In 2018, model, mama, and social media influencer Mara Martin made headlines across the globe by walking the Sports Illustrated runway while breast feeding her daughter, Aria. In that one viral moment, Mara’s statement changed the face of motherhood by helping to normalize breastfeeding. With the platform that infamous strut gave her, Mara has stepped into the role of motherhood advocate, speaking honestly and openly about her own experiences as a mom and her hopes for the future of breastfeeding. She was named a Top 100 Changemaker, Top 30 Mothers of Influence and has spoken on numerous panels across the U.S. about motherhood and female empowerment.
For Breastfeeding Awareness, we caught up with Mara over the phone, in-between quarantine activities she was enjoying with her daughter. Here’s what she had to say about her viral moment, where it led her, and how she and Aria are doing today:
Your viral breastfeeding moment wasn’t planned — before you made the decision to breastfeed your baby on the runway, what was going through your head backstage? Did you think about how the move would be received, or were you just fully in mom mode in that moment?
It was basically an aligning of the stars, like it was supposed to happen. We’d just moved to Key Largo, and I was five months postpartum so I wasn’t modeling or anything. But Sports Illustrated had their first ever in person casting, which they never do, and it was in Miami, which was like an hour away from me. So, my husband was like you should just go to take pictures. We didn’t have a babysitter, I brought Aria with me and when I got there I was number 500 out of like 10,000 girls. I was like, “Okay, this is fine like we’ll just make a day of it. Take the pictures and go home, no big deal.” So I spent the whole day there being a mom. I was in heels carrying this 5-month-old baby and a diaper bag I had no expectations. I went home and I felt so accomplished that I just did that with a baby and in a bathing suit. That night we got the call, and they were like, “Hey, we want you to come back for the next round” and I was like “What?!” And so then we went to the top 60 and [my husband] Ryan was there to help me. And we get there and we do interviews again. It’s a whole day process. And then I make it in the top 15.
So the next day was the runway show, and the editor was like “Do you want to walk one of the looks with Aria? She basically came to the casting too, I feel like she deserves to.” And I was like “Okay, yeah if she’s up for it. I don’t want to walk down the runway with a crying baby. Well, we get backstage and are ready to go. Aria’s happy as can be. She’s so excited to be in her bikini. And the show was pushed back by like two hours. So I brought Ryan backstage with me and I was like “Oh here, you can take her, because there’s no way she’s going to be up.” I start to breastfeed her because she’s getting ready to go to bed – and the show starts. So I step out of line and I’m like, “Oh, well. It’s no big deal. I don’t have to walk this… I’m not gonna like rip her off.” Well, just at that moment MJ saw me and she’s like, “Do you want to just walk out there with her?” And I was like, “Are you sure? I would totally do it but I would never just do it without anyone’s support.” And she said “Absolutely. Go for it.” I was like “Okay, cool. Screw it, I’m gonna do it. I’m not going to miss out on my dream.” So I went out there and it was so amazing. Everyone’s phones got up and they were cheering me on. I did my walk back, and Aria was sleeping. I had a couple more looks to do, she fell asleep, and it was so great but I thought nothing of it because I didn’t really think anyone would see it because it was just a smaller runway show.
And then the next day they were like, “You’ve got to get to E! New, you’ve got to get Good Morning America.” And I was like “What are you talking about?” And they were like “There’s this video that went viral… Turn on the TV, you’re everywhere.” So we did press for it must have been a month… it ended up getting like 50 billion impressions. And the best part about it is that it was received so positively like there. I couldn’t believe it at the time – I was so wrapped up in the Sports Illustrated moment, I didn’t realize how powerful it was for women to see someone breastfeeding and showing her postpartum body, and showing women you don’t have to give up on your dream.
What were some of the most touching responses you received from moms who saw your breastfeeding your baby in the middle of a fashion show?
It’s been 2 years but I still to this day get messages from women on a daily basis like “You have no idea what you’ve done for me.” … We handwritten letters and someone made a doll out of me. There are people who have said “You changed my life. You made me go apply for this job I wanted to apply for, or go to college.” One mom said that she was crying in the delivery room as she saw us, she said, “I didn’t want to breastfeed but now I want to try it.” There are just all these moments of uncertainties of motherhood and I feel like I’ve shown, “Hey, you can do it.” This was totally obviously just about breastfeeding, but it started to transform into like “Wow, this girl’s five months postpartum and she’s like going to a casting for swimsuit.” I didn’t think about at all, I just love my body. I just pushed out a baby and I loved my postpartum body. Yeah. And so it kind of gave people that too, that we should appreciate our bodies because they can do so many great things.
What positive changes have you seen made in an effort to normalizing breastfeeding in public?
