Friday, May 04, 2007

The Comfort of Breasts

some men seem to think highly of them
peering and staring
what they don't know is
the breast stares straight back
interested as a reporter

some love them
and invest them with glamour
but like life they are not glamourous
merely dangerous

Kate Llewllyn, 'Breasts'

Headlines when it comes to sexual assault are often terrible. This one though, Breast Accused Gives Up...what does that even mean? First of all grammatically it is completely misleading. It sounds like the Breast is the Accused. (My Breasts are often rampantly criminal, operating entirely with a will of their own.) Or that the Breast is Accusing someone called Gives Up. It also implies that any sexual assault that took place was against the breast itself and not a woman. It uses language appallingly, to dismember and disfigure, an assault in itself.

The (real) story, about a man who approached a woman breastfeeding in a private cubicle in a shopping centre, asked sensitive questions and then touched her exposed breast, is a particularly sensitive one. It taps into all sorts of moral panic and preconceived notions about breasts, breastfeeding, sexuality, exposure, voyeurism (though this was NOT a case of voyeurism, as touching was involved) and private and public spaces. I must admit that once I learned to feed without cushions, props and having to wave my nipples around like I was conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, I always preferred doing it completely in public, outside if possible. I always found those feeding rooms in shopping centres kind of creepy. Initially Martin was quite uneasy (far more so than me) about my boobs, which had always been a part of our private domain, being, well, out there, in Public World. Personally my worries were more about how my relationship with my breasts would change in Private World, which as it turns out were fairly legitimate worries as it has changed a lot, though of course not all for the bad - I'm far more impressed by them now than I used to be.

I think my main problem with the language of this headline is that both breastfeeding and sexual imagery can encourage, accidently or deliberately, this sense of separation, this sense that breasts belongs more to something else, or someone else, than they do to you. Navigating the truly bizarre divide between sexual identity and maternal identity is never more potent than when you are contemplating your own breasts. Even when you're not having to worry about 'sexual' predators. I use quote marks because you have to wonder how truly sexual an act like this is. It doesn't seem to stem from desire, but from somewhere else, from a deeply twisted confusion about what sexuality - and perhaps maternity - really is.

The thing that makes me sad about this story is that it will probably turn people off breastfeeding in public (and frankly if you can't breastfeed in public then your chances of breastfeeding successfully must be reduced - and besides one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding is that wherever you are you have an immediate, free, safe, sanitary, and basically unlimited supply of perfect food for your baby, that needs no preparation). The woman who was attacked was feeding her one week old son. Her breastfeeding experience will always be tainted, perhaps even spoiled, by this encounter. For me breastfeeding was one of the most intimate and immediate connections I experienced with Frederique and Una. Even though they no longer produce milk, both girls still have a close and special relationship with my breasts. They seek them out, as pillows or for comfort, plunging a hand absent-mindedly down my top. Although my breasts might have lost some of their sexual mystique (for me at least), the new power and status they have is more than compensation for this loss.


  1. Anonymous8:30 PM

    i always felt that "baby rooms" were like a really convenient way to have mothers and children shut out of the normal world. I refused (and will again) to use them, even to change nappies.

    I do my job discreetly wherever I please, with the exception of nappies in eating establishments, that one i don't do.

    This story made me feel very pleased that I can feed my kids in public, perhaps a safer place to do it, even with thousands more eyes and judgments surrounding you in a food court.

    However, it is dismaying to be constantly reminded that, no matter where we go in this world, men still think that women (and their breasts) are suitable targets for poor impulse control.

  2. Yeah, they are pretty gross places - the smell! - though I have had the good fortune to meet a mother or two with whom I shared a lovely chat whilst feeding. I was also given the death stare from a bloke whilst feeding in a restaurant recently. No I wasn't feeding me (that's totally uncomment worthy), but a tiny new born infant. Perhaps it wasn't the boobs, but the fact that I'd scraped myself up and gotten out of the house...
    But I digress. I was amazed by this event and our collective reaction to it. Shocking not just as moral panic, but as deepest taboo. I have found myself relating quite differently with babe 2 than babe 1 in the boob issue.
    And as an aside - thanks for your comment on my blog about the routines thing. I so agree - Amy's fly by the seat nature was what allowed us to schlep around South East Asia with her at the age of 2 and 3...

  3. Anonymous5:58 PM

    I found baby rooms a godsend for breastfeeding because I had a particularly ornery little breastfeeder for the first few months and we needed lots of time and space without people staring. (Thankfully we came good!)

    The story of what happened to this poor woman is so offensive. I hope they find the culprit and charge him, and I hope the woman is continuing to breastfeed her son as she has every right to, anywhere.

  4. I always loved breastfeeding outside (I mean outdoors, in the park) and can't wait to do it again with babe #2. I never went into those little rooms. It helped that Lara was an instant pro (my friend that had to do the whole formula drip tube around the neck probably would not have been able to set up the aparatus impromptu without a big seat and table at least). Honestly, when she started to eat solids also I really missed the convience of always having everything she needed on me!

    It's so crazy to me that our culture has gotten so far away from the human body and its functions that female breasts no matter what they are actually doing are perceived only as sexual objects. There was an issue of a baby magazine that came out recently with a cover of a closeup of a baby nursing and the letters they got (from mothers!) were as if the image were of the most hardcore and nonconsentual pornography.