Monday, January 30, 2012

Cultural Covering of Breastfeeding

I wrote a long post on this topic last night, but my husband put the kibosh on it, saying that I would probably offend people.  I decided to try again.  Please know that I am sincerely not trying to offend people with my opinion.  This post is not directed at the individual, but rather our culture. Please read with an open mind.

I posted this week on the BFBS Facebook page my belief that the breastfeeding covers have done more to hurt the NIP (Nursing in Public) cause than help it.  Before I go on, I know plenty of people that use the covers.  I am glad that they are breastfeeding and not giving their baby a bottle of formula.  I realize that for some women, it's all they can do to actually be out in public breastfeeding, even with a cover.  I've had moms come to childbirth class reunions and wear the covers and say, "Screw you, Donna, I'm using it!"  I don't really care.  I really don't.  I love them for that.  I really don't care about the individual use of the covers.  I am, however, concerned about the perpetual use -- the expectation that all breastfeeding women should cover -- that concerns me.   I think women are being told to cover up more often because of the covers.

We all know that the breasts are totally sexualized in the United States.  Breasts are sexual, like it or not.  I'm not going to tell you to not think of breasts that way.  But it is OK that they have a function too.  People -- men and women -- are uncomfortable with this.  We see breasts and cleavage hanging out everywhere we go, but using them in a functional way, to nourish a baby through sucking at the breast, makes just about everyone uncomfortable. We want rights and we demand that everyone not sexualize the breast, but then we wear the covers which, in effect, hides their function.

Several people commented on the Facebook page that they were concerned about men, teenagers, and children being exposed to breastfeeding.  This perpetuates the problem, that we are not allowing them to be around breastfeeding.  I've seen people make comments that "Everyone knows what's going on under there," but that's not necessarily true.  A lot of people have no idea what's going on under there because they've never witnessed a woman breastfeeding, especially if everyone is using these covers!  Children don't know what you are doing.  Teenagers probably don't know either.  Even if they do, it is obvious that you are hiding it, so by the very nature of the hiding behavior, it must be shameful or embarrassing.  They do not learn that breasts serve another purpose besides sexual excitement. 

I was at the park with a friend a couple of years ago who had a nursing baby.  My children were back and forth from the picnic table, but my son (then about 12), was hanging out at the table with us.  She always breastfed anywhere, so I was surprised when she asked if she should cover or go sit in her car.  For a split second, I thought maybe she should cover.  I immediately told her of course not.  Feed her baby.  She did, and Daymon didn't even bat an eye.  He didn't try to look away or look uncomfortable.  I think he was already aware that breasts have a function and the baby needed to nurse.

Likewise, my girls have never acted weird about it either.  They see women breastfeeding in our house all the time.  They don't look away or act embarrassed.  It's just how women feed their babies.  But I don't act weird about it -- or even draw attention to it -- and so they don't either.  Occasionally  I will have someone using a cover and at least one of my girls will stare.  She'll look confused, knowing there was a baby in her lap before, but now they are all covered up.  She has no idea she is feeding her baby.

I am happy you are choosing to breastfeed. I just want women to have confidence in themselves to breastfeed in public.  There are so many ways to wear your clothing.  You do not have to be immodest to not use a cover.  I believe that our children -- and husbands -- will be more excepting of breastfeeding and it will become accepted, not shameful, if women will just casually nurse their babies without hiding.  People often say they are covering because it makes them more comfortable, and this is what makes me sad -- that they are made to feel uncomfortable in our society. 

I realize that you may sweat bullets when you have to nurse in public.  It is stressful for some women. I don't want women to feel like they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.  All I am trying to get across is that if you feel like you could easily handle nursing in public without a cover, from a cultural perspective, I think it's good for people to see women proudly breastfeeding.   If you just can't get over it, then by all means, use a cover, knowing you are doing the best you can.  I promise I won't say a single thing to you if I see you using a cover!

