Disclaimers: This is not meant to demean moms who bottle feed. This is not meant to demean moms who nurse in private. This is not meant to demean anyone except pornography enthusiasts (may the babies of the world barf on you).
The short version: Pornography is taking away our ability to pick different lenses for the bodies around us; we are reading the form of the body as if it had only one meaning (sexual) instead of in the context of the situation. Breastfeeding in public fights the objectification of women’s bodies by re-humanizing the body and connecting it to a functional reality (what’s more real than a hungry baby?). As we stop banishing it to nursing rooms or blanketing it under nursing covers, a healthier social understanding of bodies could result.
I was recently sitting at a funeral dinner with two of my husband’s little cousins. These spirited five-year old girls, both the youngest children in their big, wonderful families, had glommed on to me because of my cute three-month-old baby (my second girl). Over the two days of family events, the girls had witnessed me nurse her several times. Their reactions were hilarious.
On the reasons for breastfeeding:
“She drinks milk from you until she’s big enough to hold a bottle with some milk, right? Look at her little hands, they are like thiiiiis (guesses a miniscule size) small… too small to hold a bottle, right? Maybe when she is one or maybe two she can hold a bottle.”
On the unfairness of an existence limited to milk:
“The frosting on the cake I had is soooo soft. Maybe your baby—we could put some on our fingers—and maybe your baby could have some frostings. So that she doesn’t have to just drink milk. OK?”
On the anatomy (mechanics?) of breastfeeding:
“So in your um in your—what is that called? (whispered aside to the other 5-year-old)—breasts, there are some jars, that have milk in them, and they have some straws, and there is a um, a dot and the baby can suck the milk through the straws. And the straws don’t leak down your belly like normal straws (me: haha, that’s what you think). But how do you get the jars filled again?”
The other child expounded, drawing from an explanatory conversation she and I had had the day before: “No, the straws go to her, to her stomach, and the food gets turned into milk in the straws, and so she just eats some more food and drinks some more milk and (getting excited) and maybe, if you eat some chocolate frosting, it could be CHOCOLATE MILK!”
Both girls were in favor of trying this experiment immediately. For science, after all.
The most interesting aspect of their reactions was the juxtaposition of unassuming, native acceptance with a vague feeling that this exposure in public was not OK:
“OH she is so cute when she is eating milk out of your breast! Wait, she is drinking, not eating, silly me. I love her mouth. Look at her mouth move. I CAN SEE HER SWALLOWING!!” (All this was said with her face pressed against my chest so she could see better.)
“So ladies have to go to the bathroom to feed their babies because it’s private. For men, it’s OK for them to show their chests when they’re swimming, but for ladies it’s private. My mom said. Your baby’s head isn’t too big so it’s OK but other ladies maybe have to take off their whole shirts I think? And wear an apron instead.”
(Now, don’t judge too fast, ye progressive-thinkers: this statement came from a little girl with the natural social reticence of zip. Her spirit animal is some mix of rooster, dolphin, peacock and golden retriever. She would probably be shirtless most of the time if her parents hadn’t patiently taught her privacy.)
This brings me, however, to how breastfeeding in public will save society.
My early experiences with breastfeeding in public:
I remember my first time trying to breastfeed in public: I had to attend an all-women leadership training meeting and I was petrified. I huddled in the back row and managed to juggle the newborn baby, breast pads, nursing shield, various layers of clothing and nursing cover. I breathed through the pain and soaked up milk sprays without drawing too much attention and was silently celebrating my discrete and successful feeding when the baby, unused to being juggled, threw up all the hard-won milk all over my outfit. I wanted to cry. I was dripping, dejected and totally humiliated.
At a family function soon after, I was sitting on an edge of a large room and becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the impending nursing loomed. The baby started squalling and my breasts were prickling and dripping under my clothes. I felt so exposed with all those people around, and became more and more anxious trying to figure out how to feed her without flashing anyone. Just as I had concluded it was impossible and was getting up to go home, my mom grabbed my elbow and whispered firmly, “all these girls need to know it’s OK to nurse. If it looks easy for you now, it will be easier for them later.” I sat down, swallowed hard, and unbuttoned my shirt, expecting at any moment to die of embarrassment. (Happy to report, I lived.)
Why is it so hard?
Why were my public breastfeeding experiences so difficult? Some might argue that it’s because I’m too prudish. “Modesty is at the root of all this frump-silliness,” it argues, “so BARE ALL!”
