Friday, 15 May 2009

Too much of a good thing?



A friend tipped me off to this poster, which promotes World Breastfeeding Week (apologies for the quality of the image). She'd seen it at her daughter's creche in all it's A2 glory, and although a feminist, she found it 'confronting'.

The Women's Health Action Trust website features an interesting article about the poster, which discusses public discomfort with the poster. The article concludes that breastfeeding in public is permissable so long as women are discreet about it - and breastfeeding a toddler, by definition it seems, is not discreet.

I completely support the right of mothers to breastfeed for as long as they please (with a bit of a proviso: if the child is old enough to be alienated from his/her peers by breastfeeding, then I think it's time to stop). I breastfed my own kids until 20 and 16 months respectively, when they lost interest, and I've not doubt this made some people uncomfortable.

And yet, I too found the poster somehow confronting. There are social expectations around what we ladies do with our boobies. When our children are small, we get a dispensation to stop regarding our breasts as sexual items only. Beyond a certain point in a baby's growth, however, it's expected that we'll stop using our breasts as a source of food, and return them to their rightful place in the realm of the sexual.

Maybe the ultimate question is this: who owns our boobs?

42 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pauline said...

I was/am an extended brestfeeder (up to 3 years) and I tandem fed a baby and toddler for a year twice. I fed in public on occasion (although not quite like that). I want to note that the woman in the poster is exposing much less than say the Tui Ad girls.

It offends me that people are ok with breasts in a sexual context but not a nutitional one. They are MY breasts ok?

Anna said...

Anon, I'm glad you appreciate how great boobs are, but that's not quite in the spirit of the discussion, and other other readers might not appreciate it. :-)

A Nonny Moose said...

I agree - breast feeding in public is your right, so long as it's discreet. I get very frustrated with the Booby Brigade getting shrill over their rights - yes, it's natural, yes, it's your right, but you don't need to run rough shod over everyone in the cafe/restaurant/park/cinema/shop to exercise your right.

Yes, I served someone once breastfeeding their toddler. No discretion - just stood at the counter and whipped it out.

As confrontational as this poster is, I see "maternity soft porn" is becoming a popular rebellion against the Non-Boobies. In Christchurch there's a photographer on Armagh St who has recently had in their window a softly lit, sepia tone, 2 foot tall portrait of mum, dad and breastfeeding baby. I found it very difficult to walk past that window, because I was so embarressed. They also have a similar toned picture of a near naked pregnant lady.

I'm not a prude, and yay for them not having body hang ups - but honestly, a little class goes a long way.

ms poinsettia said...

Hmm. I was a little confronted by this poster. I wonder if it's the pose more than the actual act of breastfeeding? ie. not wearing a bra, very openly breastfeeding when usually women are quite discreet, staring straight at the camera and smiling (when often breastfeeding is seen as a time of quiet bonding).

Perhaps the poster is confronting because the image is situated somewhere between the social divide between breasts as source of food and breasts as sexual/entertainment.

Nikki said...

No problem with the poster whatsoever.

I really enjoyed reading the piece put out by Women's Health Action.

And I would like to see more people out in public feeding their toddlers to normalise attitudes to extended breast feeding.

Alison said...

My question is whether the poster is actually representative. It's posed. It doesn't look like a comfortable way to breastfeed. It seems counterproductive for a BFing organisation to get people all hot under the collar about extended breastfeeding and women "whipping it out", when that's not how women breastfeed.

Nevertheless, I find it pretty hard to see anything offensive about women "whipping their breasts out" in any way for breastfeeding - it's sexualisation of bodies that bothers me, not public nakedness of any sort (by sexualisation I mean "making or being made into a sexual object for the benefit of others").

katy said...

Yeah, I didn't feel confronted by the poster though I agree that it doesn't look comfy.

Anna said...

I once had a conversation with a woman who'd read some breastfeeding advice, written in the 50s. It said that a woman should ask her husband before deciding whether or not to breastfeed, and if he gave the go ahead, she should always remove herself to a private space for the actual feeding. This shite was of course overcome by women's activism, which has increased the level of comfort women (and others) feel about breastfeeding publicly.

So perhaps the same applies here - the discomfort we might feel at the poster might eventually be alleviated by changing attitudes to breastfeeding toddlers, and how we feed.

Azlemed said...

my problem with the picture is that that isnt how I have seen women feeding toddlers.. most of them have them on their lap and are a hell of a lot more discreet about it.

Good on them for being provocative with the poster... but most breastfeeding mothers dont look like that when feeding,

Anonymous said...

