Posts Tagged ‘Breasts’

Being as how I’m almost nine months pregnant with my first child, whom I intend to breastfeed, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Though it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for many years, the issue has now gone from being purely academic to immediately personal – which makes it something I’d like to address in depth.

So, to begin with: breast milk is undeniably awesome for babies. It really is the best thing for them, and as such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on mothers to breastfeed their children for as long as possible (provided it’s not¬†too¬†long, according to the prevailing cultural mores, as Westerners tend to get freaked out by the idea of toddlers and older kids still feeding from mum, despite the fact that this is¬†by no means a universal hangup). At the antenatal classes I attended, for instance, the midwife told us that our bodies were¬†designed to breastfeed, and that very few women failed to produce any milk at all – the clear implication being that, if we found ourselves struggling, it was likely because we were doing it wrong, and not because, as¬†a recent article¬†so eloquently pointed out, our bodies are meant to do lots of things they sometimes simply can’t, like produce insulin or digest lactose.¬†

What this means is that, despite the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby, there are myriad circumstances under which it’s either difficult or impossible. For instance: newborns have to be fed every two hours, and can spend up to an hour feeding at any one time – a demanding schedule which, apart from playing merry hob with your sleeping patterns, will likely prove insupportable if you return to work soon after giving birth, if your child wants to ingest more per feeding session than your body can readily produce, ¬†if your nipples are a difficult size or shape for suckling, or if the act of breastfeeding is physically painful.

Similarly, it’s often harder for women who’ve had a C-section to breastfeed afterwards; ditto for anyone suffering from post natal depression, anyone whose child was born prematurely, and anyone lucky-slash-overwhelmed enough to have ended up with a multiple pregnancy. Mothers who take antidepressants or other strong medication that can be passed through breastmilk will either have to abstain or feed only on a very rigid schedule, while anyone¬†endeavoring¬†to cope with transmissable diseases or ongoing substance abuse problems will be likewise restricted. And then, of course, there’s the parents for whom breastfeeding simply isn’t an option: transmen or women without the necessary breast tissue, women who’ve had mastectomies, adoptive parents, gay male couples, parents whose babies can’t latch on, and that apparently rare subset of women whose milk simply never comes in. Add to all this the number of mothers who, for reasons of practicality or personal preference, choose to pump from the outset or go straight to formula, and you have a sizeable number of babies who’ll never be breastfed at all.

And you know what?¬†That’s OK.¬†Because as awesome as breastmilk is, and as lovely as it would be if everyone who wanted to breastfeed was able to do so easily and painlessly, life is far more complex than that, and regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, feeding them formula either partially or exclusively isn’t the end of the world. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are all monumentally difficult, and given the inaliable fact that no two children, let alone their families, are identical, the idea of¬†tut-tutting¬†people who don’t breastfeed as though from a position of unassailable moral highground is utterly unhelpful.

I say all this as a preface because, far too often, pro-breastfeeding arguments have an ugly tendency to devolve into zealous, moralistic displays of finger-waving, not only at those who object to public breastfeeding, but to any mother who dares not to breastfeed at all. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say: that is bullshit. Breastmilk is awesome for babies, but whatever the scaremongers say, the vast majority of parents are just trying to get by and do their best, usually while sleep-deprived and covered in a thin rime of vomit, week-old cornflakes, talcum powder and crayon. Neither your willingness nor your ability to breastfeed is a magical measure of how good a parent you are, period, and anyone who tries to guilt-trip you to the contrary is probably not a person you should be listening to.

So, with all that out of the way:

I am 100% in favour of public breastfeeding Рnot just because of the health factor for both mother and baby, and not just because breastfeeding of any stripe is difficult enough to merit constant support and encouragement, but because there is absolutely nothing offensive about it. Which is, for me, the key point, because overwhelmingly, objections to public breastfeeding have everything to do with the potential discomfort of onlookers and nothing to do with what it actually is.

I have, for instance, seen public breastfeeding compared to spitting ¬†or urinating in the street – as though it’s a disgusting bodily function that ought to be kept out of sight, out of mind. Which is, frankly, ludicrous: firstly, because milk, unlike blood, spit, shit or piss, is not a bodily waste product; and secondly, because it’s being delivered¬†into a hungry child, and not spilled wantonly onto the street. Perhaps more importantly, though, the comparison implies that parents either must or should have a level of predictive control over their children that’s simply impossible: an adult who takes a sly piss in an alley is transgressing, not only by dint of polluting the street, but by failing to do the sensible thing and find an actual toilet, whereas it’s utterly unreasonable to expect a mother to predict, with perfect accuracy, when her child will next require feeding, to say nothing of the fact that – as is highlighted by the nature of the debate – she doesn’t have the option of simply finding the nearest public facility built expressly for her needs. (And lest you suggest that toilets, too, are suitable for the purpose: see above re, how long individual feeds can take, which necessitates, at the very least, a place where you can sit for a minimum of fifteen or twenty minutes uninterrupted and in comfort – which is to say,¬†not a public toilet.)

