Apparently, up to a third of Australians think women shouldn’t breastfeed in public. I think what’s more worrying about that study is how many people think babies should be weaned at six months and that it’s the 18–24 year olds who are the most ignorant. I have a sneaking suspicion that my daughter is growing up in a more conservative, gendered world than I did, and it scares me.
My mother tells a story that my Nan — my father’s mother — wouldn’t breastfeed him if they had guests, even in another room of the house, because everyone would know what she was doing. She was born in 1899 and had my father at 40, so she came from a very different era. I think about that — my father as an infant, screaming from hunger and being ignored because of social standards — and I feel so sad for him. I worry that this early experience set the scene for his ambivalent attitude to food (and now his diabetes because of that relationship). I worry that we are returning to that sort of society.
I think that some of the discomfort with public breastfeeding is this idea that breastfeeding is intensely sexual and our newly conservative society — ironic, given the amount of flesh shown on the beach or any television you care to flick on — sees sexuality as intrinsically dangerous. Oh wait — no, just female sexuality. Male sexuality is just fine: want to go longer? a bigger penis? would you like some barely-clad woman with your car/beer/burger?
I’m not about to claim that breastfeeding is never sexual. Recently, I came across an incredibly brave post about breastfeeding and this particular woman’s intense dislike of how it felt sexual to her. My nipples have never been particularly sensitive, and apart from the pain of abrasion early on and suffering through mastitis, feeding my daughter has never felt like anything much for me. That makes me a bit sad: I’d been led to believe oxytocin made it a wonderful, dreamy experience, but for me it ranges from a dull chore (early on, when feeding sessions seemed to go forever, I entertained myself by watching Six Feet Under from beginning to end, about an episode per feed) to a pleasant interlude. Either I don’t get the oxytocin or it’s too gentle a transition for me to notice anything is happening.
That’s a distraction from the real issue, though. Even the woman who says breastfeeding is sexual to her is not sitting there revelling in the sensations and wantonly exclaiming her pleasure. So the public discomfort is entirely projection: there’s a mouth on that nipple and that makes the viewer intensely uncomfortable because of their relationship to their body and their sexuality. That’s not entirely surprising in a society where we increasingly cater for fundamentalist fear of female sexuality — the only person who ever explicitly criticised me for breastfeeding in public admonished me that “Muslims live around here too, you know!”
So having wandered into this tangle of icky cultural mores, how do we get out? That is, how do I help my daughter understand that her body is beautiful and natural and that nudity is delightful, not something to be ashamed of? How do we, as a family, continue to have baths together without my partner being accused of indecency? (I say my partner, because we are in a heterosexist society that assumes women are not interested in each other, and to be honest, the statistics do indicate most perpetrators of sexual crime are male). We’re not nudists, in the sense that we don’t go out to summer camps and play tennis while naked, but we live in a warm climate and we certainly have had naked, non-sexual hot-tubs with close friends and we have a very casual attitude to nudity in the house.
It’s complicated: obviously, she needs to know that some people are uncomfortable with nudity, so she doesn’t just get her kit off at random friend’s places. I was going to write that she needs to understand that being nude is something we do in front of really close friends, not strangers but since my whole argument rests on the idea that breastfeeding in public is okay, I don’t really believe that, do I? For me, if I’m honest, it comes down to a belief in topless equality (see TERA or Go Topless!). I have regularly swum topless, I’ve been topless at Burning Man, I’ve even stage-dived topless. I simply don’t see that women’s bodies should be as sexualised as they are, or that men’s should be seen as non-sexual.
My daughter needs a separate message about her bodily integrity, that her body is her own and no one gets to touch it without permission. I want my daughter to grow up proud of her body, comfortable saying an enthusiastic YES! to sex when she wants it and equally comfortable saying a firm NO when she doesn’t, a vibrant young woman who knows that feeding a baby when it is hungry is the most natural thing in the world. I have a feeling that my daughter is going to be a little unusual among her peers and that makes me pretty sad. Either that or she’ll be hyper-embarrassed about her parents, but gee, what’s new?