Friday 5 December 2008

Milking it

Human breasts are the most fetishised part of the human body, bar none. They have been drawn, painted, photographed, filmed, fantasised, mythologised and obsessed over by the men who are told to desire them and by the women who are taught to ‘make the most’ of them for centuries. Most girls’ and women’s rooms are stuffed with apparatus to push them out, plump them up, pull them apart, squeeze them together, flatten them down and otherwise force them to resemble the platonic ideal of the fantasy pneumatic breast, currently achievable only by surgery and a certain type of mesomorphic19-year-old. Walk down any street, open any newspaper and you’ll be confronted with bosom after computer-enhanced, barely-concealed bosom. And yet, whenever there’s the slightest risk of boobs being exposed in the course of their most natural function, we whip ourselves up into a moral frenzy.

Many cafes, restaurants and other social spaces, along with a significant part of the population in general, have a problem with breastfeeding in public. And occasionally, this will enter the public domain, feminists will clamour their protest, a legion of (mostly male) prudes will harp on about hygiene and social decency and the fact that it just isn’t done, and when everyone has calmed down nothing will have changed. Breastfeeding – the biological function of the human mammary gland – has remained socially unacceptable in public, a distasteful function of feminine biology seen as akin to leaving a streaming open wound unbandaged. In 2006, BabyTalk, a US magazine specifically targeted at pregnant women and new mothers was censored for showing a baby feeding from a human breast on its front cover (presumably BabyTalk shared display space with Playboy and Hustler, but these were deemed acceptable). Recent months have seen public prejudice flare up again against nursing mothers across the western world, and there has been a public outcry against the publication of pictures of a breastfeeding Angelina Jolie.

This week, a virtual storm broke around the humiliating expulsion of a nursing mother from a trendy cafĂ© in Soho, London, because it was ‘a place for eating’ (for everyone apart from the kid, apparently). The incident has caused viral indignation across feminist and anti-feminist cyberspace. Male commentators have compared breastfeeding in public to shooting up drugs in public, claimed that the practice spreads aids, and squealed that it makes them want to throw up. What nobody has so far mentioned is that breastfeeding is not just a bodily function: it’s a form of work.

Childrearing is still seen as 'women's work' in contemporary Western society, and is devalued as a result - but there are few parts of the task that cannot physically be acheived by either sex. Breastfeeding is one of them. No surprise, then, that this most technically female bit of 'women's work' is seen not only as a personal indulgence but a disgusting one at that - no different to squeezing a zit or bleeding in public. But, in fact, the woman breastfeeding in that Soho cafe was doing her job every bit as much as the young executives hunched over their laptops. Prejudice against breastfeeding in company is not only practical and extremely physical misogyny: from a marxist perspective it is also professional discrimination. In fact, it's already been recognised as such in New Zealand.

Next time you take a walk around Soho, just count the number of partly- or mostly-exposed breasts you see in any given street. I guarantee you that there'll be any number of trendy young girls (and boys, it being Soho) with far more boob on display than any nursing mother, the reason being, you see, that when you're breastfeeding, most of what you can see is the back of the baby's head. Wearing a low-cut top won't get you thrown out of a bar, though: it's alright, as long as you're getting your tits out for the lads.

Anti-breastfeeding stigma is not for a minute about modesty. It is about restricting women's choices and underlining the message that women's bodies are only acceptable if they are explicitly sexual.


  1. those of us north of the border have the Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005:

  2. Aids and public drug abuse is the same thing as breast feeding now?
    Could someone buy a Victoria Secrets bra and stitch it together filled with sand, and then hit these people in the head with is please?

  3. Looking at womens tits is considered to be impolite in some circles - especially the tits of women you don't know and who haven't given you express pemission to look at them... (some people are even opposed to topless nudity as a profession), so I guess thats why people feel uncomfortable about public breast feeding. Also, rightly or wrongly, we generally don't go in for bodly secretions at the dinner table in this country. Its a culture thing.

    Also, saying that breast feeding is acceptable because low cut tops are, is a bit like saying that showing ankles is bad because most of us wear pants.
    That way lies fundamentalist Islam...

  4. Mark: just because a woman is breastfeeding doesn't mean you have to stare at her breasts.

    Glad I could clear that up for you.

  5. Although it's a somewhat specious point (raising it for the point of the idea, rather than the point of the point), one could wonder if people, seeing a breast, have come to think of pornography, and, seeing a child, are somehow led to a horrible mismatch in their heads.

    Of course, this mismatch would not be healthy behaviour either.

  6. What tim f said!

    Mark, if "looking at womens tits is considered to be impolite" is the problem, then turn your head and look the other way. Problem solved!

