Monday, January 21, 2013

A small act of revolution

I never considered breast-feeding in public an act of revolution. It didn't take courage. In the same way that Lena Dunham says "it's not brave to get your clothes off in public if you're not ashamed of it", I never had to work up the nerve because I felt completely entitled to do what I was doing. This is not the case for all women. In fact feeling uncomfortable breastfeeding in public is one of the reasons many women give for giving up breastfeeding entirely. And yet time and again we have public figures making women feel uncomfortable for doing what they are legally entitled to do - feed their babies.

In the latest debacle, a breakfast TV host has insisted that whilst "mothers should be able to breastfeed any time, any where" they should do so in a "discreet" "classy" way so as to ensure those around them feel comfortable. Personally, I have never seen a woman breastfeeding in public who was not being "discreet" and "classy" about it - so this comment is completely moot. What would indiscreet breastfeeding involve, I wonder? Stripping off and hanging a tassle from the free nipple?

Men and women who are deeply uncomfortable with the sight of a mother breastfeeding her child in public need to look a little deeper inside themselves to ask the question: what, exactly, is it about the sight of a baby eating that is so off-putting? Are you worried you will catch a glimpse of a woman's nipple? Is it the idea of a baby sucking on a breast? Would you prefer not to have to think about that at all? But really, why? Why is that your business? Why does a mother need to concern herself with your comfort levels over and above her baby's need for nourishment?

Cristy Clark has written an insightful piece that suggests the discomfort arises from the fact that the business of caring for children, that is - women's intimate business - has traditionally been obscured from public life, and now that times are changing and women are being permitted to enter the public sphere, some of us are expecting to do so on our own terms, rather than on the terms that are being dictated to us. In other words, we are not apologetic about bringing our womanly activities into plain sight. We want public life to include activities that are relevant to both men and women. And it is this that makes so many uncomfortable. I see the parallel here between this and the Lena Dunham controversy - not that a woman would publicly expose her body, after all, this is something that occurs all the time without comment, but that she would do so in a way that does not seek permission from men and is not apologetic that she doesn't fall into a certain type of womanhood that is deemed to be publicly acceptable. It is the lack of shame that seems to appall  the most. The lack of willingness to be told. The fact that there are women, in public, suiting themselves! Suiting their babies! With nary a backwards glance! The cheek.

I remember sitting in a restaurant in South Africa, breastfeeding my baby, and the women at the next table talked about me in Afrikaans, saying I should not be doing that in public. Later that evening, my father-in-law reported that the mayor had told him a white woman had been seen nursing in public earlier that day. That would be me, then. Whilst in a mothers' room in the same country, I was sitting feeding my child when a little girl came up and angrily closed the modesty curtain around the chair I was sitting in, telling me other people weren't supposed to see that! Whilst I never experienced this level of disapproval in Australia, the attitudes displayed by David Koch and others tell me that it is still very much an issue in a country where it is actually illegal to discriminate against a breastfeeding mother.

The fact that some intelligent high profile feminists tell those of us who would take issue with this attitude to move on or focus on what really matters beggars belief. Implying that because no one important is listening, we should not bother replying,  is condescending in the extreme. Public figures, regardless of the medium in which they espouse their views, reflect and influence public opinion. The comment by David Koch hit a nerve because his views are so appallingly commonplace. And by telling us to get over it, or reserve our outrage for something important, these fellow feminists are actually displaying an attitude which is dangerously close to misogynistic.

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