Before I let you go, I wanted to show you the bathroom my students -- and everyone else that comes to my house -- uses.  It is devoted to pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.  It's gorgeous!  For some, it's probably their only exposure to breastfeeding!  Enjoy.  If you come to my house, don't forget to ask to use my bathroom. 

"Breastfeeding is a mother's gift to herself, her child, and the earth."


Kathryn said...

I feel exactly the same way. You put it perfectly!

After my first was born, I was super nervous about nursing in public and would usually just leave the room if I could, or cover. Unfortunately, I quit breastfeeding her quite early. But, for whatever reason, after my second was born I had a lot more confidence and never tried to cover at all. I am kind of a shy person, but it just made sense not to use one.

Now, with my fourth, I will nurse anytime, anywhere, without a cover. I have only ever had people say nice things when they noticed what I was doing. One of the nicest compliments I had was from another mom at church who said that I was "such a natural" at breastfeeding. She used a cover and I think it made her feel quite awkward.

Tom and Juli said...

I couldn't agree with you more! Especially the part about not needing a cover to be modest. I feel like when I'm nursing without a cover, even if I'm not showing a thing, people think I'm immodest just because I don't have that huge tarp over me. It's ridiculous. Sure when the baby pulls off you might see something, but I'm pretty quick about it and you would have to be looking very closely or just have awesome timing to see anything.

Kylie said...

I'm not at all offended by your post, and I absolutely agree with you that it's important to normalize breastfeeding. But this sort of conversation makes mamas feel like they can't win. Being told NOT to cover up by a breastfeeding advocate can be just as frustrating as being told TO cover up by an ignorant bystander. It starts to make you feel like you can't simply feed your baby without being a political pawn or an ambassador for something.

I always chose to cover when nursing my daughter outside the home, for my own comfort, and I will do so with future children. It's not about other people's comfort or education. Breastfeeding is personal and intimate and I felt more secure with a cover, just as some mamas feel more secure without. I would never judge those who don't use a cover and accuse them of setting us back, and I'd hope they would show me the same understanding.

Tom and Juli said...

I just had to add this, it's a picture of my breastfeeding with no cover. I dare anyone to say it's immodest or I should shield men away from it with a huge tent. :)

Liene said...

Here in France I have yet to see a mother with any qualms about breastfeeding in public without a cover, in fact I'm not sure they even sell covers. Although I fully support every mother's right to use one, I thank you for a refreshing post on a trend I see as encouraging the limiting of my rights to breastfeed in public.

Laura: The Sushi Snob said...

It's kind of ironic that in Utah Mormon culture, you're pretty much expected to use the Mother's Room or cover up...because of modesty after all. And yet, if you go back into history, you'll find that when women couldn't even show an ankle without causing a scandal, they could breastfeed in public without anyone blinking an eye.

Look here:

Oh, the irony.

Marlene Dotterer said...

Yes! Like you, I am becoming a bit more pedantic about breastfeeding. I'm tired of no one understanding what breasts are for, and I'm tired of women being self-conscious about it. So many of today's young mothers are the same people who will go to a club in the skimpiest attire, or watch music videos with women being used as sex objects, yet they will not breastfeed their baby in their own living room if company is there. This is seriously wrong.

I'll admit it. I breastfed all five of my children and I never worried about using a cover unless it was cold. I wore long, loose shirts that I could easily lift up on one side. The baby's body covered my midriff and her head covered most of the breast that might peak out from under the shirt. Women need to realize that it's not hard, and it's not shameful, to breastfeed.

Mama Birth said...

I just had to throw out there that N was always "uncomfortable" with your belly cast- because he could see your breast shape! Now that, really cracks me up! He would be like " I see her at church!"

speedymom said...