Then there’s the decorum objection: that women should¬†of course¬†be able to breastfeed in public, provided they do it discreetly, or¬†classily, or sensitively, or whatever other word best suits the sensibilities of the observer without recourse to the practical wants and needs of the subject. This argument, while comparatively benign, tends to imbue breastfeeding with an aesthetic imperative above and beyond its actual function – as though the necessity of transmitting milk to a hungry infant somehow magically vanishes if you can’t live up to the sartorial expectations of your hypothetical,¬†voyeuristic,¬†judgmental¬†audience. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, what begins as an offhand plea to ‘just do it nicely’ ends up carrying the implicit rider of ‘or else, don’t’ – an attitude which privileges the moral and/or aesthetic sensibilities of a single disgruntled observer over not only the bodily needs of a child, but also over the ambivalence or approval of every other bystander who rightly deems the spectacle (such as it is) to be none of their business. More practically, and in response to the specific assertion that mums should just be able to cover both breast and child with a handy length of fabric: children squirm, getting a baby comfortably attached to a nipple requires line of sight, and it’s sort of difficult to tell when they need to detach and burp – let alone support their necks and bodies – if you’re simultaneously grappling with a wisp of obscuring linen. So, no: it’s certainly an option, but it’s far from being a panacea, and expecting all mums to adopt it for the sake of a stranger’s sensibilities is wholly unreasonable.

Well, so what about the assertion that breasts don’t belong in public? Surely that has some merit, at least? Only, no, it doesn’t, because as a society, we¬†love¬†boobies.¬†Images of them are everywhere¬†– often portraying more bare skin than actual breastfeeding would necessitate –¬†and whatever moralising some people might get up to about the¬†depredations¬†of bikinis, crop tops, boob tubes and any other form of cleavage-accentuating dress, the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed in public is risible. Because realistically, the objection here isn’t to breasts, per se, but¬†rather¬†to nipples; or, more specifically, to the prospect that a woman might flash one in the seconds before her child latches on and suckles.¬†Which is where I return to the waste products argument; because more than once, I’ve seen it suggested that being able to breastfeed publicly is a nefarious form of female privilege – that somehow, the inability of men to urinate outside (or rather, the illegality of their doing so, as it certainly happens) means that¬†permissible¬†public breastfeeding would be fundamentally unfair, as allowing women to evacuate milk while preventing men from evacuating urine is… an imbalance, somehow? Look: it’s a stupid argument – as I’ve already said, expelling waste into the street is hardly equivalent to expressing milk into a mouth – but for those who want to play the Double Standards card: how fair is it, really, that men can go around topless for the fun of it, while women can’t show so much as a glimpse of nipple while feeding a baby? Is that not a greater and far more gendered imbalance?

Which leads us into the biggest argument against public breastfeeding, and the most frustrating: female sexualisation. Because¬†obviously, lady-boobs are different to man-pecs in that the former can provoke arousal in men, whereas the latter are supposed to be sex-neutral, and therefore exempt from the same rules of cover-uperage. Some men even find breastfeeding itself arousing, lending a pornographic sheen to the public act, and seriously, I cannot even finish this sentence, because you know what? That is¬†your fucking problem,¬†hypothetical observer!¬†I mean, do you know how many men find school uniforms arousing, or nurses’ uniforms, or nuns’ habits, or any other specific form of dress/behaviour/activity you’d care to name? Are you honestly suggesting that, because Person A finds Person B to be sexually appealing in Context C, then Context C ought to be publicly prohibited on the offchance that Person A is present when it happens? Are you seriously contending that a hypothetical¬†voyeur¬†has more of right to abstain from self-control – and, subsequently, to complain about unanticipated arousal – than the subject of their voyeurism does to simply exist in the world without an enforced awareness of the sexual peccadilloes of strangers?

