Indecent Exposure: Breastfeeding and Porn. Reflections.

5 December 2013

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I was excited to be asked by a friend to help put together an event as part of The Porn Project, a fringe art festival, which happened in August this year.  I blogged about it over here in the lead up to the event.  We had some interesting comments and discussion happening on the Facebook event page, it was particularly timely as I was engaged in something of a head-banging-against-desk discussion with the folks at the Auckland Art Gallery about their former breastfeeding policy.  I even invited the director of the Auckland Art Gallery and the team involved in writing the public policy to join us, as a kind of free focus group, unfortunately they didn’t turn up.  You’ll have to wait a little longer before I can face blogging about that one.

The subject was of special interest to me.  I breastfed both Luna and Blake, any time and anywhere, and early on in my journey as a mother it became really clear to me that this choice was at once very personal and private and very political and public.  It took me a couple of years to really understand other people’s views on how I chose to mother my babies impacted on my day to day activities.  How my getting on with my life was affected by cultural norms, this sex obsessed-repressed society that is cool with women’s bodies being used to sell crappy magazines in petrol stations but not ok with women breastfeeding their babies in public.  It was depressing that that my personal freedom was curtailed- now that I had this new role, as Mother, that I was mostly welcome, just don’t meet your baby’s needs around here, for goodness sake, find a restroom or toilet.  It took me a couple of years to understand more fully why I felt saddened and angry over yet another story or article about a woman being told she couldn’t breastfeed here, or there, that she needs to cover up and be more discrete, or that she was too sexy to breastfeed, or that it is not appropriate to breastfeed by a swimming pool, or that it’s just too much for crazed horny men to cope with, breasts that is, or the baby wasn’t a baby, but a toddler, or why can’t you just be more modest?  It really is crazy, especially when while we’re pregnant we get the message that ‘breast is best’, so breastfeed!  Do, do!  Most westerners (at least the vocal ones who want to tell women what to do with their bodies and their babies) just don’t want to see it, or just can’t cope with breasts.

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The brief we developed pulled together some ideas and questions around breastfeeding in public, the use of women’s bodies in media and advertising, sexuality, the sexualisation of women’s bodies, concerningly low rates of breastfeeding…. and what are the real experiences of women feeding their babies, and how are women affected by external influences… and what are the barriers to women breastfeeding in public?

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We were lucky to have the support of a wonderful local La Leche League leader, Barbara Sturmfels who facilitated the discussion, and I was happy to welcome a diverse group of women and a couple of men into the discussion.  We printed out some more controversial images of women breastfeeding. We had some women who had never been confronted while breastfeeding or asked to leave.  We had women who had great support from friends and family as well as women who were shaping a new culture of breastfeeding in their own families and communities.

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We talked about how we breastfeed in public;

Do we cover up?  Do we feel as comfortable as we would in our own space or home?  We explored how context plays a part in how we may breastfeed in public or if we do at all.  This included things, what mother is wearing, baby’s behaviour, age of baby or child, who she is with and the environment itself.  It became apparent that there situations when women would exercise self censorship and self protection, if they were not feeling safe or supported, if perhaps there was potential for objection or criticism for breastfeeding their baby they would delay feeding, or leave to feed their baby.  We talked about those times when we ‘chose our battles’, did we want to have to explain or defend our breastfeeding, or were we too exhausted?

We looked at what impacts on our decision to breastfeed our baby/ies in public;

For some women, it was the norm, their friends breastfed and their mothers or other family members breastfed, others of us just had to get on with their lives, we cannot shut ourselves out of the world to feed our babies, it’s just another part of life as a mother.

No-one could ignore the fact that breastfeeding in public seems so controversial;

Especially as in most situations only a small amount of breast maybe visible, yet women’s bodies have been commodified and used for so long, our bodies are objectified daily, indeed breasts are everywhere, women’s bodies and breasts are so sexualised.  We also noted that we all have our own boundaries and levels of comfort, and that even as breastfeeding women, it may be challenging to see a mother breastfeed an older toddler, to tandem breastfeed or breastfeed in a bikini or in a church.

We were fortunate to have a couple of Child Birth Educators in the group;

Who related that many men may be unintentionally creating barriers for their partners to breastfeed in public.  Noting that a father-to-be may feel he is supportive of his partner breastfeeding, when he may say “I don’t mind if she breastfeeds in public as long as she’s discrete/covers up…”  so women may feel under pressure from their own sense of what is appropriate and not wanting to shock or appear immodest to their partners.  We reflected on how we may feel we own our bodies, yet our partners may also feel a sense of ownership over them too.  What an almost impossible line to walk!  Again, the fact that breasts are seen as sexual objects impacts on how breasts are perceived in the mother-baby relationship.  We wondered how dads/men can be supportive of women breastfeeding.. without worrying about being taken the wrong way, perhaps making a woman more uncomfortable.

Those of us who had experience in breastfeeding toddlers;

Talked about feeling self-conscious in some situations when an older child asks to breastfeed, pulls at mums top or makes similar obvious gestures to be breastfed.  We reflected on the dilemma we may have of never seeing older babies or children breastfeed and so we have no point of reference.  It may be so shocking just because it is unseen, and many women may not be prepared to breastfeed in public for fear of a negative reaction or because they may be asked to leave or to stop.

Towards the end of the discussion we shared how important it is to convey positive messages about breastfeeding;

Make a conscious choice to support women breastfeeding.  Some women made a choice, “I can do this!” and had the confidence to “just do it” in public.  For others, this confidence grew with support and sometimes in response to criticsms, it became a something to be proud of and a way of supporting other breastfeeding women.

So many problems women may experience in breastfeeding and mothering come down to misogyny and inequality, how conditioned we are and the hypersexualisation of women.  These are not small things to overcome, and we need to constantly challenge ourselves, to breastfeed in public and normalise it.

The transition from Woman to Mother;

Means negotiating self censorship, understanding that how we feed our babies matters, and that we are surrounded by brave women!  We reflected on how powerful one mothers’ choice may be, the intergenerational effect of a woman breastfeeding her baby, how this can flow on to future generations, so create a new ‘norm’.

What did or do we all want?

We want breastfeeding to be NORMAL, we want it to be almost invisible, in that it’s so everyday, people don’t notice it.  We want it to be a non-issue.

Thank you;

Rebecca Short and Barbara Sturmfels for helping make this happen and thank you; to all the fabulous women and men who participated and joined us for some coffee and cake and for baring their souls, sharing their experiences and for breastfeeding!  Kia kaha!

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For anyone interested, the discussion was loosely held around some of these questions:

Why do some people feel uncomfortable when they see someone breastfeed?

What do you feel comfortable with when it comes to seeing skin, breasts while someone is breastfeeding?

Does it challenge you?

Does age, setting make a difference?

How are you influenced by other peoples perception of you breastfeeding?

Or their possible reaction?

How do other peoples reaction/s, or potential reaction/s impact your choices in breastfeeding?

Do you feel it constrains you?

Limit your activities, the places you go?

Are breastfeeding women oversensitive?

Do our fears of negative reactions influence our behaviour?

How has the acceptance or perception of breastfeeding changed over time?
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