Friday, November 17, 2006

What are we afraid of when we are offended by nursing mothers?

The Breasts on a Plane incident has me thinking on so many levels. I'm going to keep writing about it throughout the day. It feels like this is what blogs were invented for!

The backlash comments I've come across that tell Emily Gillette and her supporters that they are overreacting sound something like this (excerpted from public discussion boards on MomsRising.org Critics represented a minority opinion but there were a handful of them):

Good grief, stop "victim stancing"! If you were considerate enough of others to choose a discrete [sic] aisle and a discrete seat at the back of the plane, why not also be considerate enough to cover your breast discretely with a blanket? Big deal, just do it. Just because you're sitting at the back of the plane next to a window doesn't mean there aren't still people sitting around you who feel uncomfortable at the sight of your breast flopped out. I'm all for breastfeeding, but there's a dignified way to do it, and flopping it out like Ma Kettle is NOT the way to win converts to The Cause.

***

Half the world is at war, killing from greed or corruption. Let's not sweat the small stuff, like do you actually need to subject yourself to covering up your breast with a blanket while you breastfeed your still perfectly happy child.

First of all, I want everyone to imagine what it would feel like to be settled into an airplane seat with your child and husband, and to be actually kicked off that flight. Can you imagine the humiliation you would feel, not to mention the inconvenience? I don't believe anyone who says that this experience, if they it actually happened to them, would qualify as "small stuff." For those who still think Emily Gillette is making a big deal of nothing, it's important to remember that she was already protected by the law, which needs to be enforced. Interestingly, from what I've been able to find, this story did not come to the news media's attention until after Gillette had filed a complaint against the airline with the Vermont Human Rights commission.

Big Question: What are We Afraid Of when we are offended by nursing Moms?

The cultural question that comes to my mind when we think about our discomfort with breastfeeding is, What are we afraid of? I think we're dealing with at least three separate types of fear and revulsion that we may not even be aware of. This is worth thinking about because as linguist George Lakoff has shown through his work, our unconscious cognitive frameworks have a powerful influence on how we look at the world. Here are my thoughts on the topic of the breastfeeding controversy and what is really bothering us:

First, I sense a squeamishness about bodily functions. I think that for many of us, breastfeeding is mentally grouped into the same category as urination or defecation rather than nutrition. Nursing in public is seen as undignified or gross, like pissing in pubic. No one would suggest that we serve dinner in the bathroom but many nursing or pumping mothers are shunted into bathroom stalls.

This squeamishness is related to the fact that our culture as over-sexualized breasts to the point where they are thought of as "private parts" and therefore shouldn't be shown in public. Perhaps men are so used to being turned on by breasts that they are disturbed to see breasts being used in a non-sexual way. The catch-22 with all this is that the less breastfeeding is done in public, the less normal it seems.

At the root of this issue I believe there is a fear of women's power. This fear shows up as "Who does she think she is to whip out her boob in public?" Females of all ages are still contstrained to narrow path of safety in our culture. We are constantly at risk of being labeled as a bitch of dyke if we are "too frigid" or a slut if we are "too sexual." And the definition of what is "too much" or "too little" is out of women's hands. Straying off this path makes a woman fair game for criticism, even when she has done nothing wrong. When I taught high school my teenage students were publicly harassed on a daily basis as they moved through their city, being called bitches or sluts when they did not give thirty-year-old male passersby the attention they demanded.

A woman breastfeeding in public does not fit comfortably in our cultural script. She activates our discomfort and ambivalence by falling outside the boundaries of our defined categories. If she nurses her child in private, or maybe even "discreetly enough" in public, then she's a Madonna (Jesus' Mom, not the pop star). But if she "flashes her boob" too much for our comfort zone, even if it's our fault that we just can't help but stare, does that make her a whore?

I argue that breastfeeding in public is a radical act, one that we should all encourage and support mothers to take up proudly. Nursing in public proclaims our right to exist in the world as women and mothers, on our own terms. Nursing in public shows that we can courageously respond to the eternal challenge "Who does she think she is?" with our heads held high.

17 Comments:

Blogger Devra said...

I am completely supportive of any mother feeding their child in public in private, whether it be breast or bottle, whatevah.

What I am curious about is once the flight attendant made the suggestion regarding the blanket, how the family then responded.

If the family responded in a manner consistent with road rage, then there may have been cause to escort them off the aircraft. But at this point we just don't know all the pieces to what happened.

I also agree with Amy that Americans in general do have a difficult time with separating "breast as provider of food" and "breast as provider of fun".

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a terrific post. I have a really hard time understanding why people (women) are not allowed to feed their kids. I was a pretty militant breast-feeding mom, but even here in Georgia I had no problems. I nursed my 22-month-old on a plane all the way to and from Alaska - no problems. I have to feel that this issue is confined to a few benighted people, like the flight attendent in question. I'm sorry the mom didn't put up a fuss at the time - there may have been passengers who would have rallied around her.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Radical Catholic Mom said...

Great post! I am saying the same thing over at my blog, too.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Breastfeeding is the best. If anything the bottle fed family should be asked to cover up! Bottle feeding is the lazy way out! A disgrace!

