I wouldn’t be a very good social commentator if I didn’t read some current affairs every so often and comment on items of note, so when I heard about this new craze of mother’s using their man-pleasers to feed offspring I was pleased to have something interesting to write about. Who knew breasts had a purpose once men no longer had a use for them? What an amazing by-product of evolutionary design of the human body. All this time, we thought breasts where there to lure men into bed and sell tacky tabloid newspapers (because, well, what else will?) when suddenly it starts – instant food source for babies. It must be how a duck feels when it realises that the webs in its feet, which it has presumably only previously used to slap other ducks into submission, are also quite effective in helping it to move quickly under water. Just amazing. Don’t get me wrong, of course at first I thought it was a little bit weird and had fears about how some men would handle this incredibly modern turn of events. Their sex objects are now being used to benefit someone else and for purposes which aren’t focused on satisfying them sexually at all. I thought to myself, this is going to take some getting used to. Support services will have to be established immediately to cope with the inevitable fall out. Outreach programmes will have to be set up to make sure some people aren’t roaming the streets in a state of panicked confusion, not knowing whether they are aroused or just hungry. Mayhem.
Also I pondered what we should do to avoid trauma if bystanders accidentally see this new and unnatural turn of events unfolding? How will we manage the levels of jealousy in some men who may be a bit miffed at the notion of sharing their very own play things with some hungry babies? Obviously the only solution would be to hide this process from them so that they are allowed to believe that breasts are still only for them, perhaps with some sort of compulsory oversized napkin. So after working through some baby-covering-napkin design ideas I did some research and what I found was, quite frankly, mind-blowing. I’m not a mother, which perhaps is why I found this so shocking, but breasts have actually always been used to feed babies. As it turns out, lots of other mammals do this too. I sometimes did wonder what humans did thousands of years ago, before cow and gate. The same thing was happening then too. Education is indeed powerful.
So actually, a new craze this is not. Not even a phase. Not a new thing at all. I have discovered that feeding babies using breasts is probably one of the oldest and most natural things in the history of the human race.
In all seriousness, I do understand why some people might get a bit confused. We live in a society where women’s bodies are hyper-sexualised by elements of the media, from advertisements of cars to soft drinks. To sell food, to sell newspapers, to sell music and films. In fact, what complaints about breastfeeding in public clearly show is that women’s bodies have become objectified and perceived as a tool of male pleasure to such a definitive degree, that some people get anxious when we use our bodies for things that have nothing to do with the satisfaction of men at all. It makes them uncomfortable. We are so used to the perception of women’s bodies being used to make men happy. This is the norm, this is common, this doesn’t make people uncomfortable. Some people even perceive this as “empowering”. So when some part of a woman’s existence or bodily function does not fit with this perception, it seems to have a confusing effect on some people. When men find breasts offensive only when they are being used for their natural purpose, it shows how much they think women’s bodies were created for them.
Some women have also been reported as disapproving of breastfeeding in public. Some women don’t like breastfeeding at all. Which is absolutely fine, do what you want with your own, but there is no escaping from the fact that we have become socialised into accepting that women’s bodies are a matter of public debate to a degree which men would never have to endure. Women, just as much as men, internalise such sexism even if it is to their own detriment. I often hear that the older generation find witnessing breastfeeding uncomfortable too, but all this tells us is that they have been influenced previously by an even more sexist environment where women were even more restricted. The older generation, just like everybody else, need to realise that other women’s bodily functions have nothing whatsoever to do them.
Previously in our society, other natural processes such as pregnancy and childbirth were censored and seen as shameful. We have a history of shutting pregnant women away for months until they had done the dirty deed and laboured new life into the world. The rest of society being too sensitive to acknowledge the process by which they came to be, and too rife with misogyny to appreciate the hypocrisy in applauding men whilst shaming women for the same actions. The shame should be felt only by those who punished women in Ireland and other countries so violently, and so horrendously for becoming pregnant outside of contexts deemed acceptable to church and state. Such vile abuse resulted in devastating consequences for both women and generations of children born to struggle through life in care systems, often subjected to horrific abuse themselves, or born only to die a short while later through either the wilful neglect, or the wilful murder at the hands of those in charge and to be found in unmarked graves decades later. You speak of shame.
So neither breastfeeding, nor debates around it are new. They are just another example of a society struggling to negotiate what or who a woman’s body is for and how to best police and control it. Such is the threat to male power of the female body being used for anything other than their convenient gratification. We see extreme reactions to threats of anything less than total exclusivity of female attention in statistics which show that over one-third of cases of domestic violence start or get worse when a woman is pregnant. In many cases we also see women who are pressured into giving up breastfeeding by insecure and controlling men who are competing for affection. Such a fragile power if it can be threatened by a tiny, hungry baby.
The discomfort around breastfeeding is nothing other than a society perplexed by the image of a totally self-sufficient woman, behaving in a way that has nothing to do with pleasing men. So acclimatised we are to the very opposite. It adds to the tremendous amount of hypocrisy regarding women, sex and reproduction. We must be compliant, but not overtly sexual. We must be in awe of the sexual prowess of men, but not take ownership of our own sexuality. We must use our bodies to have children and desire motherhood above all else, but not have open and frank discussion about the processes of menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Women are simultaneously told of the genuine and well-documented health benefits of breastfeeding infants, while being made to feel embarrassed for doing just that. So the message is that breast is best, but only in a corner where the nice people don’t have to see it.
So the news here isn’t that women are breastfeeding in public, the news is that there are still some people out there who somehow find this more uncomfortable than a starving baby. The news is that breast-feeding is not the convenient by-product of a body part designed to attract men. The opposite is true – breasts are for feeding children, a handy by-product is that they are attractive to necessary elements in the creation of the offspring in the first place. Breasts are amazing, they can sustain life, even a world with modern medicine that can keep people alive when they would have died in years gone by, a newborn baby can thrive with only its mother and nothing else. Breasts can also be attractive, sensual, and quite lovely for both men and women for reasons that seem quite removed from digestion. They can be enjoyed by women and men in as many ways as is consensually possible but this enjoyment is the by-product, not the main function. If you find it difficult to contemplate the difference, then perhaps it is you who should refrain from eating in public.
If nothing else, the debate about breastfeeding highlights a wider context in which women’s bodies are still up for public debate. The scrutiny, the judgement, and the hypocrisy must stop. In reality, whatever the function of breasts, whatever the function of a uterus, they belong to a woman who is not just the sum of their parts but a person who must be afforded the dignity and autonomy owed to every human being. We have seen what happens when women’s bodies, particularly in relation to reproduction, are censored, policed and controlled. And we have come some way in acknowledging that the things women’s bodies can do are no longer wrong or punishable. However, that women are still being asked to fade into quiet corners to feed their children in the most natural and healthy way shows that there is still a long way to go.