Because, here’s the thing: if you sexualise, feel attracted to or are otherwise aroused by someone? That does not mean they are obligated to care, to reciprocate, or even take steps to make themselves less appealing to you. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet’s famous reproach of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have every right¬†to act in a manner which will, in their own opinion, constitute their happiness, without reference to you or any other person so wholly unconnected with them.¬†So by all means, be aroused: just don’t expect it to matter to anyone other than yourself, and least of all to strangers.¬†

Beyond all these objections, however, the debate about public breastfeeding invariably ties into the current angry panic about the presence of parents and small children in public spaces – cafes, planes, theaters, pubs – and the extent to which some areas should be designated child-free zones. And while that’s whole other argument in many respects, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that at least part of the pushback against public breastfeeding can be attributed to the widespread belief that any form of parental exceptionalism is wrong: that, as having a child is neither an outward expression of moral superiority nor a public service, expecting any special treatment or concessions on behalf of said child is nothing more than baseless, greedy entitlement. Parenthood (this argument goes) should more rightly be equated with self-sacrifice, and if that means abstaining from adult pleasures while chaperoning your young’uns, then so be it.

And, look: without wanting to come down irrevocably on one side or the other – this being the sort of issue I’m much more inclined to deal with on a case by case basis – the thing that always bugs me about this attitude is the implied belief that certain public spaces rightly and innately belong to the childless, such that entering them with children is, by itself, a species of invasion. And while there are certainly some specific instances wherein that holds true, in general, public spaces are so named¬†because they belong to the public¬†– which means that it’s just as reasonable for a childless person to expect the parents at table three to shut their toddler up as it is for the parents to expect tolerance from the childless person. It’s all give and take, is what I’m saying, and while I’ll be the first to admit to having eyerolled at a clambering, chattering preschooler in a busy cafe, I also dislike the assumption that parents are alone in feeling unreasonably entitled to the use of public spaces, when clearly, the desire to police their usage is itself a symptom of entitlement. So when it comes to kneejerk reactions to public breastfeeding – or, for that matter, kneejerk reactions to the concerns of childless persons – we could all do much worse than to think about who really owns the space we’re in (if anyone), and why it is we so often assume our own priorities are universally the most important.

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others. Public breastfeeding might seem like a comparatively small issue, but it’s one that matters – and one which I wholeheartedly endorse.

Note: this post was originally written in response to a question on tumblr.

Just days before the first episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones goes to air – an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s amazing series, A Song of Ice and Fire – New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante has written a none-too-impressed review, in which she writes, among other things:

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.¬†While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin‚Äôs, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to ‚ÄúThe Hobbit‚ÄĚ first. ‚ÄúGame of Thrones‚ÄĚ is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population‚Äôs other half.”

I am, quite literally, furious. Shaking with fury, in fact. But before I go into why, allow me, if you will, the luxury of what might appear at first to be a complete non sequitur, couched in the form of the following anecdote:

I was eleven when I started high school, tall for my age, and at that point very much disinclined towards the idea of bras. I’d never liked wearing a singlet under my shirt, as my mother sometimes suggested I do; neither did I like tights, because they always fell down and you couldn’t run in them, never mind the fact that they itched. So even though I knew that I’d have to start wearing a bra – this strange, unfamiliar thing that felt lumpy and uncomfortable and¬†embarrassing to boot¬†– I still resisted wearing one, even though I’d started to feel self-conscious about the new prominence of my own nipples beneath my new white school shirt. Besides, at primary school the boys had laughed and teased the first girls to wear bras, pointing at the all too obvious outline beneath those older, greyer shirts. Why should high school be any different?¬†At least I felt happy in my choice of footwear: brown riding boots rather than the usual black clogs or lace-ups, because I rode horses on the weekend and because the boots were comfortable. They felt like me.

The first week of Year 7, no one much noticed anyone else’s clothes: we were all too terrified, to awed and hyper and jostling in this strange new world, where all of a sudden our supremacy as the oldest kids in our previous schools was utterly gone, demoted back to the very lowest rung on the social ladder. But then that passed, and all of a sudden I found myself being laughed at by girls I barely even knew the names of, girls who made whinnying noises and clipped their tongues in imitation of hoof-falls when I went by, or who else ran past me deliberately to do just that, teasing me for my choice of shoes. I didn’t care – not exactly – because I wasn’t ashamed of my boots, and anyway, who cared what those girls thought? What did get to me, though, was the next lot of barbs: the girls from my grade and grades above who took it upon themselves to start calling me things like saggy tits, mocking and jeering because I didn’t wear a bra, which, unlike at primary school, was the thing that set me apart. They pointed and teased and whispered, and even though I didn’t then have breasts enough to fill even half my own hand, I felt ashamed – mortified, even – that I was going to be forced into wearing something uncomfortable just to stop strangers from making fun of me.