When are men going to learn that breasts are NOT sexual objects, that their natural purpose is to nourish a child and this, and only this, is what they are for?

Anna said...

I've got a lot of sympathy with that, Anon, but a lot of women view their breasts as sexual as well (for right or for wrong). I guess it's a sign of the culture we live in, but women often feel bad about the effects of breastfeeding on their own boobs - and feel less sexy as a result.

barvasfiend said...

I've got no problem with the poster either - breasts are both sexual and nutritional to me, but I'm pretty tired of hearing the word 'discreet' in terms of breastfeeding. I really really don't want to feel like I am doing something dirty in public, and I don't want my child to feel like feeding is dirty either.

I like that this poster was designed to be provocative - I only say this because it doesn't look like a comfortable or usual position for feeding a toddler, so I assume it was staged to some degree.

For me, this is completely an issue of women's liberation in the truest sense of the word. My own mother gets angry at me for being so sanguine about breastfeeding (she chose not to breastfeed me) but I really think people need to grow up about breasts. I mean, the rest of our bodies, both male and female are sexual as well, but in sexual contexts - this is what makes us human - the ability to figure out when it is and when it isn't. Sometimes the lines are blurred but for me, this is largely dictated by societal mores, which change with the times.

I'm thinking of running a confronting campaign about plumber's crack. Plumber's crack is not necessarily sexual, but it IS essential to the installation of good plumbing.

Anonymous said...

A lot of women do view their breasts as sexual, Anna, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. The sexualisation of the breasts is one of patriarchy's most powerful ways at denying women's right to be mothers. It saddens me that so many women hav internalised this disempowerment but that doesn't make it any less of a disempowerment.

A Nonny Moose said...

I disagree with: "so many women hav internalised this disempowerment but that doesn't make it any less of a disempowerment." That's rolling up all women who would like a little discretion in public in a big ball of prudes.

As a woman, I expect all women to take charge of their rights, including breast feeding - just because I don't breastfeed (or have kids for that matter) doesn't means I'm a prude or "internalizing" about it.

"sexualisation of bodies that bothers me, not public nakedness": I'm not sexualizing it either when I say I don't want to see boob left, right and centre.

And for those who get bothered when people talk about "discreton" - we're not asking BF mums to skulk off to a dirty lav.

Anonymous said...

Nonny, who said you were a prude because you didn't breastfeed? Seems to me you're creating a strawman argument.

Azlemed said...

discretion while breastfeeding to me is more about being comfortable while doing it, and in some cases covering up... I have had to breastfeed my children in public, but have learned how to do it in such a way that very little breast is exposed, people do get offended by it, especially middle aged men.

A Nonny Moose said...

Dun mind me, in a foul mood over something else. Ignore my comments (coz I can't delete).

Alison said...

A lot of women do view their breasts as sexual, Anna, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. The sexualisation of the breasts is one of patriarchy's most powerful ways at denying women's right to be mothers. It saddens me that so many women hav internalised this disempowerment but that doesn't make it any less of a disempowerment.Why isn't it right to view one's own breasts as sexual? Saying breasts are only for feeding a child is just as much a stripping away of her preferences and desires as the assertion they exist only for men. Any statement to the effect that any part of a woman's body exists purely for the nutrition or gratification of another person seems awful to me.

Surely what we're trying to achieve is a society in which individual women have the right to determine the uses their body will have at any given point in time. Women can experience their own breasts as sexual AND nutrition-providing AND just flesh like any other flesh, depending on the time, the place, the context. Hell, they can be comforting or hand-warming or handy shelves at times if we want them to be! Telling us our breasts exist only for the purpose of feeding is just as essentialist as the argument that they're only for the sexual arousal of others.

@ A Nonny Moose
"sexualisation of bodies that bothers me, not public nakedness": I'm not sexualizing it either when I say I don't want to see boob left, right and centre.

I know you're probably not. But you're also not accepting a woman's own interpretation of her body at that particular moment. Breastfeeding while trying to maintain "discretion" can be painful or uncomfortable, or just plain awkward. If she feels that her breasts' purpose at that moment is nursing, and she's doing what's necessary to do that effectively, why place a different interpretation on her breasts?

Alison said...

A Nonny Moose, I cross-posted with you - consider your comments duly ignored ;)

Hope your day improves!

Anonymous said...

