One of my three amazing sisters-in-law posted an article on Facebook recently about the lingering shame of breastfeeding in public. I agree; I think it’s a strange society indeed who uses sex to sell nearly anything, who maintains a thriving porn industry, who worships scantily-clad celebrities and models and even tries to dress like them while shopping at Walmart… yet who gasps audibly when faced with a mother breastfeeding her child in public.
I think we’ve got it backwards. We’ve oversexualized breasts to such a point that it seems dirty for a baby to actually feed from them. We don’t want to know about it, and we certainly don’t want to see it.
Apparently even doing it behind closed doors is not far enough away. An office coworker of mine who had just returned from her brief maternity leave used to use a locked storage closet to pump several times a day. Human Resources had helped her gain access to the closet, but came to her a few days later saying they’d have to find her a new one. Why? Because someone whose desk was nearby had complained. Was she making too much noise? No. Was she going in and out too often? No. What was it, then? The coworker was simply bothered by the fact that he knew what she was doing in there. Eww.
We’ve oversexualized breasts to such a point that one of the American expat wives who used to live here couldn’t bring herself to say it. She thought of it as a dirty word, so preferred to refer to her dinner or her grocery list as “chicken boobies” instead of “chicken breasts.” I always sort of thought it was the other way around, but adored her quirkiness nonetheless.
Here in Congo, you may not be surprised to find out there’s no such social stigma about breasts in public. But it’s also not the topless free-for-all you might be thinking of, like certain National Geographic specials on Wild Africa.
First of all, at least in our little village, women breastfeed their babies whenever and wherever they need to. I see it most often at the local market, where there are lots of women and lots of babies. In line with my Puritanesque cultural upbringing, I did find this shocking at first. After catching myself staring a half-second too long, I worked hard for months to completely avoid even a single glance in the southerly direction. Nowadays, though, I can squeeze the tomatoes for freshness and then hand over a stack of francs to a woman with a baby more or less latched onto her exposed boob, sometimes even engaging in conversation with her or cooing at the baby without the slightest care of what’s in its mouth. It’s just a food source.
Secondly, though breastfeeding in public is totally normal here, walking topless down the street is not. How do I know this? (Note to self, never try that again!! No, just kidding.) I gather this because we’ve only seen it once, and it caught not only our eye but the eye of everyone around.
One day a friend and I were driving down the street (being driven, I should say), when we saw her. This was not the center of town but a busy area close to the edge of town, and she was coming from the direction of the countryside. She was wearing a skirt and flip-flops, and there was a small child walking beside her. After staring at her for a few seconds, mostly out of confusion, I looked around and noticed that all the Congolese vendors who line the street were staring at her, too. But they weren’t covering their mouths in shock and awe, or pointing or laughing or calling at her. They were staring at her because it was so unusual. Perhaps they were even thinking the same thing I was thinking: “Poor girl is so poor she can’t even afford a shirt.” It would have been just as strange to see a man walking down the street topless, quite honestly.
As Julie Roberts reasons in the movie Notting Hill: “What’s the big deal? They’re just breasts. Every second person has them.”
(Sorry, no pictures in this one. We’re on an undersexualizing mission, remember? Get your mind out of the gutter!)
P.S. Happy birthday amazing sister-in-law!
Kudos to you for this bold post!
I think breastfeeding is one of the most intimate portraits of one of the most beautiful forms of love there is–that of a mother and her child. For some to think that it is disgusting to do so in public simply because of the sexual imagery often attached to breasts is saddening. Like what you’ve said, breasts have been oversexified nowadays. So much so that most forget that the primary function of the breast–Mammary glands!–is to provide milk and nurturing! It just so happens that female human breasts are such prominent figures both aesthetically and sexually that exposing them is for some, automatically vulgar. Sadly, it’s an image that has stuck for a long time, so I think it will take just as, if not even longer, for it to go away.
What is important is for the world to always remember that breastfeeding is king for babies up to two years old. Here in the Philippines, breast feeding is widely encouraged with public venues like malls and some private establishments required to have a breastfeeding area for nursing moms. While doing it in public is still frowned upon, I’ve seen several moms shrugging it off and doing it anyway. After all, a good mom can easily say, “Screw you world, my baby needs to eat!”
Kudos for your bravery in being a woman and for showing the world that there is no shame in being a mother no matter what the situation. I hope more women come to see it your way and help the world discard the image that comes with public breastfeeding faster. I hope you keep on writing such thought provoking, in your face, conventional prejudice articles. XD
Oh, and happy birthday to your sis-in-law! And tell her thanks for her FB post as well!