More than just strangers, though. Other teenagers. Girls who’d already decided the bralessness was next to freakishness, even for an eleven-year-old, despite the fact that they must have gone through something of my transition, surely? Or maybe I really was a freak, and every other girl in the world felt absolutely no self-consciousness at all about growing breasts or wearing bras. Maybe other girls looked forward to it. Whispered, giggly conversations with female classmates in primary school and daring, uninformed gossip sessions at slumber parties hadn’t prepared me for any of this: that suddenly, other girls would turn on me, not because I’d ever done anything to them, but simply because I didn’t act like they did. Because I wasn’t girl enough.

And this is why, to return to the subject of Ginia Bellafante’s remarks, I am currently fighting a fury-tremor in every finger, struggling to type cleanly. Because right now – and let me resort to pejorative, here, because honest fury bespeaks a certain rash privilege – I do not give a fuck that Bellafante knows so little about the original novels¬†that she thinks the TV series has sexed their content up. I certainly don’t give a fuck that she’s taken the time to toss off an obviously insincere disclaimer to the effect that possibly, somewhere, women like me read books like Martin’s, nor that this very careful phrasing on her part fails to suggest that women might actually read Martin’s books themselves, and not just other, unnamed novels¬†like them. What I do give a fuck about is her arrogant, hand-waving dismissal of the idea – so cuttingly implied, yet skirted around for the sake of precious propriety – that any real woman would want to read fantasy novels, let alone have anything to do with the whole nasty business of medieval times.

Need I make a list of female fantasy authors to sway her mind? Do I need to gesture to the internets at large, to the hundreds of thousands of girl geeks I’ve seen blogging and tweeting and fangirling and chatting and generally keying themselves up in anticipation of the start of A Game of Thrones? Ought I try and explain – to a woman who has apparently held some quite interesting views on feminism over the years, no less – the prejudicial unhelpfulness of making declarative, gender-based statements about What Women Like And Don’t Like based on nothing more than one’s own personal preferences?

I could do any of those things. I’m tempted to do all of them. But right now, the only thing I can think to say is this:

Ginia Bellafante, you are the girls who laughed at me for being a girl who wasn’t a girl like them, who mocked my breasts and made me shamed of my gender; who chased me away from femininity for more than a decade, fearful of being defeated in an arena not of my choosing but in which I had no choice but to try and compete. You are the women who called the first bluestockings slatterns. You are the blight on your own cause, the¬†judgmental¬†feminists who turn tomboys into self-hating misogynists and misanthropes, the irreconcilers of disparate femalehood. You and your ignorance; you sit there and wonder, why the hell would any self-respecting woman care about swords and dragons and politics instead of – what? Sex and the City? – and then chortle your guts out, no doubt, at the thought of any one hysterical reader getting herself all anted up over a TV show review. Clearly, if this is the kind of reaction such fantastic works provoke, you’ll think yourself right to steer clear of them and their devotees both, regardless of gender. But just in case any scrap of you feels shamed by this, should you read it – just on the¬†off-chance¬†a sliver of empathy splinters its way through your chitinous shell – know this: it was never about the show, but that you’d mock us for being what you’re not.


If clothes shopping were a boardgame, my copy of the rules would have long since disappeared down the back of the couch, forcing me to play¬†with only¬†my own sartorial proclivities as a guide¬†(warning, warning), issued with¬†loaded dice and assorted mismatched¬†thimbles instead of regulation tokens,¬†with only¬†a broken crayon and an old receipt on which to keep score, although given that I would always loose, this would be a pointless, jaw-grinding exercise in masochism akin to¬†maintaining staunch optimism in the ability of the New South Wales Labour Party to suddenly turn into a quasi-worthwhile amalgam of human beings, as opposed to a ratfaced pack of liars, fraudsters and no-hopers who wouldn’t know common sense if it¬†knocked on their doors, politely introduced itself and then gave them all a lapdance.

Anyway.

The point being, I am not good with clothes. It’s not as if I’m advocating a policy of conscious nudity or anything – it’s just that, faced with the prospect of having to sally forth and¬†choose between¬†innumerable rows of tacky, nylon, probably-made-in-a-sweatshop gimcrackery¬†that I can actually afford and gorgeously intimidating, real-fabrics-but-desperately-overpriced couture, my native response is to¬†decide immediately that I don’t give a rats’ and¬†resort to¬†slouching around the house in a dressing gown and a pair of little woollen socks¬†that look like they were made by somebody’s grandmother. Which, yes, is comfortable, but as my beloved husband has on occasion pointed out, it’s not exactly business casual.

