Breastfeeding in public: what is and what is not “appropriate”
I just read about a discrimination case in the San Diego area in which author/educator Rachel Rainbolt was told by her child’s homeschool teacher that breastfeeding was “inappropriate” behavior during weekly meetings. Read more about this case on her site.
First of all, this sort of reaction to breastfeeding is not uncommon. It reminds me of this cartoon, which points out some of the deep hypocrisy that pervades this whole issue, especially here in the US.
Second, this is obviously about cultural norms–and this includes ideas about what is and what is not considered “indecent” in public settings. Part of the issue is who defines norms, and how certain activities (or parts of bodies) are deemed either acceptable or not. The whole conversation about breastfeeding is entangled in all kinds of social and cultural ideas about human nature, sexuality, and how we think about individual human bodies in relation to the larger social body. When a lot of people think about breasts (this includes men and women), they automatically think SEX. As if that’s their primary reason for existence.
That’s pretty much the heart of the matter: women’s breasts are often defined as sex objects–and not much more. And since sex is basically taboo in the public realm, breastfeeding ends up being perceived as some sort of indecent, out-of-bounds behavior. When these sorts of culturally-based ideas about women’s bodies get codified and/or backed by laws, well, that when things can get worse. Read: discriminatory.
Of course, Rachel Rainbolt isn’t alone here. Just about a year ago anthropologist Adrienne Pine found herself caught up in her own breastfeeding controversy. Pine’s decision to feed her child during a class lecture was met with charges that her behavior was “unprofessional,” among other complaints. See Pine’s response to the incident on Counterpunch here. I remember reading about that when it happened, and being surprised at just how upset some people were about the entire subject. Talk about striking a chord. Clearly, breastfeeding exposes some sensitive cultural boundaries–but why? As the ironic cartoon points out above (here’s the link again), it’s pretty hilarious that Victoria’s Secret can display boobs in public and everyone is ok with it, but when a mother has to feed her kid in a public place it’s potentially a grave social offense.
Anthropologically speaking, all of the negative reactions to breastfeeding are interesting in and of themselves. Where do these reactions come from? What fuels them–and what makes them so prominent? Why and how did breastfeeding become so…taboo? It’s important to look deeper at these kinds of social (and public) fault lines and ask ourselves what’s going on.
This led me to some of the work of anthropologists who take a closer look at breastfeeding and why it’s such a controversial and touchy issue for some folks. Katherine Dettwyler has written a lot about the subject, and some of her commentaries are accessible online. In one piece about the “cultural context” of breastfeeding in the US, she writes:
This isn’t a male versus female issue; most of the outspoken critics of breastfeeding in public, and breastfeeding older children, are women, just as women are the ones clamoring for their right to have their breast size increased through surgery. Likewise, some researchers have suggested that breastfeeding advocacy represents a call for women to return to their “traditional,” circumscribed roles as housewives and mothers. In this chapter, I explicitly reject this interpretation. Women should not have to choose between nurturing their children in the best possible way and pursuing other interests outside the home. Just as an earlier generation of women thought that they had to choose between having a family and having a career, today’s generation of working mothers often think they must choose between breastfeeding their children and having a career, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It is up to us to change the cultural context of breastfeeding, and of work, in the United States, so that breastfeeding is compatible with the modern workplace. Rather than concluding that an advocacy of breastfeeding means a return to the days of “a woman’s place is in the home,” one can argue that an advocacy of breastfeeding means a change in a culture’s valuation of child rearing as an activity, and a change in the valuation of the important contributions that only women can make to the social reproduction of a society.
Dettwyler makes several strong points, and also helps add a wider perspective to the whole issue. Specifically about the notion that breasts are simply objects of sex and desire, she writes:
I am not suggesting that it is wrong or immoral or perverted to experience sexual pleasure from manual or oral manipulation of the breasts as part of sexual behavior. I am insisting, however, that we recognize this as learned behavior, learned in a particular cultural context. I am not suggesting that men and women in any culture should give up this aspect of their sexuality; I am suggesting that they should recognize this role of the breasts as a very distant, secondary lagniappe. Can’t we “have our cake and eat it, too?” one may ask. Perhaps, I would respond, but with caution. Perhaps, but only to the extent that using our breasts for these purposes doesn’t lead to the excesses represented by female mammary mutilation, widespread dissatisfaction among women with the way their bodies look, men who judge a woman’s value on the size of her breasts, and widespread misunderstanding of the primary function of women’s breasts, which leads to breastfeeding being defined as sexual behavior. The costs of these cultural beliefs, in terms of women’s physical health and self-esteem, and children’s health, are, it seems to me, too high a price to pay.
It is a high price. And it’s ironic that the simple human act of breastfeeding can stir up such controversy. All of this makes me want to look further into when, why, and how cultural attitudes about breastfeeding shifted in the US, and how those changes are linked to the prominence of bottle and formula feeding. It makes you wonder.
PS: Please post any related links or citations you have in the comments section. I know there has to be a lot of lit out there about this, so please share any recommendations or suggestions. Thanks.
Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty. He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public. You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).