A Meditation on Public Breastfeeding

…and now for something completely frivolous.

I saw a clip pop up on my Facebook timeline this morning in defense of breastfeeding in public.  I’ve seen a couple of these kinds of videos on the past, attacking those who are disgusted by public breastfeeding.  The point they’re trying to make is pretty straightforward.  A)A substantial number of people are offended by the sight of women breastfeeding in public.  B)Many of these same people have no problem with women showing a lot of of cleavage in public.  C)Because they react to one public display of breasts but not another, these people are being inconsistent and hypocritical.

Personally, I don’t feel strongly about public breastfeeding.  I rarely see it, but when I do I’m not particularly bothered by it.  Of course, I’m a social worker who lives in the hood, so I’m used to seeing outlandish things, anyway.  Moms cussing out their small children like they were grown people, heroin addicts throwing up in trash cans, homeless people asleep in the stairwell outside my apartment, whatever.  Things that don’t immediately threaten me don’t tend to faze me.  I can tell you my sister is on her 4th baby, and she’ll start breastfeeding most anywhere.  It makes me slightly uncomfortable, only on account of the fact that she’s my sister.  But, that baby is hungry, and it would hardly be practicable for her to find a secluded spot every single time he wanted feeding.  It would make it impossible for her to do any activity, engage in any sustained conversation.  She’d be shut up in the house all the time.  And then I wouldn’t get to enjoy her company.  So for both our sakes, I don’t fault her in the slightest.

But I do enjoy playing devil’s advocate from time to time, and I must say, I don’t think the people who make these videos have properly addressed the nuances of the controversy here.  Plus I’ve never seen a video against public breastfeeding, so I don’t think both sides of the issue are being fairly represented.  As a male in his 20s with no children who has never so much as changed a diaper in my life, it would be selfish of me not to lend my expert perspective to the subject of public breastfeeding versus cleavage.  Allow me to proceed.

The short answer here is: the nipple.  Whether we’re talking about dresses, low-cut tops, or skimpy bikinis, in women’s dress it’s always understood that the nipple will be covered.  The rest of the breast is up for debate, representing varying degrees of sexual suggestion but not private per se.  As near as I can tell, if we looked at it like a pie, the inner top third or so of the breast is socially acceptable for display, with the other two thirds considered increasingly provocative.  But it’s not proper nudity unless the nipple is showing.

Consider the eyebrows raised briefly over Lil Kim’s dress at the MTV Awards back in the day:

…versus the historic national scandal of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”:

The only logical explanation?  Nipple exposure.

Of course, it’s not as if public breastfeeders are waving their nipples around like flags.  Still, it can’t remain covered by cloth.  It has to be exposed, at least briefly and from the right angle, because that’s how breastfeeding works.  It may or may not be visible, but in any case, it’s out.  Thus, breastfeeding and cleavage ought to be regarded as separate categories.

The other key difference is that while cleavage is merely the partial display of a body part, breastfeeding represents a bodily function.  Cleavage is as notable for what it conceals as what it displays, like the wrapping on a present.  The allure is more superficial.  By contrast, with breastfeeding, two people are having a physically and biologically intimate moment.  Fluids are being discharged.  Something deeply personal and private is happening, even if it may be in a public space.  By comparison, seeing two teenagers at the mall holding hands may provoke no response, but when they start sticking their tongues in each other’s mouths, bystanders look at them askance.  Or, as a slightly more crude example, one may admire a woman’s glutular curves, but it doesn’t mean they would want to watch her defecate.  Again…body part versus body function.

As I said, I don’t personally care too much about breastfeeding in public.  I’m not a generally squeamish person, or much of a germaphobe.  I’m pretty tolerant of a wide range of human behaviors.  And as a general rule, I think we should be kindly disposed toward the needs and conveniences of women caring for infants, as they are engaged in a vital, demanding, and unselfish task from which society as a whole stands to benefit.  But it’s not totally crazy to me to think that some might have a negative reaction to public breastfeeding, and that such people are being neither hypocritical nor misogynistic.  We may not agree with them, but we should at least make a better effort to understand their grievances.  It’s time we as a people moved forward in this important conversation.