4:28 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

I do not condone wholesale slagging of bottle feeding. There are too many factors here to call it just a matter of individual choice. As we've learned about just about every aspect of feminism and motherhood, we have to look at the structural issues involved. I am planning a future blog posting on this issue. A one-paragraph primer on this approach was posted by Miriam Peskowitz:

"We need to make sure that mothers are socially protected in states that actually give them the right to breastfeed in public. We really need activism for a federal law, so that this protection won't be so patchwork. Major irony: the proliferation of scary, 'You must breastfeed' billboards, sponsored by the federal government, in states where breastfeeding isn't even legal."

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personaly can't understand why a nursing mother must put a blanket over her child in order to feed him/her, any adult would be outraged to have to sit under a warm blanket in the summer in order just to eat. When can we look beyond breasts as means to feed our children, and not just in a sexual light.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous zoeysmom said...

No I do not feel like putting a blanket over my already sweaty baby. Not only that, but if she happens to pop off because she is curious of her surroundings I have to fight over a blanket to locate her mouth to attach to my nipple. The worst part is that women are the critical ones. Not Men!! And the women who have been critical of me are the ones feeding milk byproducts to their children. I don't walk up to them and say, "Shame on you for feeding your baby that crap. Shame on you for not giving your baby the best." I do not care (luckily) anymore about peoples reaction. I simply feed the child that I love when she is hungry rather than care about some woman I don't care for in the first place.

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No I do not feel like putting a blanket over my already sweaty baby. Not only that, but if she happens to pop off because she is curious of her surroundings I have to fight over a blanket to locate her mouth to attach to my nipple. The worst part is that women are the critical ones. Not Men!! And the women who have been critical of me are the ones feeding cow milk byproducts to their children. I don't walk up to them and say, "Shame on you for feeding your baby that crap. Shame on you for not giving your baby the best." I do not care (luckily) anymore about peoples' reaction. I simply feed the child that I love when she is hungry rather than care about some woman I don't care for in the first place.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't the family react with rage? What if a flight attendant called YOU offensive and asked you to put a blanket over your head while you ate. Same thing. Not a metaphor; it's the SAME THING.
By the way, I don't have kids and am not at all the first to jump to the defense of parents...I actually think that many think that the world revolves around them & their little ones. However, I'm a fair person and breastfeeding is natural. Anyway who has a problem with it has issues of their own to get over!!

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How 'Bout anyone who has a problem with a baby eating in public put a blanket over their own head?

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"How 'Bout anyone who has a problem with a baby eating in public put a blanket over their own head? "
This is the best idea I have heard ever!

This whole ordeal makes me wish I still had a nursling. I just love the movement this situation has created. All these moms and dad and other informed citizens rallying behind her to once again let it be known that we will not hide in a bathroom or under a blanket so our child can eat. I hope this falls in line with the Burger King and Starbucks incidents as embarassments to the corporations. By simply raising our voices and being heard we are effecting big changes and hopefully the world will be better for it!

2:37 PM  
Anonymous UnMartyred Mom said...

I do think that the uproar about this is great. Anytime people pay attention to the incredible challenges of motherhood, we all benefit. And yet, it seems all too easy to take sides here. Who could argue that a mother shouldn't be allowed to feed her child in the most natural way possible?

What would happen, if instead, we tried to get inside the psychology of that flight attendant and the policy that she believed she was enforcing? Do we know anything about it? I haven't been following closely enough to know the answer.

Furthermore, as a boomer, I actually have trouble with these word verifications!

12:55 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hey Unmartyred Mom--Two quick points in response to your comment. I agree that it's the psychology of what has people bothered about this that is the interesting place to explore.

And I can't do half of the word verifications, either. Think of it as demonstrating just how good character-recognition software must be these days that they have to make them so illlegible to determine if there is really a person there! (I swear that after getting one or two wrong, Blogger started giving me easier ones. I wonder if that's just my imagination.)

3:21 PM  
Blogger MommyWithAttitude said...

This was a great perspective. I am just shocked by people's reactions to breastfeeding.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Breastfeeding in public shouldn't be a radical act. It's the most normal, natural thing in the world and I'm so disturbed by people who describe it as "gross." I'm a breastfeeding mom and, unfortunately, I've received the nasty looks and heard the muttered comments. Luckily no one has ever had the gall to say anything to my face, but I'm uncomfortable enough with the looks to go out of my way to avoid nursing in public. But when you're trapped on a plane, it's not like you have much choice in the matter. Very occassionally, I'll receive a positive comment from another woman and, once, a man. Those positive comments help so much. So I've vowed to go out of my way to tell nursing moms that I see "Way to go!"

(I can also tell everyone from personal experience that it is impossible to cover up many babies (other than newborns) with a blanket. My son enjoys ripping the blanket away, even if I've anchored it into my bra strap. So I can completely understand why the VT woman declined the blanket.)

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello,
I am breastfeeding my 15 month old son and I can understand how this mother feels who was kicked off the plane. Its pretty difficult to put a blanket over an older babies head. This can only be achieved with babies who are less that 3 months old in most cases. My son gets hot under a blanket and he pulls the blanket off. You still can't really see anything unless your trying to. Most of my breast is covered by my shirt while the rest is covered by my sons head. This way he can feed with comfort and no one can really see anything. Geez people act like we topless and nursing or something. That is not the case.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I once breastfed my 15 month old on a plane squashed in the middle seat between two total strangers (one a young man, the other and older man). She nursed and slept for the entire 3 hour flight. I consider that more desirable than having her scream the entire flight. I'm sure my neighbors agreed. They didn't say anything, not even sure they know what we were doing.

I did not use a blanket, but I also was not "exposed" in any way.

12:38 PM  

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