Parenting While Female: “It’s Not About You”

I’ve been contemplating this post: The Male Gaze… falls upon a Nursing Mother…. by Morgan Gallagher. I think there’s an important truth in there, something feminists find themselves saying over and over and over again: “It’s not about you.

Breastfeeding fear seems to be partly about keeping mothers in the home where they “belong”, partly about fear of our mammalian-ness (mammalhood?), and partly about the opportunistic pathologisation of womanhood and motherhood. But it’s also about defiance of the male gaze. Women’s bodies are battlegrounds, and when breastfeeding, a women is committing the cardinal sin of rejecting the male gaze. Not even defending herself from it, but rejecting it entirely. If there’s one thing sexist pigs can’t stand, it’s women not paying attention to them.

Moral panics about women mothering in public happen with dispiriting regularity. Here in a Florida Sentinel comments section, for example, one commenter compares their discomfort on seeing breastfeeding to their discomfort on seeing fat or disabled people going out in public. Another compares it to public urination, defecation, and sexual intercourse. A nursing mother is accused of being a child molester, another diagnoses mothers as mentally ill. Another calls feeding a child “disgusting”, “wrong”, and “filthy”.

Then – there are these comments:

If your husband was there, he’d want to see my **** since yours are saggy from being sucked on by a bratty kid!

Hey , there are 2 of them thar things, so why not share the other “Happy Meal” with me?

And there’s the heart of the issue. In the first case, a woman freaks out because she sees the nursing mother as sexual competition, and feels the need to defend herself by labelling the mother unfuckable. A survival strategy for women spinning on the hamster wheel of Patriarchy-pleasing.

In the second, a man scrambles desperately to re-assert his entitlement to the male gaze, and throws in a little sexual harassment just to put the little woman back in her rightful place: defensive, in fear, and above all paying attention to men at all times.

As Morgan says:

We live in a society that is obessed with ‘the male gaze’
Nursing an infant is extremely problematic in this paradigm. For a nursing mother makes two statements that I feel are very difficult for our culture to accept. One, she is not interested in the male looking at her. She has clearly signalled she’s not interested in being looked at as a sexual object of desire, and is not at all interested in being ‘captured’ by him.
Secondly, she is not only not interested in the people looking at her – male or female – she is soley interested in her child. All her attention is centred on her infant.
A nursing mother takes control of her own body, and uses it as she sees fit. She rejects the idea that society at large, or the people in the space around her, can control both what she does with her body, and who she gives it to. In a world where women gain their status and power by how many men look at her – a nursing mother is a problem. Either she is competing for male gaze, or she is rejecting it utterly.

What do you think?

Categories: gender & feminism, health, parenting

Tags: , , , ,

11 replies

  1. I love seeing nursing mothers. It’s a very sweet, dare I say beautiful, thing going on between the mother and her child. The “solely interested in her child” thing is very, very special. (I am reminded of the famous Madonna and Child painting, where the infant Jesus is looking out of the picture but Mary is gazing with love at Him.)
    I think a lot of men do have trouble knowing how to react when they come across breastfeeding, and therefore respond in unpredictable ways. That’s their failing of course, but not necessarily one for which they should be condemned.
    First time I came across breastfeeding in public (well, in the common room at work, actually) I seriously did not know how to react. I think my embarrassment was more of the “I am in an unfamiliar situation”-type than being worried about anything sexual. I said “Mmm, lunchtime” and went to get my sandwiches (which I was told by one of my female colleagues was about the best thing I could of said).
    So, yeah, some blokes do have a problem in that nothing in their upbringing has prepared them for meeting mothers nursing their children outside the home. Can’t speak for the older women of course.
    And as to the puerile comments: It’s teh intawebs, it’s full of peripubescent teenagers. Of all ages.

  2. Black Knight: if you’re not reacting with abuse, leering remarks, threats, or harassment, you’re not part of the problem. And yes, I do condemn all of these responses, completely. A human’s first response on encountering a non-threatening but unfamiliar situation shouldn’t be to lash out and assert their dominance. I don’t accept that men are inherently “unpredictable”, that that’s OK, and therefore that offensive reactions should be accepted with a smile and a shrug.
    Nursing mums don’t care whether you look or don’t look, stay around or don’t stay around, because “it’s not about you”. So as long as the onlooker realises that their own gaze discomfort is their own responsibility, not the mother’s problem, it’s all good. And it sounds like you do.

  3. I think it’s more like Black Knight said above, here in Australia, sometimes you just aren’t sure where to look. You don’t know if someone is going to be offended if you look at them breastfeeding, some women go to enormous lengths to conceal what they are doing, and some like me just pop out a breast and attach the baby anywhere anytime.
    I’m actually a little disappointed that I haven’t been able to use my comeback ‘would you rather she screamed?’, but really I should be, and am, grateful that people around here either don’t mind or don’t care. Occassionally there is the odd guy who seems to feel that he has gotten away with a bit of a perv but I just think that if he is that desperate for a glimpse of nipple then that says a lot more about him than about me.
    I also count myself fortunate that the ACT Govt has a policy that women can breastfeed anywhere at anytime and that anyone harrassing them is breaking the law.