And thus my policy of buying the vast majority of my clothing second-hand. I have never, for instance, been sneered or giggled at by the girl behind the counter in a charity shop for daring to enter her place of business whilst dressed in jeans and an offensively geeky t-shirt. Similarly, I have never examined the price-tag on any article of clothing sold by the Red Cross and had to consider taking out a loan from the bank in order to afford it. I enjoy the act of rummaging through various disorganised racks, setting aside hilarious paisley mumus and PVC lederhosen in my quest for that one nice top I know must be lurking there somewhere. Tragically, however, the Nice Top is all too often a Nice Top Which Would Look Utterly Fabulous With Everything I Already Own If Only It Were A Size Bigger, Instead Of Which It Makes Me Look Like An Improperly Asymmetrical Sausage. Alas!

Which hopefully illustrates the main problem with shopping second-hand, viz: the unpredictability. Many’s the time I’ve been heartbroken after finding a wonderful article of clothing, only to discover that it’s just a weense too big or too small for comfort. (The latter is particularly dangerous, as it tends to lead to fantasies of immediate weight loss in order to jusify the purchase of a ten-year-old dress with a torn hem and ciarette burns on the shoulder straps. Sense, schmense: it’s the principle of the thing.) Which isn’t to say that I’ve never found a¬†perfect bargain treasure¬†(eight dollars for a leather jacket!), but when it comes to hunting down specific items, you might as well be randomly trawling the Pacific Ocean for that message in a bottle your Auntie Agnes set adrift from Bondi Beach in 1937. The cardinal rule of women’s fashion, as related to me by my mother¬†circa age nine,¬†is to Never¬†Walk In Knowing What You Want, because¬†doing so¬†will automatically guarantee¬†every shop within driving radius not to have it, especially if it’s a plain black swimming cozzie that doesn’t make you look like a walrus¬†– and however true this is of normal shopping, it is about a quadrillion times more so of second-handing.

Take, for instance, today’s quest for a plain, brown top with long sleeves that one might wear under various t-shirts or singlety things in a bid to stave off the cold Scottish winds without actually cocooning oneself in a series of¬†anoraks. When nothing was doing at the first three shops, I abandoned reason and ended up in a fourth trying on a pair of what promised to be size 14 bootcut corduroy pants and a greenish, satiny sort of hidden-clasps-that-do-up-at-the-front Raph Lauren shirt purporting to be a ‘medium’, whatever that means, though presumaby not that the shirt possessed an innate ability to commune with the spirits of the deceased. Absconding to the changing cubicle to try on my finds, the following problems soon became immediately apparent:

1. the definition of ‘size 14’ as promised by the pants did not in any way fit with reality, unless you happen to believe that buttocks are optional; and

2. that Ralph Lauren, bless his cotton socks, has apparently only had breasts described to him third-hand, thus precipitating the creation of a garment which, despite featuring the type of curving, low-but-not-too-low-cut neckline favoured by women of average bosom, was categorically too small to accomodate anything larger than a golf ball, or maybe half a lemon.

Now, admittedly, I am no longer the same undernourished sylph I was at the start of university, before a disposable income and close proximity to an all-night pide, pizza and kebab shop wrought their¬†carbohydrate-laden magics upon my person, but neither am I particularly large.¬†And yet, when it comes to finding a pair of pants that can actually accomodate my legs, I might as well be inquiring after the pricing and availability of unicorn steaks at the local butcher. (One has documented the phenomenon of Impossible Pants quite closely this past decade, and does in fact remember the point at which the Pants Conspiracy first reared its head, viz: with¬†the introduction of teeny-tiny pant zippers that are approximately the length of a pinky finger back in 2005,¬† a trend which has not so much flourished as exercised a lantana-like stranglehold on the fashion industry ever since. Used in conjunction with skinny-leg jeans and bikini-cut everything, those of us with hips wider than the average dinner plate and any sort of padding in the arseular regions have found it nigh on im-bloody-possible to buy a pair of pants that actually fits for any price less than three-hundred and sixty-five trillion dollars and three Faberge eggs, or put another way, to buy any pants AT ALL.) And if you’ve got breasts above an A-cup and want to wear a fitted top? GET RIGHT OUT.

Faced by such impossible circumstances, what else is a sensible author to do but purchase a banana-and-peanut-butter-flavoured cupcake and retire to the internet for solace and ranting?

P.S. Bonus points to any reader who drew a connection between the style and content of this blog and the fact that I’ve recently reread the collected columns of Kaz Cooke, more of whom later. Now there was a lady with sense!