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Lactivism and Public Breastfeeding

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Earlier this week I encountered an amusing but startling article in the blog section of the Palm Beach Post. The author discussed a recent situation involving Victoria’s Secret.

“Victoria’s Secret became the target of breast-feeding activists this week after women in Racine, Wis., and Quincy, Mass., went into the popular women’s lingerie store and were told they couldn’t breastfeed their children on the sales floor.

It’s hard to imagine that Victoria’s Secret, of all places, could be anti-breast–or at least squeamish about the partial exposure of a woman’s breast amid the racks of revealing peekaboo attire on sale.

But it happened. The result: Victoria’s Secret was the target of a nationwide ‘nurse-in’ protest this past weekend called for by a group of angry breastfeeding women.”

I’d hate to be on the wrong side of a group of angry breastfeeding women! I think it could only be worse to be on the wrong side of a group of angry homeschooling women. But I digress. It seems terribly ironic that Victoria’s Secret, a company that has done a great deal to commodify the breast along with every other aspect of female anatomy, refuses to allow women to breastfeed on their premises. As the article says, “Victoria’s Secret, after all, is all about partial, and more-than-partial exposure of a woman’s body.” The company’s advertising shows a lot more exposed breast than is likely to be seen when a woman nurses her child. And what’s wrong with a woman feeding her child in public?

Until six years ago I had never thought much about breastfeeding. My mom, with still a little bit of hippie in her blood (you should see those early photos of her as a mother), raised five children and each of us breastfed for at least a year or two. There is good reason, I think in retrospect, that the five children in our family are all spaced three years apart! I was the second child to be born into the family and so, for at least five or six years of my life, I saw little sisters breastfeeding. I thought nothing of it, for it was as natural as breathing. Babies needed to eat, so mom fed them. If they needed to eat at home, mom fed them at home, and if they needed to eat when we were out, mom fed them in public. Actually, I’m pretty sure mom even fed them in the front seat while dad was driving the car, something that wasn’t forbidden back then as it is today (for good reason, I might add). I called my mother this morning to confirm my memories and she said, “Yes! I fed you guys all over Toronto.” And what’s more, she thought nothing of it. I don’t think it ever occurred to her to do otherwise. She was discreet about it, of course, but was certainly not ashamed to fed us when we need to be fed. There was nothing complicated about it.

Six years ago, Aileen gave birth to our first child. Suddenly, breastfeeding seemed complicated. Aileen struggled with breastfeeding in public or even in “semi-private” conditions (such as when friends were visiting). She would gladly nurse the baby when her girlfriends were present, but when a man entered the room, she would opt instead to drag her friends to a different room. Somehow, between generations, breastfeeding had become shameful. While a few of our friends would, with some hesitation I think, breastfeed when men were present, most tended to camp out in a room by themselves, or at least sat around a corner or with their backs turned.

Aileen recently gave birth to our third child and she still will not feed her in public. If we happen to be in public when Michaela demands her dinner, Aileen will sequester herself in a bathroom or other private area and settle down to feed the baby.

It is not my purpose here to argue for or against public breastfeeding. Ultimately, a woman should confer with her husband and do what makes them feel comfortable. If they are uncomfortable with nursing a child in public, the mother should not feel compelled or obliged to do so. Similarly, if they are unashamed to have her feed the child in public, then by all means, she should do so. The right to nurse in public is protected by the laws of the land, and so it should be.

I found the story from the Palm Beach Post quite instructive. It shows something about our society, I think, that we will gladly tolerate breasts when they are in the context of sexuality, but not when they are in the context of child-rearing. Somehow, over the past couple of decades, public breastfeeding has become taboo. Stores and restaurants routinely demand that breastfeeding moms take their babies to the bathrooms to nurse them there. More and more people seem to regard it as unnatural or disgusting. Victoria’s Secret can plaster the store windows with huge posters of nearly-naked women with their breasts almost fully exposed, but when a woman sitting inside the store discreetly latches her child to a breast, it is regarded as exhibitionism.

My dad has often remarked that television and movies, while routinely showing scenes with explicit sexual content, will almost never show scenes that involve sex between married couples. He does not mean to say that it would be somehow morally superior to show a married couple engaging in sexual acts on the movie or television screen, but simply that it is only a certain kind of unnatural, unbiblical sexuality that our society wishes to see. Satan hates what is natural and good. He loves what is unnatural and evil. When we look at breastfeeding in this context, it makes perfect sense that our society does not object to public displays of breasts when they are in the context of sexuality. Men love to be able to walk past Victoria’s Secret and to see vivid images of other women displaying their near-perfect bodies. But in the context of something that is natural and good, such as a woman nursing her baby, breasts are somehow repulsive. We have exchanged the natural for the unnatural. And I guess we must like it that way.


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