  4. Lauredhel, please don’t think I’m trying to justify all responses, good or bad. I’m not trying to defend any particular group, either. I’m interested in finding out why people respond how they do.
    My point is that when men (and women, actually) find themselves in a situation that *is* threatening (because they are not prepared for it and therefore feel not in control), they may become flustered and embarrassed, or aggressive, or display any of a myriad of responses; and in that sense are unpredictable. You get the same sort of thing when people are promoted above their ability at work. None of us are predictable in that sense; you might be the most well-balanced and personable human being around, but when placed in an unfamiliar situation all bets are off.
    Does this mean that mothers should not breastfeed in public? Absolutely not! It means that they should do it more, so that it (gah. I hate saying ‘it’ all the time) becomes familiar. And any bloke who does react abusively should be taken quietly aside by a male friend and have their reactionary head kicked in.
    In a completely non-threatening and predictable way, of course.

  5. Black Knight: I get that you’re “on the same side” (gah, I hate that as much as you hate saying “it”!), I really do. And it’s cool that you’re in favour of men sorting each other out when one of them is being a sexist pig.
    Something I’m trying to do with this post is to get away from the dynamic that goes a bit like this:
    A. “Gee, some people are sexist pigs, aren’t they?”
    B. “They sure are. You know what? Women should teach them how not to be.

    I think it’s great that some women choose to take on the teaching role from time to time, when and if they want to (insert plug for tigtog’s Finally, a Feminism 101 blog here). But the idea that the appropriate response to sexism is that women should be obliged to fix it just keeps women at the centre of the frame, and obfuscates the actual problem – the sexist pigs. It’s another face of the passive-voice issue I wrote about here.
    So, much as I’m in favour of women feeling completely free to nurse wherever they (or their child) likes, I don’t feel that it is a “should”. Because that keeps women in the position of being responsible for their own oppression.
    This isn’t meant as a sledge, and I realise you probably meant “if only women felt free to…” etc. Like I said, it’s cool. I hope this has clarified some of my thinking about this particular problem.

  6. I see what you’re saying, and I don’t think we necessarily disagree. I am saying that women “should” feel free to do as they see fit. Yes, you’re right: I was clumsy in my last message – I am not really saying that they “should” actually do it if they don’t want to. It’s a choice; it’s your choice and you “should” feel free to make it.
    However, and I’m desperately trying to avoid stepping on the mines that I’m laying for myself 😉 , I think that much of this particular problem can be avoided if breastfeeding in public was more common (bear with me). But as you say, it is unreasonable then to throw the problem back onto the women, onto you, when it is not you, actually, that has the problem.
    Did I say that loud and clear enough?
    Parallel. Cycling is demonstrably safer when cyclists are encouraged to use the roads and sufficient numbers of cyclists do so, so that their corporate visibility is increased and car drivers are forced to modify their behaviour. When few cyclists use the roads (either because they’re not encouraged to or forced onto cycle paths) the safety of cycling plummets. Now you’d be a complete dunderhead to argue that a motor vehicle causing damage to a cyclist is the cyclist’s fault for doing something that is their right, but you would probably agree, given the above, that cyclists can do something to increase safety overall. No one is saying they should: it’s the dickhead in the 4×4 who is the problem.
    Equally, mothers can take an active role in public acceptance of breastfeeding. But of course they’re not obliged to. That’s silly. It leads to “if you don’t do something about it you’ve only yourself to blame”, which is despicable. But, you know, some people are morons. So we have to find a way to deal with that, and sometimes I struggle to know what that is. That’s my problem of course, and I’m not expecting you to deal with it.
    Hmm. Let’s try to sum up. I can understand why some men are uncomfortable, and why they might then react in anti-social ways. But the way around it is to provide mothers with the social construct whereby they feel perfectly happy about breastfeeding in public, if they want to. And that is not a sexism issue, it’s not ‘us versus them’ or ‘me versus you’ “” or even anything to do with who is the victim. It’s all of us in it together to make a better life.

  7. Bollocks. Screwed up the <strong> tags.
    [Moderator note: Fixed, BK – tigtog]

  8. and I’m desperately trying to avoid stepping on the mines that I’m laying for myself

    Linguistic minefields seems to be the topic du jour here! I don’t think you’re laying them for yourself, though – they’ve been thoroughly laid by surrounding culture, and they are omnipresent and invisible. Hence, radfeminism, etc. [/me elides enormous concepts because it’s late]

    I can understand why some men are uncomfortable, and why they might then react in anti-social ways. But the way around it is to provide mothers with the social construct whereby they feel perfectly happy about breastfeeding in public

    I think I understand a little better why it’s called “revolution”. It’s more of an ever-improving spiral than a circle – I hope. The way to provide mothers with the social construct whereby they feel perfectly happy about breastfeeding in public is to stop reacting in anti-social ways. When less of the reactions are anti-social, more women will feel happy about breastfeeding in public. And so on, and so forth, round and round in tiny steps all the way to a better world.
    That’s why I keep banging on about it – to do my tiny part to keep the spiral spiralling.

  9. Hey great post Lauedhel. I have yet to experience any hostility, but you can be sure that I will be the most hostile party if I ever do. Like Mindy, I have already prepared my responses ‘just in case’…

  10. oops, missed an ‘r’ in your name. Sorry!


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