Recently, a mother was ostracized and threatened with arrest for breastfeeding at a Denny's restaurant in Asheville, NC. Disciminatory events surrounding nursing in public (NIP) like this one are often followed by action from activists, which leads to many discussions between pro- and anti-NIP persons, including terms such as decency, courtesy, respect, obscenity, and discretion. This frosts my cookies, to put it mildly. The anti-NIP faction inevitably harumphs and voices their offense at the so-called disrespect shown by breastfeeding mothers. They "shouldn't have to see that", it's "disgusting", and the mother should take herself to the bathroom or travel with a bottle. Comparisons to passing gas or public urination generally follow. These comments reveal both ignorance of and unfamiliarity with the physical and emotional realities of parenting a breastfed infant, as well as the ingrained sense of shame with which most of us have been taught to view the human body. There is nothing indecent about a mother feeding her infant, no matter how she chooses to do it. There is nothing obscene about the nurturing functions of the body. There is nothing disrespectful in the act of a mother meeting her child's needs.
Unfortunately, as lactivists discuss these situations among themselves and in public spaces, they often drift into agreement with the anti-NIP faction. They start to question exactly how much breast the ostracized mother was exposing, and champion the privacy with which it is possible to nurse a child. This leads to endless sidebar conversation about exactly how a mother can go about preventing herself from showing skin, how some mothers "go too far", how some are, perhaps, trying to cause a scene in order to piss off the puritans as an exhibitionist taunt or as a misguided bit of activism.
Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come to stop demonizing women for showing skin, to get over ourselves and our hangups about the interconnection between sexuality and motherhood, to refocus on what is important: we're mammals. We lactate. Our children need to be nurtured.
To that end, when a recent thread on the Richmond-area Natural and Attached Parenting (NAP) board started veering into discussion about being "discreet," I could take it no longer, and posted the following plea. My friend Jen has since reposted it to the FirstRight advisory committee and on the MotheringDotCommune breastfeeding boards (the MDC link contains her post and the responses), so I thought perhaps the original author should share it on her own space, as well. I am pairing this post with several photos of myself nursing my children, some of which have not been posted here before.
[from NAP message board post, 2/19/09]
It seems like whenever there is a discussion about breastfeeding in public, eventually things get down to this: somebody is offended by the sight of a breast, and they think the owner of the breast should respect their feelings by not baring their breast. Then the D word comes out: discreet. And it's almost always a breastfeeder who uses it first: *I'm* discreet, *I* don't condone those titty-flashing drama queens with their nipply agendas! It can be done modestly! Look at me, I'm a breastfeeder, I don't let it all hang out!
I've done it, too, and it galls me. We're trying to gently convince the offended person that their big bad fear of total XXX boobage doesn't reflect reality. We're trying to reassure them that really, most breastfeeders don't show that much breast, so cool it on the anti-indecent exposure campaign!
Problem is, we're shooting ourselves in the foot. By using the big D, or dancing around it in any way by trying to prove how *modest* we are, by talking about how the baby covers up the breasts, reassuring them that nothing really shows and that they've probably seen a million cases of NIP and never noticed it...we're allowing them to define modesty and discretion. We're playing their game and agreeing with them that breasts should not be seen. We're selling out our fellow breastfeeders - the ones who are unhampered by silly social conditioning and don't feel self-conscious popping a breast over the neck of a tank top, or who just can't hide those 38Gs, or who inadvertently get exposed by a curious 8 month old taking a look around. It's even worse when the pro-NIP side starts to agree with the "just be prepared with a bottle or go to the bathroom!" side by speculating about the motives of the woman in the news story du jour. We weren't there, we aren't her. Assuming that she was trying to stir up a ruckus is blaming the victim.
So, I beg of you, can we please drop the discretion language and stand up for our fellow nursing mamas, no matter how they get the milk into their baby's mouths? (I'm not pointing any fingers, just asking if you'll join me in watching what we say.) When we use it, we allow the anti-NIP people to put us on the defensive and define the terms of the debate. Our bottom line should be this: babies have a right to food and comfort when and where they need it. How much of the breast is bared in the process should matter to no one but its owner. So let's stop talking about how discreet we are, ok?
[The following was taken from my response to a couple of people who felt like it's important to use the word "discreet" when talking to new mothers worried about NIP, in order to reassure them and encourage them to nurse.]
I think there are different contexts at work here. I'm talking about defending a baby's right to NIP, a civil-rights issue. I still don't want to use the word "discreet" or other words like it when talking to new mothers, but I don't mind sharing information with them on ways they can nurse comfortably. To me, helping a mother to find a way of nursing that's comfortable to her is different from defending a woman tossed out of Denny's to a guy who insists that nursing should never happen in a public place, period.
What I would do if trying to reassure a new mom:
- echo her concerns - it's important that she feel validated. It's common to feel shy/worried about NIP!
- share my own experiences as a mom who started out using a blanket to cover and soon became comfortable going without a cover
- depending on the venue (class? personal friend?) I might share one or more nursing accessories or tips that might meet her particular need/concern
I still would not say "it's possible to nurse discreetly" because it reinforces the idea that skin showing is indiscreet and therefore wrong/inappropriate. One thing being "discreet" implies another thing that is not. I'd emphasize the importance of finding a way that feels comfortable while asserting that what is comfortable should be THEIR decision.
I'm not at all, EVER, saying that women *should* bare their entire breast...I just think that the language we use can sometimes inadvertently reinforce negative social norms. It's worth mentioning here that I prefer for my midriff to stay covered if possible, to show minimal breast, and that I've tried some of the drop-cup tanks and popping over the top of a blouse, and felt very exposed! BUT I wholeheartedly support any other mother who feels comfortable baring more than I do.