If Public Breastfeeding Offends You, Don’t Look

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about public breastfeeding and the controversy surrounding Karlesha Thurman.

Like pretty much everything surrounding mothers and childrearing, breastfeeding is a politically charged topic. In some ways, mothers are encouraged, even demanded, to breastfeed their babies because of the potential health benefits that breastfeeding provides.

In New York City, a municipal program called Latch On NYC required hospitals to stop giving out formula to new mothers unless specifically requested, in which case a nurse has to record a medical justification for providing the formula. Mothers who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed for whatever reason face stigma—what sort of mom wouldn’t want to do absolutely everything she can to ensure her baby’s health? So the reasoning goes.

At the same time, women are also shamed for breastfeeding in public, even though it’s legal throughout the United States. Public breastfeeding, we are told, is “indecent” and “disgusting,” and mothers should “think of the children” before “whipping it out” in public. (Presumably, they should think about children besides their own, who are hungry and need to be fed.)

Instead, they should find a private place such as a restroom (unhygienic, and most don’t have comfortable seating for a mother to breastfeed), bring formula (not as good for the baby as breast milk), or pump their milk beforehand (and carry it around in a cooler in the summer heat, presumably). Breast pumps and formula aren’t even affordable for all women, and some babies refuse to drink formula.

All this has recently come up in online discussion once again after Karlesha Thurman, a mother and recent college graduate, posted a photo of herself breastfeeding at her graduation from California State University Long Beach. The photo went viral and spawned all of the usual blowback, except this time with an extra side of “She’s ruining the sanctity of the college graduation ceremony!” and probably a generous helping of racism. (Thurman is Black, andseveral commentators pointed out that the harsh response she is now facing ties into a long history of analyzing, judging, and regulating Black women’s bodies and what they do with them.)

Thurman originally posted the photo to the Facebook page of a group called Black Women Do Breastfeed, which aims to encourage and support Black mothers who are breastfeeding and who feel that their experiences are not well-represented in narratives of motherhood.

Thurman has since removed the photo from the group, explaining in interviews that the reactions she received personally, including from the other graduates, had all been supportive, but that people elsewhere online were being “very harsh.” She added, “I did it to show it’s natural, it’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it. I didn’t even know there was a big controversy about breast-feeding in public until all of this happened.”

Read the rest here.

“We Saw Your Boobs” and Distorted Views of Female Sexuality

I’ll leave it to others to thoroughly excoriate Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars. What I want to address specifically is his gloating “We Saw Your Boobs” video, and the interestingly skewed notion of sexuality that it presents.

If you believe MacFarlane, and others who think like him, sex is a sort of competition between men and women. Whenever women engage sexually with men–for instance, by appearing topless in a movie that is viewed by men–the man “wins” and the woman “loses.” In the video, the women whose boobs MacFarlane says he saw are portrayed as shocked or embarrassed, whereas Jennifer Lawrence, whose boobs MacFarlane notes that we have not seen, is shown to be celebrating.

In this view, women have no agency to experience sexuality on their own terms and for themselves. MacFarlane et al. do not realize that a woman might want to appear topless in a movie not (just) to be viewed by men, but because it makes her feel good or because it increases her opportunities as an actor, or for any other reason.

Of course, that’s arguable, because nowadays in Hollywood female actors’ opportunities are so limited unless they’re willing to appear topless. So for an actor who doesn’t want to do a nude scene for whatever reason but feels pressured to do it because there’s not much of a choice, doing a nude scene is a sort of loss. But not because “hur hur we saw your boobies,” but because in the society we have set up, people often have to do things they find objectionable in order to make a living.

This view of sex as a game or competition is embedded in the language we use to discuss sex–for instance, in the case of virginity. Although men are also sometimes thought of as being virgins or having virginity, traditionally it’s a concept that only really applies to women. Virginity is something that women “lose,” “save,” “give up,” “give away.” Although you could certainly argue that sometimes we can also lose things that are bad and that we’re better off for having lost, it’s still interesting to think about the connotation that it has to say that women “lose” something when they have sex for the first time.

