Public breastfeeding shouldn't be controversial, but unfortunately we live in a society where it is. Countless times we've seen women shamed, asked to cover up, and even asked to leave places for the simple act of breastfeeding an infant. That sort of shaming is hurtful and ignorant. Equally damaging, though, are members of the breastfeeding community who shame ultra-modest women for their feelings about their own breasts and bodies.
The Huffington Post recently published an essay called "The Problem With 'Discreet' Breastfeeding," in which the author attempts to call out the sexist double standard of encouraging raunchy displays of cleavage while at the same time condemning public breastfeeding. It's a worthy argument and I agree with many of the author's points; however, I take issue with the way she shames various groups of women in the process of defending her perspective.
The author begins the post by talking about how she once used her breasts to get attention, but now uses them nourish and soothe her daughter. She writes:
You see, my breasts have changed over time and with motherhood. They have undergone a major transformation -- from shallow and lofty tools, to wholesome and grounded givers of life, of soul, of peace. Yes, I mean "grounded" in the literal sense as well as the poetic sense... am I concerned? No. Am I proud? Yes.
So you will understand my confusion, my disbelief and sadness, when I hear a self-confessed proud breastfeeding mother advise another to be "discreet" while feeding her child.
The essay is problematic right off the bat, namely for the implication that breasts are shallow and unwholesome prior to birth, but somehow transform into something meaningful thereafter. I'm sure there are many non-breastfeeding and/or childless women who already think their boobs are plenty awesome, thanks. Similarly, there are probably a lot of moms in the world who still feel their breasts are deeply connected to their sexuality. Also problematic is the implication that one cannot be both proud and discreet; that holding different standards of modesty than others is somehow doing it wrong.
I am sad for the mother who feels the pressure to hide her breasts whilst feeding her child, for fear of embarrassment. Believe me when I say that I too once felt that pressure. But I am more saddened still for the mother who buys into this pressure, for the mother who genuinely believes that breastfeeding is embarrassing. If only she could see what I see now.
Between bursts of shaming, sanctimonious language the author does actually pretty accurately describe how women are rarely asked to cover up prior to having children, how much our society approves of breasts as long as they're being used in a sexual manner, and how completely screwed up that is. But all of those valuable arguments are rendered totally ineffective because they come cased in a bullshit insistence that breasts that aren't used for feeding are somehow less sacred and that women who prefer to breastfeed discreetly are somehow unenlightened.
If you want to fight the societal pressure put on women to see their breasts as objects that exist solely for the sexual gratification of others, by all means do that. Don't victim blame the women who succumb to those pressures, and even beyond that, don't assume a woman who feels more comfortable covering up while feeding is doing so because she's some sad creature who needs your pity or reassurance or to be taken under your powerful earth mama wings.
Breastfeeding is natural and beautiful, but it's also incredibly personal and a woman's decision to do it does not give anyone -- even fellow breastfeeders -- ownership over her body. There's nothing wrong with a woman who feels uncomfortable exposing parts of her breast in public, just as there is nothing wrong with a woman who feels fully comfortable feeding anywhere and everywhere without a cover. I'm sure neither one wants to hear how "heartbroken" they make someone feel.
If you have a problem with the way society polices women's bodies, attack society. Don't try to police their bodies in the opposite direction. All that does is shame those for whom you're most hoping to advocate. If we want women to feel truly empowered, we must give them the freedom to write their own narratives about their bodies and their experiences, even if the finished product ends up looking nothing like our own.