27 July 2006

essential nutrition vs the comfort of bystanders

Via Feministe, I came across this article about readers' reactions to the image of a breastfeeding infant on the cover of a parenting magazine. The ironic headline? "Why Women Don't Nurse Longer." Well, perhaps the common perceptions of a nursing breast being gross, inappropriate, or sexual -- all adjectives used by readers complaining to the magazine -- have a little something to do with it.

Okay, before I attack this article, let me start by saying that I am about as pro-breastfeeding as you can get. I think that many women make stupid excuses for not breastfeeding, because in a lot of ways it's easier not to; I think that despite our government's stated support of breastfeeding, it does very little in the way of actually supporting it by making it easier for women to breastfeed for the recommended amount of time; I think workplaces need to be restructured -- in many ways actually, but for the purposes of this discussion, to guarantee women maternity leave for those crucial early months when breastfeeding is established, and to allow women to continue to pump breastmilk in privacy and comfort once they return to work; I think our hyper-sexualized culture gives the sexual function of breasts far too much attention, when it is the far more important nutritional function of breasts that should be emphasized, if we are serious about being a nation committed to family values.

But apparently, people are only interested in promoting family values when it doesn't conflict with their personal comfort level. Quotes from the article:

  • One mother who didn't like the cover explains she was concerned about her 13-year-old son seeing it. "I shredded it," said Gayle Ash, of Belton, Texas, in a telephone interview. "A breast is a breast — it's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that."
  • "I'm totally supportive of it — I just don't like the flashing," she says. "I don't want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn't want to see."
  • Another mother, Kelly Wheatley, wrote Babytalk to applaud the cover, precisely because, she says, it helps educate people that breasts are more than sex objects. And yet Wheatley, 40, who's still nursing her 3-year-old daughter, rarely breast-feeds in public, partly because it's more comfortable in the car, and partly because her husband is uncomfortable with other men seeing her breast.
  • "In a survey published in 2004 by the American Dietetic Association, less than half — 43 percent — of 3,719 respondents said women should have the right to breast-feed in public places."
Basically, it seems that people believe that breastfeeding is fine, as long as mother and baby stay locked up at home with the curtains drawn. Hiding nursing mothers and babies is apparently easier than explaining lactation to a teenage son, or encouraging men not to gawk at the tiny section of exposed breast that a baby's giant noggin doesn't obscure. (I think the concern for the delicate sensibilities of men and boys at the expense of a baby's right to nutrition is bizzare and fascinating.) I'm certain that these women must also be lobbying their local grocery stores to lock up issues of Cosmo or Glamour along with Playboy and Maxim because -- boobs!

Listen -- anyone who's ever been around a baby knows that babies need to eat. Because when they don't eat, babies scream and cry until they are fed. And seriously, when you're out at a restaurant, what will annoy you more about the family sitting next to you -- a mother discreetly nursing her baby, or the baby screaming and crying because it needs to be fed and its mother feels social pressure not to nurse in public? And please, please, don't bring up the bathroom alternative. Because I have nursed a baby in a public restroom, once and never again, because it was disgusting and really uncomfortable. Think how many public bathrooms you're squeamish about even peeing in -- ladies, how many times have you hovered above the seat for fear of germs and disease? -- and now imagine trying to enjoy a meal in that locale. No way.

No, the only real alternative to breastfeeding in public is to breastfeed at home, to refrain from going out in public if there's a chance your baby will need to eat while you're out -- which is essentially the first six months of a baby's life, or until they start on solids. And that seems to be the attitude of some of the people quoted in the article: you may nurse, as long as no one has to look at it. Which is ridiculous. If we, as a society, agree that breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed a baby, and if we, as a society, agree that women have the right to frequent public places without restriction, then by logical extension we, as a society, should support the rights of women to provide their babies with the healthiest food possible in any place where it's legal for that woman to be. We should be actively encouraging it! Saying that breast is best without taking action to back up that assertion is hypocritical at best, and harmful to mothers and babies at worst.

You know, I feel so strongly about breastfeeding and the right to nurse in public that I've always wanted someone to challenge me while nursing in public so that I could give them an earful. Unfortunately, I've never had the chance. Maybe I've always been surrounded by tolerant people, maybe I've always been oblivious to dirty looks or whispered comments. I did have the mother of a friend of ours ask me, while pregnant with James, if I was planning to breastfeed, and when I said yes, she replied, "Gross!" Seeing as I hadn't had the baby yet, and had never breastfed, I didn't know quite how to respond. I was offended at her rudeness, but didn't think much about her negative attitude, because at that point the negativity toward breastfeeding was something I had yet to encounter. Little did I know how typical her attitude was.

I'll end with my favorite public breastfeeding experience. Last summer, we were at the state fair, and when my then-two-month-old baby needed to nurse, I found an empty bench in the building we were in and nursed him. An older woman nearby noticed me and said "Good for you!" She told me that a few minutes earlier, she'd seen an anxious mother wandering around with a crying baby, looking for a private place to nurse. We both laughed about what a silly expectation that was at a place like the state fair. THe older woman looked around and said, "Besides, we're in the dairy building. What better place could there be?"

1 comment:

kim said...

I feel like I've written this topic to death on my blog so I'll simply concur with all your excellent arguments on why breastfeeding in public is no big deal. You know, if the government wants to promote breastfeeding, maybe it should take out a couple hundred billboards with pictures like the magazine cover or Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child. If people see enough babies at the breast, maybe the image will lose its shock value and mothers can just get on with feeding their babies in peace already. I also love your story about a woman actually encouraging you to nurse in public. If more women did that, it could be the boost that mothers need to stick with nursing.