Alison, isn't saying that a woman's breasts have a sexual purpose making them exist only for the gratification of another person - namely, a man? (Or more likely, men in general) At least when a woman uses her breasts to nurture a child she is receiving unconditional love and validation. It's a more positive transaction for the woman than having some dirty old man ogle them, make comments about them or trying to grope them while she is trying to go about her day to day business.

The sexualisation of breasts is all around us - in the media, in the books we read, the TV and movies we watch, even the songs we listen to. The breasts have no sexual function - any examination of their anatomy will inevitably reveal that they are designed by nature to feed children. So where does this idea that breasts are sexual come from? From a patriarchal society that seeks to dictate to women how their breasts can be used.

I support the freedom of women to do what they want with their bodies, but I don't think women acting out patriarchal tropes becomes positive just because they are doing it in a pseudo-voluntary manner.

Alison said...

Alison, isn't saying that a woman's breasts have a sexual purpose making them exist only for the gratification of another person - namely, a man? That's why I very carefully and explicitly emphasised her experience of her breasts. A lot of women find stimulation of the breast or nipple erotic, so for them, the breast does have a sexual purpose, and it's perfectly appropriate for a woman to interpret her own breasts on those terms when she chooses to do so.

Sexual doesn't automatically equate to sexualised - that's why I'm so carefully differentiating in all these comments between the way a woman experiences her own breasts, and the way she presents them to be experienced by others.

Anonymous said...

Alison, I don't doubt that a lot of women do find it erotic. But I really wonder how much of that is down to their own preferences, and how much is due to media and societal indoctrination that bombards them with messages that their breasts are sexual. It's analogous, although not perfectly, to the media telling women that anal sex is enjoyable and sexual, and that they should endure the pain for that reason.

It's interesting to note that in my (limited) experience, most lesbian women find the breasts entirely unerotic.

Emma said...

I agree with Alison completely: saying that breasts have somehow been 'made sexual by the patriarchy' is surely a bit silly. Nipples are full of nerve endings, stimulation of the nipples is sexually arousing. There's no reason breasts can't have more than one function.

I breast-fed in public, I was not 'discreet' about it. I did not retreat to a ghastly parents' room or cover my chest and my baby's head in case someone was offended by a glimpse of breast tissue. I'm also perfectly happy to have my breasts appreciated sexually - by both sexes, though I guess lesbians and bisexual women who find breast stimulation arousing are 'doing it wrong', anonymous?

I don't find the poster at all offensive, but I do find it odd, because as others have said, nobody feeds in that position, so in a way it is in itself a straw man. If you wanted comment on whether we're comfortable with breast-feeding toddlers, surely it would be better to picture a woman feeding a toddler in a comfortable, relatively 'normal' fashion?

Alison said...

Anonymous, I can't fathom why you're arguing for something that undermines a woman's experience of her own body.

It's totally irrelevant why a woman experiences her breasts as sexual - if the sensation is erotic to her, and she enjoys and is comfortable with that, then why on earth would we tell her that was an inappropriate sensation to experience? And as Emma points out, the sexuality argument is a strawman - any person can be guilty of treating another as a sexual object, regardless of the sex and sexuality of each of them.

Emma said...

It's interesting to note that in my (limited) experience, most lesbian women find the breasts entirely unerotic.If that's genuinely your experience, it's a very strange one.

to the media telling women that anal sex is enjoyable and sexual, and that they should endure the pain for that reason.I honestly don't even know where to start with this one. I have to assume that by 'media' you mean 'some porn and lad mags', which would surely make up a very small proportion of most women's reading.

And anal sex is actually a lot like vaginal sex. When done without the proper preparation by someone who doesn't know what they're doing, it's painful and horrible. That doesn't mean that some people (anal sex not in any way being limited to women) don't find it very pleasurable when done properly.

But no doubt their experience is invalid because they've just been brainwashed into THINKING they like it when they don't really. That's a really satisfying argument to try to engage with.

Anita said...

The need for breast feeding to be "discrete" bothers me. Why should it be treated as more embarrassing/shameful than giving a child a bottle or a rusk or mashed veges?

hendo said...

That looks so weirdly posed I find it difficult to believe it was a natural shot. I can't help but wonder if someone wanted to be deliberately provocative with it.

Plus, it looks kind of uncomfortable. I mean, could you breastfeed and *hold* that pose?

hungrymama said...

The trouble with "discreet" is that no two people have exactly the same definition so for one person it may mean "as long as you keep at least one garment halfway on and don't shout "look at my booby" more than twice during a session" whereas for another anything other than hiding under a large tent-of-shame behind a locked door in an out-of-the-way bathroom may be a bit too much.

