Thursday, August 7, 2008

You Dirty Breast Feeding Woman

image Can there be anything more natural than a woman breastfeeding her child? For those that are successful at it, it can be a moment of complete bonding and nurturing.

Unfortunately because the female body is always, already sexualized this natural act has taken on an air of perversion to some, thus forcing women to hide away from public view as though they are performing a shameful act.  Manuela Valle discovered how shameful when, she was ushered into a change room at at an H&M store in downtown Vancouver, for fear that her breastfeeding in public "might make some customers offended".

According to CBC, "Valle said she was politely hustled off to a change room by staff, as they chatted with other staff on radios, making her feel like a shoplifter paraded in front of the other customers."

"It seemed as if I had been stealing or something, so I was very humiliated. Everybody in the store was looking at me as if I'm getting arrested, and I said out loud, 'I am getting arrested for breastfeeding my baby,'" Valle said.

"They were actually pushing her into it. I became upset at that point," said Francisco Valle, her husband.

It is not the act of breast feeding that people have objection to, it is the breast they find offensive.  What is at issue is what body parts have been socially constructed as existing for sexual gratification.  The female breast has been constructed as  sexual, largely due to the male gaze.  Though women can, and do receive sexual gratification from them being caressed, kissed, etc, their primary function is to feed children, and that is what is overlooked in the social construction of female breasts.

Female genitalia are considered dirty by society, whether it is the supposed smell emanating from our vaginas, or our multi functioning breasts, the fact that men receive sexual excitement, and or gratification makes them dirty.  Consider that menstruating is still considered taboo despite the fact that it is part of our natural biological process.  We are taught to find shame in our bodies and restrict any display for fear that the dirtiness of womanhood is offensive to all. I submit that it is not womanhood, or womens bodies that are dirty and foul, rather it is how they have been constructed that is ultimately the issue.

When H&M forced Manuela Valle  into a change room they effectively converted a natural biological process into something filthy.  How dare she as a woman believe that she had the right to publicly breast feed when the world "knows" that breasts are for male pleasure.  Even at the risk of breaking the law and not following their own policies the desire to police women came naturally to them. It seems that unless the body is on display for the sexual gratification of men it is simply inappropriate.  Breast feeding is an act of gender performance is actually uplifting to women and to deny us that right only serves to sustain patriarchal control over female bodies. If men can say where and when we reveal our breasts, then ultimately we have no control over our physical selves.


Maria said...

I've grown up in this culture all my life, but I STILL CANNOT UNDERSTAND the idea that people might be "offended". That concept seems totally foreign to me. It's like speaking in a language I just don't understand and then telling me 2+2=8909.

I mean, everyone knows breasts produce milk for babies to drink, right? THEN WHAT'S THE FUCKING PROBLEM? She's feeding her kid. I don't understand how that could possibly be offensive to anyone....I mean, what, are people secretly jealous or something?

I just can't wrap my head around it.

Tina said...

There are a number of US states that have actually passed laws protecting a mother's right to breastfeed in public. I note that women in British Columbia also have that right protected. I don't know if she has a private cause of action under that law or not.

Needless to say, I'm not shopping at any American H&M stores any time soon.

Lindsay said...

My aunt breastfeeds/ed her three kids and she said she really enjoys the connection it gives her with her children. Why must we stigmatize that?

Is there anyway to display the female body without it being sexualized? I really don't think so... it's sad.

Nice post.

Renee said...

@Linday I think that the approval when it is sexualized is very problematic. most low cut tops reveal more of a breast than a woman who is breastfeeding. Most women will attempt to cover their breasts and only expose what is necessary to feed.

maggotx said...

I sat in Disneyland last month watching a parade go by while a woman breastfed her son right next to me, out in the open, hundreds of people across the way witness to the whole scandalous expose and not one person so much as raised an eyebrow. No cast member interfered, no one in the parade stopped to gawk though they walked right up to us to shake the little one's hands, everyone seemed fine with it, so much so that I didn't even remember the event to tell anyone about it until right now.

Now if a woman can casually expose herself at the icon of America's child friendly theme parks, why the heck can't this store reconcile themselves to the idea that the Puritan era is over. They lost the culture war, we have to move on.