I liked the link with all the ladies nursing in church. Also, on facebook there is a great page called "Historical Photos & Prints of Breastfeeding" I am amazed that before the inventions of nursing bras tank tops and all kinds of things, women just unbuttoned the top of their dress and did the "up and over" thing that I am too shy to do now! And no one even batted an eyelash! The really sad thing to me is that I saw an old photo of Cynthia Ann Parker nursing her daughter Prairie Flower as a toddler, and I thought it was the most poignant picture ( if you research the tragic backstory) Then, in an educational childrens library book, they edited out the breast and said she was "holding her"!! No wonder kids have no idea that nursing is normal if we treat is as something taboo!

Hannah said...

@Kylie: She is definitely not telling moms they MUST cover. She is saying that there are advantages to breastfeeding not being always/usually covered and that people shouldn't feel like nursing uncovered is immodest.
Also, although breastfeeding is special, I am curious why you would use the word "intimate". Is it more intimate than feeding a baby via bottle, spoon, or cup? To me it is not necessarily intimate. Also, since "intimate" is often used in the context of sexuality (although not always) I don't particularly like to use that word for breastfeeding, since our culture is so confused about breastfeeding being sexual. I do understand that it is a time of bonding, though.

Anyway, great post. I feel sad when my friends feel compelled (not by me, but just by the culture in general) to nurse in a back room of my house with a nursing cover, missing out on conversations, meals, etc.

In addition, I had a friend who consoled me that she wasn't sad to miss a particular event (a hike) because "it would be so inconvenient with breastfeeding, you know".

Mary said...

Hi, Donna! I just wrote a blog post in response to this one. It started off as a comment but was getting to be a novel. This is a really interesting topic.

Lvly Rita said...

I check into your blog periodically just to be encouraged to do what I feel is right... from non-medicated childbirth to breastfeeding whenever/wherever baby is hungry.

I'm trying to keep a total of the places I've bf: aisles of store, dentist, church, restaurants, library... the list shall continue to grow as baby and I get out more often (he's just 2 months now).

I was really happy today when my 10 year old daughter asked how babies ate if they didn't have a mom. It didn't occur that there would be anything else (although there are occasions when it is good that there is formula- adoption for one!)

Thanks again for all of your articles.

Stephanie vB said...

I am a fairly young mom, of a 2.5 y/o who is still breastfed once (twice or three times if dealing with a 'bug') a day. I am 13 weeks pregnant and even though I have a drop in breastmilk, I am always an advocate of breastfeeding. When my son was born, I was turning 26, and being close to a mall, the only place I could go to feel "normal" again was to walk around that mall with my little bundle in tow (and most times attached with a sling). When I would sit down to breastfeed, I would get some really weird looks, mostly from older generation folks. At first I felt like I was embaressed, and as I grew more confident in my baby's need for nourishment RIGHT THEN, I was not going to the the uncomfortable BFing room where the couches had marble slabs on the arm rests that my baby could smack his head on. Instead I proudly whipped out a boob and fed, and most times discreetly with my scarf over top of the "exposed chest" because I wore plenty of shirts that I could just pull down. But I never covered that boob. My son would NOT have it. He needed to see me, look into my eyes and touch my face. I never refused him, and he is still so tactile, loving, compassionate and interested in babies being breastfed (he once said, in 2.5 y/o speak: "Mama give bubbas, baby sad," when a little baby was crying and crying at the mall!). I could never ask for anything more profound than that. said...

I cover when I breastfeed in public, but I let it all hang out at home. I do not think my boys are damaged by that! I think its healthy for all of our children to witness. BUT, I really don't want to flash my neighbors son my boobs, so... I cover if he's over. :D

Doesn't bother me if I see some nursing boobage, though!

Joy@WhenDoesDaddyComeHome said...

Didn't offend me one bit and I'm the nursing-cover-user-type. I have huge breasts and am very modest so using a cover is what makes me most comfortable. On Sundays when we're at my in-laws' house all the boy children are shooed out of the room if I nurse without a cover (when us ladies are just sitting around and I am comfortable not using the cover) but I'm going to let them know that it doesn't bother me if they see anything; I'm not doing anything perverse and it is giving those boys the impression that what I'm doing is "dirty" or unseemly.