It’s similar when we talk about “playing hard to get,” which is a role that’s traditionally been assigned to women. A woman “plays hard to get” until she finally “gives in” and lets the guy “get” her–he wins, she loses. (Interestingly, the “hard to get” role is becoming more associated with straight men, as well–thanks to PUAs, the cultural ideal of apathy, and probably tons of other factors.)

(As an aside, it’s interesting and also discouraging that some of the most problematic aspects of traditional views of female sexuality–virginity, playing hard to get, etc.–are increasingly being attributed to male sexuality as well. Equality shouldn’t mean making things suck for everyone.)

Why must women “lose” when they have sex with men or allow themselves to be viewed sexually by men? Because it seems that some people still believe that ultimately, women don’t really want to be sexual. It’s good to remember that views of female sexuality have varied widely throughout history, and until fairly recently one of the predominant views was that women didn’t have sexuality. They “gave in” to sex because men wanted it and because they wanted to please men. When I read The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, a landmark 1976 study of women’s sex lives, for class, I was stunned at how many women reported that their male partners didn’t really seem to notice or care whether or not they were having orgasms or otherwise getting pleasure out of sex. It can’t be that all of those men are just terrible people who don’t care about their partners; it’s more likely that they simply didn’t realize that that could even be a concern.

At the time the report was published, prevailing notions of female sexuality were already beginning to shift. Many of the women who responded to the questionnaire said that they faked orgasms for their male partners because the partners expected them to have orgasms–but only from whatever the men enjoyed (generally, vaginal intercourse).

Of course, there’s usually more than one view of any given thing circulating in a given culture at a given time. Interestingly, an alternate and sort of opposite view of female sexuality from MacFarlane’s is the one championed by Girls Gone WildCosmo, and hookup culture: that sex with men is empowering for women and that if you’re out there flashing your boobs in front of a camera or hooking up with as many guys as you want, you’re not “losing” at all–you’re winning. There’s a reason this sort of ideology is so popular with young women: it appears, at least on the surface, to affirm and empower female sexuality as opposed to treating it as something shameful or even nonexistent. You could view it as a direct repudiation of outdated views like MacFarlane’s.

But ultimately it falls short, because in this view, sex and the female body in general are still things that exist for male consumption, whether it’s the leering guys behind the cameras of Girls Gone Wild or the mythical and almost deity-like “he” constantly being referenced in Cosmo headlines: “Drive him wild with pleasure!” “Find all of his erogenous zones!” “Make him feel like a real man tonight!”

A few nights ago my friends and I were laughing at a book of Cosmo sex tips and someone asked if the magazine ever even mentions the possibility of sex with women. We shook our heads. Although many people see Cosmo as a celebration of independent female sexuality, the fact that it completely ignores the existence of queer women suggests that it’s really just about female sexuality for men.

In this sense, the Cosmo view of female sexuality isn’t actually that different from MacFarlane’s wacky sex-as-competition view. Whether women “win” or “lose” by engaging sexually with men, the reason they ultimately do it is always for the men, and never for themselves or for any other reason.

The irony of MacFarlane’s song is that a bunch of the nude scenes he mentioned are actually rape scenes. The female actors in these scenes weren’t topless in order to titillate (male) viewers, but to depict a cruel and tragic part of reality. And Scarlett Johansson’s “nude scene” was actually not one at all, but rather the nude photos of her that were leaked to the press. She certainly didn’t take off her shirt for MacFarlane’s smug pleasure.

Of Charlize Theron’s nude scene, Salon’s Katie McDonough writes:

[T]he only time we see Theron’s breasts is in a quick shot in the bathroom, following a brutal rape at the hands of a john, in which she examines her badly beaten body. The “boobs” that MacFarlane sang an ode to are made up to appear badly swollen and red from the multiple times she was kicked in the stomach by her abuser. The nudity isn’t there for cheap thrills, it’s a snapshot of a terribly beaten body that should evoke horror — not giggles — from the viewer.