My argument is simple: pornography, not modesty, is the cause of the shame and pain of public breastfeeding. The cure? MORE public breastfeeding.
This is awkward. Do we have to talk about breastfeeding, Dia?
Some nursing-aids would have us normalize breastfeeding by pretending it isn’t happening. Nursing covers (from scarves to aprons to small tents) tout their convenience for “your peace of mind”, and well-meaning retailers like Target are trying to make it easier for moms to find a quiet dressing room or bathroom annex for nursing out of sight. I have definitely appreciated having separate spaces for breastfeeding, but we, as a society, cannot normalize breastfeeding by banishing it from public view.
Indeed, in my experience nursing covers draw more attention than just nursing (it’s like announcing over loudspeaker “I’M BREASTFEEDING NOW”), effectively backfiring on the uncomfortable mother who tries to huddle smaller and smaller beneath the swathes of fabric with her screaming infant who, amazingly, doesn’t love the feeling of being smothered. The sexual imagination, too, is most titillated (ha ha) by the nursing cover’s combo of concealing what’s happening so obviously that it begs you to envision it—the same Gestalt principle of design that pornography utilizes to demand attention (as in, skimpy lingerie being more riveting than an honestly naked body). More on that later and in this breastfeeding blog post here.
Why do we need to talk about this? As mature adults, we have an unsaid agreement to pretend open breastfeeding isn’t happening (even when the baby is gulping loudly or milk is spraying everywhere—it’d be an interesting social experiment to see how intrusive the breastfeeding could get before well-bred adults would break the unwritten contract to ignore it). It feels a little silly, but we’re pretty good at ignoring the elephant in the room. An interesting aspect of my experience with the five-year-olds at the funeral dinner was realizing the strength of the adults’ unsaid social understanding, which the little girls naturally and unassumingly ignored. Now, I’m not saying that this contract is a bad thing (part of my comfort with breastfeeding in public stems from the assurance that it would be socially unacceptable for a conversation-mate to press face to my chest to see better, like the 5-year-olds did), but in order to normalize we do need to vocalize.
Some breastfeeding campaigns are working to educate the truly backward—those who would shame a mother for breastfeeding in public—by teaching the unwritten contract (“Look, she’s just trying to feed the kid. You don’t have to stare at her. If you’re offended, look away!”) I’m going further, not because getting babies fed without shame isn’t important, but because it should be a no-brainer by now. Even more is at stake here: Public breastfeeding may just what the doctor ordered—the balm to heal a sickened sexual consciousness, the antidote for a world poisoned by pornography.
Historically (before pornography), modesty and public breastfeeding coexisted happily.
The historical period generally (and simplistically) pegged as the ultimate in prudishness and women-subjugation is the Victorian Era. It’s obvious that more skin was covered more of the time than in 2016, but check out these photographs of women openly breastfeeding.
These weren’t clandestine personal shots, they seem to be the 1800 equivalent of a #brelfie: moms proudly doing their mom stuff with no shame and no sexual-allure-agenda.
These links further show the historical acceptance of breastfeeding (even with their much more modest sensitivities): a pinterest board collection of vintage photos and paintings of breastfeeding and this collection of art depicting the Madonna breastfeeding the Christ Child.
Pornography has exacerbated sexualization of the breast.
I’ve heard all kinds of things on this topic and I’m not sure what I think yet. I do believe, though, that normalizing breastfeeding does not require us to strip away (ha, ha) all sexual meaning from the breast. Whether the sexual meaning of the breast is natural (as a secondary sex organ and an indicator of fecundity) or culturally imposed, it can be a positive (and fun!) aspect of healthy sexual relationships.
However, sexual meaning is like jalapeno: a little enhances the flavor of life, a little too much hijacks the flavor of life, and biting into it outside the context of a relationship can hurt like hell. Pornography is banking (literally) on hyping up the sexuality of the body so that more and more of our interactions with the human form arouse and incent (Brian describes this false sensationalism in a great essay here). Pornography is overpowering the other possible meanings and readings of the body, and we are becoming poor readers because of it.
We are losing a nuanced view of the body.