  7. But if i'm not allowed to look in certain areas of the cafe - if we're all aware that it's taboo to look in that direction, I'm sure you can see why I and other patrons might feel uncomfortable.
    Same thing for sex. If I and my wife started going at it in a cafe, some of the other patrons would feel offended. Now I think we can all agree that sex is a good thing - it just happens that in our society we wouldn't feel comfortable with other people doing it in starbucks. Why aren't toilet walls made of glass? Surely excreting is a good thing....? Is this part of some anti-eating agenda (perhaps stoked up by the governments anti-obesity force)?
    Whats the problem here?
    This has nothing to do with
    patriachal oppression and everything to do with boring, agenda-less social norms.

  8. It seems worth noting that there are several female commenters on the linked post (about the cafe incident) who object to the 'grossness' of breastfeeding too. I think the problem is possibly one of immaturity and/or a lack of consideration for others, rather than gender.

    Where on earth was the AIDS comment posted? That's got to be worth a link, surely.

  9. Mark, you don't have to avoid looking at a whole 90% section of the room or anything. It is clearly rude to stare directly at someone who's breastfeeding. But it would be rude to stare at someone you didn't know whether they were breastfeeding or not.

    If you're so scared of catching a glimpse of a mainly-obscured mammary that you're going to sit rigidly in your chair so you can't possibly see anything while it's going on, then you're the one with the problem. And I don't see why a baby should go hungry because you have weird issues.

    Oh, and I'm sure you can accept that the "social norms" you say this is about didn't appear in a vacuum. They evolved gradually out of a set of social relations which has historically been incredibly patriarchal and is becoming ever-so-gradually less so (no thanks to people who claimed social norms are agenda-less).

  10. Mark - "we generally don't go in for bodly secretions at the dinner table in this country"

    We do, however, generally go in for eating at dinner tables, which is what a breastfed baby is doing. Referring to breast milk as a "bodily secretion" (clearly intended to imply that it's equivalent to excrement, especially in light of your second comment) is completely ridiculous. Do you also think that cows' milk and cowpats are actually the same thing? Breast milk is food. The fact that it is produced by human bodies does not make it disgusting.

  11. Weird issues?

    There is no particuarly good reason for the vast majority of our customs and taboos. If there are people who are made uncomfortable by breastfeeding it doesn't matter whether or not they have a good reason for it. What matters is that the business owner has decided on the rules for their business based upon what they suppose are the attitudes of their clientele. If you're bothered by this, vote with your feet - go elsewhere.
    Its pretty simple and as an added bonus, no legislation necessary!

    Regarding patriarchy and public breast feeding. Most societies have been patriarchal and yet a taboo against public breastfeeding seems rare. Tribal societies, for example, are almost entirely patriarchal and yet have no such taboo. I don't know exactly, but I'd imagine that the basis of such a taboo is anti-sex, rather than specifically anti-woman.

  12. "What matters is that the business owner has decided on the rules for their business based upon what they suppose are the attitudes of their clientele. If you're bothered by this, vote with your feet - go elsewhere."

    I don't think that just because someone has technical legal ownership of a space they should have total freedom to do whatever they like with it.

    Boycotts are not the be-all and end-all either. Usually they're totally effective (which is one reason why liberal conservatives suggest they're the best form of action, I suspect).

    "Most societies have been patriarchal and yet a taboo against public breastfeeding seems rare. Tribal societies, for example, are almost entirely patriarchal and yet have no such taboo. I don't know exactly, but I'd imagine that the basis of such a taboo is anti-sex, rather than specifically anti-woman."

    Again, breastfeeding has nothing to do with sex and the idea that it does IS a patriarchal idea. Your assertion that patriarchy finds the same expression in all societies is absurd.

  13. I don't think that owners should be able to do *absolutely* anything they like with the space they own, either. However, if these people want to impliment a dress code or code of behaviour in their establishment, I can't see the problem. Its entirely your choice as to whether you want to go there and obey the rules.
    Anyway, maybe breastfeeding itself has nothing to do with sex, but breasts do. That isn't a matter of patriachal oppression but biological fact...
    I can't see how the taboo against public nudity applies more to women than to men, or how it's specifically an oppression of women by men.

    In your view is there anything that isn't a result of patriarchy?

  14. I always seem to make stupid typos commenting on blogs.

    Should be "INeffective", not "totally effective" in third para, if it wasn't obvious

    oh well

  15. It is a problem if people owning a premises want to institute a sexist rule. A rule against breastfeeding tells women with small children that they're not allowed inside. It's tantamount to a dress rule forbidding turbans or hijabs.