While giggling about a rape scene is several orders of magnitude more egregious than giggling about the fact that a woman showed you her boobs, the common thread is an inability on the part of MacFarlane (and, I’m sure, others) to see the “purpose” of women’s bodies and sexuality as anything other than entertainment and titillation on the part of male observers.

Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.

Public Breastfeeding Should Not Be a Big Deal

Something’s wrong with our culture if this is appropriate in public, but breastfeeding is not.

Breastfeeding has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. On one hand, mothers’ decision to breastfeed or not has been subject to intense moralizing and even actual regulation, which is creepy.

On the other hand, public breastfeeding has been under attack, too. Facebook disables/deletes accounts of people who post photos of themselves breastfeeding. Mothers lose their jobs and get kicked out of public places because of it. This spring, people were actually debating whether or not mothers in the military should breastfeed while in uniform.

Every time, the justification is that breastfeeding constitutes “indecent exposure” (or even pedophilia, depending on who’s doing the breastfeeding). The protest “There are children here!” gets thrown around a lot, which is ironic given that what’s at stake is the fact that infants need to be fed, and pretty often at that. But no, what matters more is that women’s breasts are presumed to be sexual, whether women themselves see them that way or not.

This cartoon summarizes my thoughts on the issue:

The reality is that breasts are everywhere in our public spaces. They’re used to advertise not just bras, but vegetable oil, men’s cologne, french fries, and TV shows. Beaches and swimming pools, which are always full of children, are also full of women in bikinis. And no matter where you go in the U.S., aside from perhaps certain parts of Brooklyn, you’re going to see women in low-cut shirts.

And yet, breastfeeding in public remains controversial. Why?

First of all, it seems that our culture has decided–somewhat arbitrarily–that the only “indecent” parts of the breast are the areola and nipple. Although those are the most sensitive parts, this nevertheless seems strange to me. People who find breasts attractive and arousing aren’t just attracted to their areolas and nipples. To say that those are the only “indecent” parts would be like saying that women should be free to walk around with their labia showing, but not their clitoris or vagina. What?! (But of course, vaginas and clitorises are much easier to hide.)

Besides, when a mother nurses an infant, you can’t see anything that you don’t see in all those ads and at the beach, except for that brief moment when she’s first taking her breast out (or “whipping” it out, as the hand-wringers love to say, in total defiance of human anatomy). All this fuss for a few seconds during which someone might possibly see a nipple?

What’s perhaps more to the point is that our culture has decided that breasts are always inherently sexual, no matter what they’re being used for. They are always sexual, and in a different way than, say, a man’s beautifully toned pectoral muscles–which can be displayed in virtually any public setting even without cries of “There are children here!”–even though there’s no infant depending upon them for survival.

The reason I say that “our culture” has decided that breasts are sexual is because there are other cultures that haven’t. Even a cursory glance through a National Geographic magazine will show you that many people around the world think that naked breasts are no big deal. Women walk around topless and life goes on. Even in Europe, topless sunbathing is normal, and the children there grow up just fine, without being traumatized by the sight of boobs.

(And, on the flip side, some cultures sexualize things that we would never think of sexually, such as hair.)

But regardless, we’ve created a culture in which breasts are sexual. Now what?

Well, now we ask ourselves what’s more important–mothers’ need to feed their infants quickly and easily, or children growing up without ever seeing naked breasts. Since I’ve yet to see any evidence for the latter being harmful, I think we should prioritize the former.

What’s ironic is that when breasts are on display for the purpose of advertising or enhancing women’s sex appeal, that’s okay. But when they’re on display for a clearly nonsexual purpose, such as providing sustenance for an infant, then it’s suddenly “inappropriate,” and won’t anybody think of the children.

Right now, we have ourselves a dilemma. Women are being commanded by doctors and politicians to breastfeed rather than use formula. And yet, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that provides no guaranteed maternity leave. There’s no government-sponsored daycare, either, and funding for childcare subsidies is being cut left and right. This leaves many mothers with few options other than breastfeeding their babies, often in public.

But we wring our hands over how “indecent” and “sexual” this basic human act is.