not only that, but it helped me get my mind out of the way and let my body soar with the possibilities and control that are naturally there.”
So for Carlee, combining her breastfeeding and yoga journey has been the key to success in both. Yoga, she says, restores her energy and gives her time for herself – “I believe as parents it is our duty to make that time for our self because we can not pour from an empty cup.”
Images that have since been removed from the account provoked a vitriolic response. One of these showed Carlee free-bleeding, standing doing the vertical splits, while her young children hugged her leg. For those of you not in the know, free-bleeding is a radical feminist movement, which originally started in the 1970s, and was re-started in 2014. Believers in the movement don’t use tampons or sanitary towels and just allow their menstrual blood to come out onto their clothes.
This image in particular prompted people to call her ‘self-important’ and ‘unhygienic’.
But for Carlee her periods are an important part of her spiritual, physical and emotional life, and joining in the free-bleeding movement helps her to honour this.
“This is the blood they [her children] came from and after birthing them into my husband’s hands, we all have a great appreciation for it. I take time each cycle to be grateful that I can bleed and I incorporate it into my yoga practice to honor all of the women who have it and those that can not.”
She also points out that ‘period-shaming’ exists, saying “It’s taken this long for tampon and pad companies to stop using blue fluid in their ads, for goodness’ sake.”
In fact, in our Western society, yoga is one of the few activities that acknowledges the monthly cycle. In yoga lessons we are encouraged to refrain from doing inversions while menstruating and to be gentler in our practice. Even just the act of acknowledging we have a period in public is pretty unique in the West.
To Share or Not to Share
Carlee’s Instagram account is a mixture of clearly posed images, with a look that is all her own, alongside her children, sometimes in outfits that match hers. She is passing on her love of yoga to her children and they are clearly responding with enthusiasm, clambering all over her, breastfeeding, playing alongside her and generally sharing her yoga journey.
But some of the images have divided opinion, such as a video she uploaded of her doing a variation of scorpion pose, while breastfeeding, and wearing only a pair of nude knickers. This provoked a variety of responses in the comments section, including one person calling it ‘an attention seeking circus act’. Another commented that while she respected Carlee’s decision to do whatever she felt was best for her child, “you must also understand that what is shared on social platforms invites scrutiny. Do whatever you like behind closed doors PROVIDED that it’s absolutely in the best physical and psychological interest of the kids!”
The radical technology of smartphones and social media is hugely altering the way we interact as human beings. Everyone has the power to share images of themselves with potentially global audiences. Because of this, we have to be aware that once an image is on a social platform, it is no longer ours to control. But as Carlee says, it’s ok to have differences of opinion, that doesn’t mean we need to abuse those that we don’t agree with. As Carlee says:
“Sometimes, we begrudge our differences from others rather than embracing them.”
The key element to all of this seems to be ‘choice’. Women feel that they should have a clear choice to have a career, be an earth mother, wear a burkha, wear no clothes, be as extreme or as conservative as they feel they are. Carlee Beanear has made the choice to be loud and proud about who she is. This has clearly upset some people, but it has also inspired many other women to embrace their bodies, their yoga journeys and their confidence to express themselves, regardless of what other people think.