Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some Thoughts for Your Consideration

I was just reading today about an incident at a museum in LA where a breastfeeding woman was asked by employees to cover up. It got me thinking about the whole "breastfeeding in public thing." I thought, how often do we hear from a non-outraged proponent of public breastfeeding? Well, almost never. So I thought perhaps I could set down my views in a calm, positive way for anyone who might disagree with me to ponder.

I want to start by saying to those that just feel "uncomfortable" with this topic: I get it. I can see why-for a myriad of reasons-the sight of a woman nursing in a public place might initiate a negative, even visceral response. I don't think you're inherently a mean, ignorant, woman-hater.

I do think, though, that perhaps there are a few things you maybe haven't considered. I would ask you: Where do these uncomfortable feeling come from? What is your specific objection? Have you considered this issue from the mother's point of view? (I know that can seem off-putting, what with the yelling and whatnot that can sometimes accompany pro-breastfeeding advocacy.) Also, I am all for pro-breastfeeding advocacy, so don't misunderstand my intentions here. I just think it's hard to change people's minds when you yell at them.

Let's consider the mother, first. I am one, so I know this side of the issue well. She is harangued from all sides with the medical fact that breastfeeding is what she should be doing. It's the best way to care for her child. If she wants to be a good mother, she'll choose to nurse. So, there's pressure. One reason women give for not continuing to nurse is the fear of the "out and about" complication. If she is out somewhere, she is either limited to a 2-hour window so she can feed the baby before she leaves, and then be back in time to feed them again. Or, she can huddle herself away in a stinky bathroom somewhere for 15-20 minutes trying to soothe an infant to the sounds of flushing toilets, hand driers, and people coming and going, all while perched on a hard toilet in a cramped stall. Or, she can attempt to feed her child where she is. Does she try to use a cover? This can be a great solution for some moms. But it can also be super hot, the baby often struggles against the restricted air flow, and you can't see what you're doing. The cover often results in more exposure, and draws more attention than would otherwise occur just because you end up wrestling a child who, by this point, is hungry and mad! So, use no cover? This may provoke rude looks, comments, and maybe even eviction. Basically, it's easy to feel screwed no matter what you choose. *

I have had several conversations with folks who aren't fans of public nursing, and I can mostly sum up their reasoning in this one simple concept: Boobies are for sex and therefore not for polite company. Of course, a perfectly valid argument to this is to say, "You don't storm into your local Victoria's Secret store at the mall (which is jam-packed full of young, impressionable minds) and demand that they cover up their pictures.  You're ok with your beer and hamburger commercials played during sporting events you watch with your children. You're ok with seeing breasts on display in a million ways throughout your day-you don't even really realize it. You don't become uncomfortable if they're displayed in a sexual way, for the purposes of consumption and consumerism. Why the double standard?"

Here's what I think might be the answer: We're not dumb. We know the ways that advertisements play on our latent lust to sell things. We recognize the tactics that subconsciously link a mostly nude woman with nothing but sex. We know it, and really aren't that ok with it. But it's so ubiquitous that it's become acceptable. Until we're confronted with a woman out in public who is "displaying" her breasts in a completely non-sexual way. Something deep in our brains goes off. It confuses us. It's boobies... They're there if I want to stare. But I feel like I shouldn't stare because it's not sexy. Something doesn't fit. It makes me uncomfortable. I react. It's like some screwed up behavioral conditioning experiment. The stimuli is presented in a non-anticipated context. I see boobies, I react as conditioned, then I realize I shouldn't react that way. So I blame the stimuli. She made me feel uncomfortable. She's doing something out of place. She should not have evoked this response in me. She should have covered up.

So, what's the solution? I think we need to have more positive experiences with the natural acts of mothering. I think we need to see women nursing in public as often as we see them hawking hamburgers as ketchup drips down their exposed breasts. Truthfully, I don't think we should see them doing that at all, but I live where I live, in this society, and I'm not silly enough to think things will change that much. I'm not sure we can extract sex from sales and consumerism. The objectification of women-while disgusting and personally offensive-is not going anywhere anytime soon. But maybe we can inject positive imagery and experiences of women using their bodies in natural,  life-giving, healthy ways.

And it starts with your reaction to seeing a woman nursing in public. Yes, it may make you feel uncomfortable. And I understand why. But maybe before you make her feel inappropriate with looks, comments, or complaints, you can think about these things. Maybe you can recognize where your feelings come from, recognize the position she is in, and extend some grace. If there was less opposition, there would be more women willing to breastfeed in public. If there were more women breastfeeding in public, it would become less provocative. It would become a part of our culture. And then, you wouldn't feel uncomfortable anymore. It's a win win.

*I want to acknowledge that the example of a nursing mother that I put forth is by no means every woman. Many women never feel pressured in their choice to breastfeed, and also feel no discomfort doing so publicly. I merely mean to highlight the ways in which societal mores can  create negative experiences with breastfeeding, and can discourage some women from nursing despite that fact that it has been shown have many medical advantages.


  1. Very interesting thoughts, Rechelle. When I was breastfeeding 25-35 years ago, doing it in public was a non-issue. I always "covered-up" but at the table in restaurants, on public transportation, during church services, etc. were never a problem. Perhaps we are even more sexually oriented today -- or I was oblivious. Another sad commentary on today's society.

  2. Amen!! I'm right there with you! However, even if they're not rude looks... I also dislike the male staring that has occurred. Now that was uncomfortable for me and I was attempting to cover up.