Many cafes, restaurants and other social spaces, along with a significant part of the population in general, have a problem with breastfeeding in public. And occasionally, this will enter the public domain, feminists will clamour their protest, a legion of (mostly male) prudes will harp on about hygiene and social decency and the fact that it just isn’t done, and when everyone has calmed down nothing will have changed. Breastfeeding – the biological function of the human mammary gland – has remained socially unacceptable in public, a distasteful function of feminine biology seen as akin to leaving a streaming open wound unbandaged. In 2006, BabyTalk, a US magazine specifically targeted at pregnant women and new mothers was censored for showing a baby feeding from a human breast on its front cover (presumably BabyTalk shared display space with Playboy and Hustler, but these were deemed acceptable). Recent months have seen public prejudice flare up again against nursing mothers across the western world, and there has been a public outcry against the publication of pictures of a breastfeeding Angelina Jolie.
This week, a virtual storm broke around the humiliating expulsion of a nursing mother from a trendy café in Soho, London, because it was ‘a place for eating’ (for everyone apart from the kid, apparently). The incident has caused viral indignation across feminist and anti-feminist cyberspace. Male commentators have compared breastfeeding in public to shooting up drugs in public, claimed that the practice spreads aids, and squealed that it makes them want to throw up. What nobody has so far mentioned is that breastfeeding is not just a bodily function: it’s a form of work.
Childrearing is still seen as ‘women’s work’ in contemporary Western society, and is devalued as a result – but there are few parts of the task that cannot physically be acheived by either sex. Breastfeeding is one of them. No surprise, then, that this most technically female bit of ‘women’s work’ is seen not only as a personal indulgence but a disgusting one at that – no different to squeezing a zit or bleeding in public. But, in fact, the woman breastfeeding in that Soho cafe was doing her job every bit as much as the young executives hunched over their laptops. Prejudice against breastfeeding in company is not only practical and extremely physical misogyny: from a marxist perspective it is also professional discrimination. In fact, it’s already been recognised as such in New Zealand.
Next time you take a walk around Soho, just count the number of partly- or mostly-exposed breasts you see in any given street. I guarantee you that there’ll be any number of trendy young girls (and boys, it being Soho) with far more boob on display than any nursing mother, the reason being, you see, that when you’re breastfeeding, most of what you can see is the back of the baby’s head. Wearing a low-cut top won’t get you thrown out of a bar, though: it’s alright, as long as you’re getting your tits out for the lads.
Anti-breastfeeding stigma is not for a minute about modesty. It is about restricting women’s choices and underlining the message that women’s bodies are only acceptable if they are explicitly sexual.