A few months after, I did a fashion show for Rebecca Minkoff, and she actually asked me to breastfeed at the show kind of like to signify like the working woman and I was like “Oh, sure! Absolutely!” I remember doing it and thinking oh gosh I hope people don’t think this is like a gimmicky thing. But it actually felt so cool because we came such a long way. At the beginning it was like this big deal, but no one made a big deal about it at that show at all. They just saw me as a working mom, doing what she got to do. And I just feel like celebrities are showing it more. I feel like it’s so much more normalized now. So many women are sharing their stories and posting about it and not hiding it. But you still hear those stories though where you know you have the girls on the airplane and they want you to cover up or people are still shaming mothers feeding in a restaurant. But I think we’ve come a long way, I really do.
Are there any facets of your daughter’s development as well as your relationship with her that you credit to the fact that she was breastfed?
I feel like breastfeeding has given Aria and I such an incredible bond. So many hours spent together and being able to have my body nourish her has been so special. Breastfeeding may not be for everyone, but it has definitely been for us and I wouldn’t change my experience for anything.
I didn’t ever plan on breastfeeding this long but Aria loved it so I grew to love it too and that’s what she needed. I don’t think it’s bad for women who don’t want to do it – everyone has their own story and whatever works for you, works for you. But I know for me breastfeeding was and still is this incredible bond that I can’t even explain. I mean I spend time with her anyways, but it’s just a different time. It’s this intimate moment with each other. It’s our special time together, and I’m with her all day. I know we wouldn’t have a relationship if I didn’t breastfeed. And I’ve definitely seen a huge impact in her health, I feel like she’s never even had a runny nose. And I don’t know for sure that breastfeeding, but I just feel like it’s been such a healthy experience for her.
How did you arrive at the conclusion that you would breastfeed Aria? Were you breastfed when you were younger or did you have breastfeeding role models growing up?
It was actually the opposite. My mom didn’t even tried to breastfeed and our family wasn’t super into it. But Aria decided for me. She latched right away. I tried pumping and giving her a bottle and she just didn’t take the bottle. And I just said okay this is what she needs so that’s what I’m going to do. At first, of course, it has its ups and downs where you’re tired and she’s biting and scratching and it hurts, it’s painful, but at the end of the day, that’s what she needed and so that’s just what I was going to do. So I’ve ended up exclusively breastfeeding her now for two years.
What are some of your favorite breastfeeding resources and products?
I’m really minimal, but I have really liked using lactation cookies. I think they are really helpful for women. And there’s this company that can test your breast milk – sending you milk in to see what nutrients are in there and what you’re missing. But I also find social media such a great tool for me as well, just seeing what other people are experiencing too, and you can kind of have an outlet where you can look up sources and reach out to women firsthand about what you’re going through.
In terms of going back to work, how do you prioritize your child and your career? Are there any terms or boundaries you put in place to be able to do both without sacrifice?
Since I have a different profession, early on for the first year I was able to take her everywhere with me. I know it sounds kind of crazy but that’s why I wanted to be a mom – I wanted to always share things with her. But as she’s gotten a little older, I’m realizing it is kind of hard to juggle this. I just feel like as working women, I don’t think there’s a balance. I don’t think there’s ever an equal way to do it. So I just find that you’re more like juggling things. And I realize now more than ever, when I’m being a mom I focus on just that. I get off my phone, get off social media, really focus on her. And then when I’m doing work I’m just doing that.
I have nothing against working women taking their kids to daycare, but I was like “I can take her, so I’m going to do it. Why not?” I feel like her personality has been shaped by that because she’s like used to going on camera or going to sets and stuff. And he kind of likes it, so it’s been fun!
How can employers better support their employees once they return to work after maternity leave?
I have done a ton of panels with people who are more in the business side of it, who have to go to offices and whatnot. And I’ve learned a lot about how us as women can speak up. I feel like a lot of companies just aren’t educated on it and don’t realize how much time it takes and energy. It’s exhausting. Companies can better do that by making more comfortable rooms for women or giving them time to breastfeed and paid maternity leave. You know, treating motherhood as a job you know. It’s the most important job, I mean we’re raising our future. So I feel like companies overall could do a way better job of just listening to what we need as women.
What have you and your daughter been doing through the pandemic quarantine? Do you have any advice for moms through this time?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because a lot of times, especially now, you’re so over being at home and not getting a change of scenery and kind of just giving them the iPad to watch Frozen for the 20th time. But I’ve been reverting back to my childhood of building forts and sidewalk chalk and catching fireflies. You know, things that are just like simple activities that I used to do as a kid. Things that I feel like we’ve gotten away from over the years with, you know, tablets and electronics and all these toys. But I feel like my only advice to moms is don’t buy toys. They always want, like, the spoon. You spend all this money on these expensive toys, they play with them for like 2 minutes, and then play with a cardboard Amazon box. So, yeah, we’ve been really reverting back to my childhood, it feels like. I’m building forts for the first time since I was six.
Follow Mara Martin’s journey on Instagram!