The One Thing My Mom Said About Breastfeeding Opened My Eyes To The Stigma Moms Face
Approximately two weeks after my daughter, Luna, was born, I thought it time to introduce her to a pair of family friends (the kind who are more family than friends). Into my living room flooded my mother- and father-in-law, my partner, the couple we had invited over, and my own mom. We sipped tea and ate chocolate biscuits, each one of us worshipping at the alter of baby for what felt like hours. Until the baby started to scream, that is — because she was ready for some breastfeeding. In that moment, most of the room's inhabitants started to sneak out for refills on their drinks. I assumed they'd be back shortly, but took the opportunity to move to the comfier chair that I'd learned was more conducive to feeding. I grabbed my nursing pillow, put a cozy blanket on top of it, and started unbuttoning my shirt. As I undid the clasp covering my right breast, I asked my mom to please hand me my baby.
"You're not going to feed in here, are you?" she asked. "Marie, isn't that kind of indecent?" Indecent. The word, originally spoken in my mother's native language, Spanish, etched themselves into my memory. I knew it was a moment I'd think about for years, looking back upon it if ever my own daughter had a child of her own.
"Why not?" I asked. "There's nothing 'indecent' about feeding your child."
I adore my mother beyond a doubt. But I also recognize that she grew up in a devoutly Catholic home in Colombia. A child of the '50s in a country where the '50s may as well have been the 1800s, she would be an adult, a mother, a wife, a middle-aged person before the word feminism made it onto her radar in any meaningful way.
As a child and teen, her grandmothers and great aunts handed down a whole medley of questionable lessons. Things like: "Men must never see you naked. When it comes time for intercourse with your husband, make sure you've cut a hole in your nightgown so that you do not need to undress." "Wear long skirts, floor-length dresses, or trousers if you want to avoid negative attention on the street. Men cannot control themselves; it's up to you to be modest." "Never breastfeed in public. Your breasts are sexual; immoral. No one needs to see them."
We're taught to "be sexy," but equally conditioned to believe that "girls don't like sex," or, at least, that they shouldn't.
My generation, however, is a little more keen on interrogating whether such fear over one's body is justified, or rooted in prejudice and subjugation.
That female and otherwise feminine bodies are still the subject of much stigmatization and shame should not come as a surprise to many. Parts of our anatomy — be it our breasts or our asses — are regularly deemed inherently sexual and subsequently something to cover up in embarrassment. Never mind that breasts and the mammary glands that so often accompany them are one of the prime characteristics of mammals and arguably more rooted in evolution and survival than sex. At some point, they became a sex thing, nonetheless. And sexuality, as it applies to women anyway, isn't something we're often encouraged to flaunt.
Except when we are. Existing as a woman or feminine person means existing in a sea of contradictions. As artist Daisy Bernard showcased in one particular illustration, women are called "sluts" when they wear revealing clothing, but "frigid" when we cover up. We are told to "show off [our] assets," while simultaneously encouraged to "leave something to the imagination." We're taught to "be sexy," but equally conditioned to believe that "girls don't like sex," or, at least, that they shouldn't. These contradictions and uncomfortable juxtapositions inevitably create fear and repression surrounding the female or feminine form.
When I made the decision to breastfeed, I also made the decision to breastfeed wherever I may be.
So then we come to boobs and mothers; mothers and boobs. There's still a ton of stigma out there surrounding formula-feeding one's child, a practice labeled everything from "lazy" on the mom's part to "detrimental to the kid" from a health perspective. But, equally, there's still a ton of stigma out there surrounding breastfeeding one's child in public, or (in my case) at home in the company of anyone besides my mom or husband.
Like so much of womanhood, it's a no-win situation. But when I made the decision to breastfeed, I also made the decision to breastfeed wherever I may be. Sure, there are times when pumping into a bottle is essential (like when I'm leaving my daughter with her dad or grandparent for a few hours or we're going to be at the grocery store where there's nowhere to sit down and take out my tits), but most of the time I'm happy to feed my baby no matter what, regardless of who I'm with, where I am, or what passerby might have to say about it. If anything, I welcome disdainful remarks about public breastfeeding as it helps me better isolate who I'd rather not be spending time with.
The situation becomes a little trickier when it comes to disdain from family members, though. When I think about my mother now versus my mother 10 years ago, the shifts in her thinking are tangible. Despite her upbringing and former mindset, she is a good ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. She does not condemn young couples who choose to live together out of wedlock, nor does she even have that big an issue with marijuana anymore.
I reject the belief that my boobs are shameful; and that I should subsequently be ashamed of letting anyone see them during a feed. I seriously reject any correlation made between breastfeeding and indecency or impropriety.
But, clearly, certain perspectives on breastfeeding and the female body in general leave something to be desired. What her comments about semi-public breastfeeding reminded me of, however, is that she's not remotely alone in thinking this way.
Hell, given the cultural climate in the United States right now, millions of women feel more at risk of losing autonomy over their bodies than they have in years. Something the election cycle leading up to Donald Trump's victory proved is simply that those sea of contradictions framing womanhood are still alive and well. We shouldn't be having sex for reasons other than reproduction. Simultaneously, we should maintain a level of conventional beauty and sex appeal, lest we want to be called "pigs" or "slobs." We also shouldn't be trusted to govern our bodies or make our own choices at all. We're just women, after all.
Breastfeeding your child, however, is a right. It's an intrinsic, mammalian, evolutionary, maternal right. I reject the implication that my breasts are inherently sexual. I reject the Freudian notion that follows said implication — that the bond between my daughter and me is rooted in anything but the unconditional (and non-sexual) love between a parent and kid. I reject the belief that my boobs are shameful; and that I should subsequently be ashamed of letting anyone see them during a feed. I seriously reject any correlation made between breastfeeding and indecency or impropriety.
According to Google, the definition of "indecent" is "not conforming with generally accepted standards of behavior, especially in relation to sexual matters." Similarly, the definition of "improper" is "not in accordance with accepted standards, especially of morality or honesty." In a culture that sexualizes breasts and correlates female anatomy to something dangerous and condemnable, I can see how breastfeeding in public (or otherwise surrounded by people) might fit the criteria of both of these words. However, what I'm pushing for is a reevaluation of women's bodies entirely.
Our bodies needn't be perceived as inherently sexual. In fact, our sexuality varies individual-to-individual and is for no one but ourselves to define. Our boobs? Yeah, maybe take a second to think about the fact that our mammary glands are part of what makes us mammals. Seriously, we undoubtedly have boobs for reasons far beyond appealing to a masculine mate.
And as for feeding our children, well, I believe anyone who has a problem with this should deeply consider the "why?" Why is it that a mother feeding her child is so wrong? Why is it that you cannot consider a woman or her body in contexts beyond sexualization? What do you think that says about you? As for me, I'll continue to breastfeed my child regardless of my environment. I'll continue to do so because my body is not just a collection of sexual bits and pieces for the consumption of others.