Let me explain what I mean by poor readership: I’m reminded of 4th grade when my male desk mate enjoyed getting a rise out of the girls by flipping to “V” in the dictionary where Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” was pictured. The art piece was sensationalized by the weeks of torturous teasing: the near-pubescent sexual tension combined with our vivid, albeit vague discomfort with a boy seeing breasts effectively transformed the art into practically-pornography for me. It wasn’t until much later while learning about Boticelli in a college humanities class that I was taught to use a different lens to view the painting—not as smut, but as art. Interestingly, I wasn’t taught in words (teacher: “Grow up, everyone. Botticelli is art!”), but rather by the attitudes of my fellow classmates. The class formed an agreement that we were going to view naked bodies artistically instead of sexually, all without saying one word. Though there may have been some smothered giggles if someone dared to push the contract to its limits (talking about the brushstrokes around the areola, as a made-up example), it held up miraculously well.
We are losing the ability to pick different lenses for the images around us; reading symbols as if they have only one meaning instead of in context. My five-year-old cousins had pretty much no lens at all (sexual or otherwise), which is one reason their commentary was so adorable. Later, they will learn sexual meanings—and hopefully, other meanings of the human form, including athletic, artistic/aesthetic, and functional. However, as obsessive privacy increases (read Josh’s post here) and exposure to other contexts of bodies decreases (death, birth, public bathhouses, familial nudity, etc., see my post here), we are defaulting to a sexual lens for all encounters with the human form. We’re reverting to a pimply, pubescent society, trying to be OK with breastfeeding while stifling giggles and bad jokes.
Breastfeeding in public is part of the cure.
Well-founded but seriously confused campaigns seem to be trying to fight for breastfeeding by making it sexy, such as a recent ad campaign picturing women breastfeeding in lingerie and suggestive poses. Really?! Thanks for confirming that I actually AM trying to play the harlot as baby starts crying and I brazenly bare my saggy, soggy, stretch-marked… OK, TMI? I think #FreetheNipple was originally a movement trying to normalize breastfeeding, but has since done perhaps more harm than good as it’s been slapped onto any provocative pictures of curvaceous, firm, obviously-have-never-breastfed breasts with comments like, “Stupid #Instagram: Reposting #flashing #springbreak #norules #liveitup #withcensor #freethenipple”. When we try to ignore sexual meaning and just SCREAM that IT DOESN’T EXIST, we give ourselves license to present ourselves or others in provocative ways that actually further sensationalize and objectify the body. Because of our sexually-sensitized awareness, even not-meant-to-be-sexual pictures like brelfies (breastfeeding selfies) can be taken badly.
My purpose here is not to attack the social media campaigns though; I just want to contrast the possible online negatives with the positive possibilities of real-life, in-public breastfeeding, and here they are:
Sexual meaning that may be ambiguous in pictures is almost always clear in person.
As the unwritten contract indicates, when you act normal about being half-undressed, others take the cue and do likewise. To fight objectification, we need human-ification. My first advice to moms afraid to breastfeed in public is to look into people’s eyes, have them hold the baby while you get ready to nurse, make a joke about how much baby eats, or in some other way make yourself a person to those around you—instead of cloaking yourself in a nursing cover or hiding in a corner with downcast eyes. Josh wrote here about how really finding something in common with others helps us treat them well—the same idea behind this anti-harassment ad campaign in India. The more breastfeeding moms nurse around loved ones and strangers alike, the more non-nursers will be acclimatized and comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding not being sexually arousing—and may also grow in their ability to choose a lens in response to the context, instead of with the gut (in this case, groin) instinct.
Children need to see, not just hear, that breastfeeding is normal.
We owe it to the rising generation to teach not only healthy sexuality but also other healthy meanings of the body. Children learn what is normal by what is normal to them. A story to illustrate: I once babysat a little boy who often went to another neighbor’s house to play. This other neighbor had a newborn baby girl, and I quickly learned that she breastfed openly when the little boy—with no prompting—told me that the stuffed animal he was playing with (Elmo) was hungry. “Elmo’s hungry now,” he mentioned, and nonchalantly stuffed him up his shirt, “I’ll feed him.” Funny, yes, but also poignant: one little boy has a new perspective in viewing breastfeeding and bodies.
As individuals, we can’t be both pornography-friendly AND breastfeeding-friendly without serious cognitive dissonance. My hope is that breastfeeding and with it, a larger and more mature ability to read the context of the situation and use an apropos lens, will overcome immature and apathetic lusts. Public breastfeeding is more than just getting baby fed now—it’s an education for the masses. It will take some discomfort on all sides, but I think it’s worth the struggle.
I’m curious: If you’re a breastfeeding mom (or future mom), are you willing to take on the possible humiliation and certain awkwardness of nursing in public in order to provide an alternative meaning of bodies? If you aren’t a nursing mom, what can you do to further the cause? Leave me a comment below and let’s talk.