    And the obsession with controlling women's bodies clearly has a lot to do with patriarchy. At the point at which a taboo on public nudity (and Laurie has already pointed out that a baby's head obscures breasts during breastfeeding) stops mothers making basic choices about how best to support their children, that's patriarchy. Of course it is. How can it not be?

    And breasts have something to do with sex during sex. As do heads, elbows, knees and toes (knees and toes). They don't have anything to do with sex during breastfeeding. Again, anyone who looks at a woman breastfeeding a baby and is aroused has their own issues to deal with. Context is everything.

  16. Guess who's coming to dinner...

    So... next time I want to go to my local mosque in a bikini, that should be just dandy? I'd imagine that the fair application of this "no dress code" rule would do far more to damage community relations than allowing people to ban the hijab in their local.
    Again, if people want to make some ridiculous rule, let them see how far it gets them. If it gets good results, maybe it's not so ridiculous after all.

    Hmmm... would you argue that the taboo against pissing on the floor is a result of patriarchy? We can see that society seeks to control all manner of bodily functions, regardless of gender. Why should one of the few bodily functions solely performed by women be exempt from social control?
    Is the taboo against public ejaculation a result of matriarchy?

    Breasts have rather more to do with sex than toes, since breasts are a secondary sexual characteristic and toes are not (regardless of what you get up to in the bedroom).

  17. This is getting silly.

    "So... next time I want to go to my local mosque in a bikini, that should be just dandy? I'd imagine that the fair application of this "no dress code" rule would do far more to damage community relations than allowing people to ban the hijab in their local."

    I'm sure you can see that you have a lot more choice about whether to wear a bikini than a woman does about whether to let her baby starve or not. It's not unreasonable to ask you to wear the clothes you would normally wear if entering a mosque. It is unreasonable to ask a woman to let her baby go hungry or to force her to feed it something she would not normally feed it.

    The taboo against pissing on the floor has less to do with the fact it's a bodily function and more to do with the fact it creates a mess. Again, you're getting into the realms of the silly. But to indulge your analogy, no-one has much of a problem with a bloke pissing behind a tree if he really needs to go (I've done it plenty of times) but when Paula Radcliffe had to go during a race it was front-page news. Do you honestly think that has nothing to do with the centuries-old narrative of women having "leaky bodies" that need to be controlled. In the 16th century, if female leakages weren't controlled in the acceptable way, the woman was a witch. In the 21st century they're a slag, a dyke, a feminazi or all three.

  18. Yes, the example of me wearing a bikini was deliberately silly, but I think it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that a trip to the mosque involves wearing "clothes you would normally wear", especially if you're a woman. Maybe you should try breast feeding in there too and see how far it gets you.
    (I only bring up the mosque because someone mentioned the hijab - i'm sure all good socialists want to see these religious practices crushed as a matter of course)

    Uh... when you go for a piss behind a tree, are you in normally in the process of running an olympic marathon as one of the few gold medal hopes that your country has? If not, the comparison leaves alot to be desired... But yes, I think there is something of a difference between attitudes to male and female tree pissing.
    However, I also think that reducing everything that involves women having to do something into "oppression", is simplistic and wrong. Lets take breastfeeding - there is a taboo against breastfeeding in public (apparently), only women can breastfeed, it MUST be oppression. But couldn't it be a hangover from anti-sex and nudity attitudes of the victorian era, or perhaps the womans rights movement working against the identification of women as breeding and child rearing machines? Or maybe it's simply a fashion started by middle age monarchs wet nursing their children and the resulting association of breast feeding with poverty?
    Maybe it has got more to do with modern squeamishness than anything else?
    If men are subject to similar social pressures in areas where their bodily functions are the same as women, isn't this just a matter of general social pressure to conform, rather than a specifically anti-woman agenda?

  19. Of course I would support a woman struggling for the right to breastfeed in her mosque. And of course I support the right of a woman to not wear the hijab - but that doesn't mean I think men should force women to remove them, or that shops or cafes are within their rights to refuse people entry who're wearing them.

    If a taboo again breastfeeding has something to do with modern squeamishness, you still have to explain why people are squeamish about breastfeeding without any reference to sexism. Good luck.

  20. Well as long as you're consistent and also support my right to wear my penis gourd and thong (and nothing else) next time I go to a swanky restaurant, I might be tempted to come over to your point of view.

    People are squeamish about all kinds of behaviour (nose picking for example). Maybe its linked to a desire to ignore our animalistic side...? It's fairly simple to think of explanations that have nothing to do with sexism.


Comments are open on this blog, but I reserve the right to delete any abusive or off-topic threads.