A very sweet and very complimentary comment, thank you! But I should clarify that I’m neither a mother nor particularly brave. This is just one of those things that stands out as culturally different here, so much so that it forces me to think about it. One of the benefits of living abroad! And the reason I share these stories.
Thanks for the info about the Philippines, nice to know breastfeeding is encouraged like that and women are strong enough to say, “Screw you world, my baby needs to eat!” That’s awesome.
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Wow thanks for the reply! 😀 Well even if you’re not a mother, the fact that you’re willing to talk about, more so write, about something that isn’t widely accepted in your culture takes a lot of courage. Two thumbs up for that! Public breastfeeding still isn’t as widely accepted here in the Philippines as well, but the stigma against it is something healthcare workers are trying to break down.
Keep on writing! ^_^
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You will be shocked, but in Poland women used to breastfeed anywhere (I was also breastfeeding, not in the streets, but at friends’ houses, not going for it to another room). Even on the bus or a train. I hope they still do and nobody is thinking that women expose their breasts.
Haha, that doesn’t surprise me at all! Poland rocks. Hope they still do it, too.
Thanks for sharing your experience where you live, and the stark contrast to other parts of the world. As a mother of 4 I have definitely experienced the narrow minded, oversexualized stigma that goes with breastfeeding. I was always respectful of other people and covered myself completely if I had to feed a child in a somewhat public area, but still got comments and stares. Unless any of those people were Clark Kent they could not see my breast under the blanket! I also had to go to HR to get permission to use a special room. On more than one occasion a co-worker would comment about “the sound” of the pump and how weird it made them feel. I even had someone comment to me about how “yucky” it was that I was unfreezing breast milk to feed to my baby. Clearly they were not bothered by the frozen aspect, just the breast milk aspect. Of course, I was always polite and courteous and never once yelled or made a small scene. Nor did I comment that if people looked at breasts as what they were created for instead of “titty toys” it would definitely make a larger impact on society. Nope. I’m too polite and demure for that!
Another great one!
Wow! I’m so sad for you, and other mothers, who had to hide and field comments about how “gross” breast milk and breastfeeding is. It should be the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. Seb says the bottle and formula makers did a great job convincing everyone that the best way to feed a baby is from a can. Sad.
These people who are offended by breastfeeding or any other organic processes are basically, for the most part, soulless drones. Commonly referred to as sheeple, those heavily-invested in inorganic illusory values. They have basically lost the ability, if ever they had it in the first place, to think critically. No one thinks, before they pass judgement “Hang on a minute. I was a baby once, wanting healthy milk.” I suppose how could you when you were never fed healthy milk yourself?
To be fair it’s not entirely their fault though. This conceptual idea – that the human body is shameful – stems from the ages old bogus original sin brainwashing story. When Eve apparently tempted Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – her body. Well the rest is HIS story – literally and figureatively.
In the name of so-called progress. It’s totally acceptable to fry your brain with mobile phones and pickle your liver and brain with alcohol. Even drink cows milk which is, ahem, actually meant for cows, but never mind that. DAMN YOU! If you should humbly expose a breast to give your hungry baby; life-supporting, nutrient-rich healthy mothers milk. This is the kind of insanity we’re confronting individually and collectively on a global scale, like never before. Whenever I see a woman breast-feeding in public,r I send her positive vibes. I encourage anyone reading this to do the same.This energy will support and protect that mother and child in ways you cannot conceive. Ultimately it will heal us all, who have lost our way 🙂
Being a breastfeeding mother at the moment, I’m glad to see that most people I emcounter seen to be very tolerant and encouraging of breastfeeding. I’m definitely one of the mums that breastfeeds in public without a cover. I am careful of flashing my boob for everyone to stare at. I think the answer is quite simple, if it makes you uncomfortable then simply look away. One thing that does bug me is the misunderstanding that most people, especially the older generations have about how long to breastfeed. 3-5-12 months is acceptable but if you want to go longer it seems like people don’t understand why. Can’t really blame them though, back in the day it really wasn’t encouraged and formula was advertised as a really good alternative.
In the package that I got from the midwife there was a flyer talking about the risks of formula feeding. Higher risks of certain chronic illness…. Thanks for the bday wishes! Édith made me a cake and I had some awesome Sauvignon blanc:)