I have actually fed toddlers in fairly similar positions to that pictured as they stop by for a brief reconnection in the middle of their busy play schedule though I do tend to go for a down-and-under rather than up-and-over breast/shirt configuration. I love that the poster shows a woman out in the world and dressed like a real person rather than the soft-focus and white-nightie breastfeeding images we so often see.

Pauline said...

As with Hungrymama I have fed in that position on occasion for the same reasons

rangi said...

I think this poster is a great idea. People shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies

Anonymous said...

I think I'm missing something. Why would you breast-feed a toddler?

miss abc said...

I personally don't have an issue with woman breast feeding until their children are toddlers. But I do have an issue with this poster. The pose struck me as posed and sexualised. In my opinion breast feeding is not a sexual act and this poster with an older child walks a fine line. And please let me repeat i have no issue with toddlers being breast feed but I get the distinct impression the poster will detract from the main issue. And instead the focus will be on the toddler being breast feed and the pose in the park with a child hanging from the mothers breast rather then awareness over the benefits of breast feeding one's child.

Anna said...

The fact that the poster generates this much disagreement between people who are all pro-breastfeeding suggests it may not have been a good tactic.

Anon, not sure about the benefits of breastfeeding toddlers. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding a child until its at least a year old - I think there are a few reasons for this, including immunities passed on from mum, and the difficulty in some parts of the world getting sanitary water to mix up formula with.

I fed my babies until they didn't want to breastfeed any longer. Perhaps women do it because it adds to the closeness of the mother/baby relationship?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply Anna, I just googled it and it seems some of the things I thought about breast-feeding weren't correct. So there you go!

I've just never really known of women breast-feeding for that long but from what I've read it makes sense.

PAuline said...

Actually I am pretty sure WHO recommends feeding to 2 years old

hungrymama said...

Yup WHO recommends exclusive BF for six months continuing to a minimum of two years.

Anonymous said...

Well, as I say, it's quite possible that what I've been told by lesbian friends and acquaintances isn't representative, I just thought it was worth throwing out there.

I'll ask you this though - if breasts are sexual objects for biological reasons (nerve endings, etc) rather than social ones, why don't all women find having them stimulated arousing? If it was just a matter of lots of nerve endings, there'd be no room for individual variety.

Alison said...

Anonymous, I'd hazard a guess that it's for much the same reasons that we all have taste buds in our tongue but don't enjoy the same tastes - a complex combination of biological and social factors cause our brains to be "wired" in entirely different ways, starting from before we're born.

It's impossible to disentangle the social factors from the biological ones.

To be honest, I keep thinking about your argument, and can't make sense of it. Why should a woman's own preference for having her breasts stimulated make her a tool of the patriarchy? If she likes to have them touched during sex, it doesn't automatically follow that she displays her breasts, or allows them to be touched by any man who wants to. And it may not be men she enjoys having them touched by anyway.
__
I'm interested to hear from those of you who said that isn't an uncomfortable or abnormal way to feed - I guess that removes my only argument with the poster :-)

Anna said...

It's not a way I would have liked to feed, although I probably did feed in ways that seemed unorthodox to other people.

I think I've worked out what makes me feel ambivalent about the poster - it's kind of advocating for a right I don't really want. I want to be able to feed comfortably and without embarrassment in public, in a way that suits me, but I probably wouldn't want to make a point about it or draw attention to myself, in the way the image in the poster does.

I think it would have resonated with me more if the feeding in the poster was being done in a way I would have been likely to feed - ie sitting in a cafe, having a coffee with friends, or even in the workplace. For me, images like those would convey that breastfeeding is a part of normal life and not a big deal - whereas I feel the poster challenges me to make it a big deal. What do others think?

Julie said...

I find the idea that breasts can't do double duty for women weird. After all men pee through their penis, yet there is never any question that it can also be sexual.

Mary said...

Hello - I'm new to this blog (great read thanks!) and I'm coming in a bit late, but this is a topic close to my heart. I have fed three children (so far) well beyond the 20 months the child in the poster has been feeding. I've certainly fed in that position. The scenario I presumed from the poster was highly realistic - out and about at the playground, toddler runs over, wants a feed - Mum obliges, three sucks later it's all over and the child goes on their happy way. Granted, I would have pulled my top up rather than down - but I have no issue with any woman choosing to position her clothing differently. In addition, if you read the link about the poster by Womens Health Action, it notes that in this case, the woman was asked to feed that way to make a "better" shot.

Love your observation about the dual use of the penis Julie - it's one I've used myself!