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!