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

This is part of our December slowdown Blast From The Past reposting program. This post was originally published May 2nd, 2007.

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: , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. I’ve been reading Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, and while I consider it a problematic book in and of itself, one line my thoughts are going in as a result is the idea of inhabiting one’s own body being revolutionary. In her book, the corresponding act would be having pleasurable sex if and when one wants to, as opposed to doing sexual things to please onlookers, or holding sex at an ironic distance in order to be “one of the boys” and thus needing to talk about it as if one is a patriarchy-approved heterosexual man.
    So nursing is far from an exact parallel, but we have bodies, largely women’s bodies, that aren’t part of the male gaze narrative here too, as in Morgan’s quote.
    I know you’ve covered this in other posts, but there’s also a rather horrible co-opting of infants and young children into the male gaze in the nursing criticism. The male gaze says breasts are sexual, and the male gaze cannot be wrong: therefore, for infants and children, breasts should be sexual, at the same time that they mustn’t be (because children must be innocent). Infants and children must look at breasts the same way a patriarchy-approved man does, and so therefore they mustn’t be allowed them at all.

  2. Thanks for posting this! It brought together some of the stuff that had been nagging at me around this whole issue and made it “click.”

  3. I wonder if there’s some underlying insecurity too: our culture has a sexual breast-obsession that’s not shared by many other cultures, and I’ve read numerous examples of people from those cultures finding our sexual breast-obsession amusing and sort of infantile, precisely because they see breasts as for infant feeding.
    So maybe some of these men who don’t want to see or think about women breast feeding, just as they want to sexualise the infant’s relationship with the breast because that’s their own relationship, are afraid their sexual attraction will be suspected of being infantile.
    (And some of that could be about comfort and affection, because Real Men (TM) in this culture aren’t supposed to ever be in need of comfort and affection, just Sex (TM).)

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