Hot water and milk

image of a woman in the 'Rosie the Riveter'/We Can Do it pose while breastfeeding her baby

[image source: strawberry mohawk]

I was initially reluctant to weigh in on the debate about public breastfeeding that ignited last week around comments from television host David Koch. Mostly because I think he has had plenty of air-time and column inches to defend his offensive and old-fashioned comments about how women should and should not breastfeed their babies. ‘Why give him and his stupid remarks any more thought?’, I thought to myself.

But the more I think about his comments, the more they enrage me.

I’ve been breastfeeding my daughter, my first baby, for about seven months now. I am angered by David Koch’s comments about how women should be “classy”, “modest” and “discreet” if they’re going to breastfeed in public.

When I first saw the segment on his Sunrise program that sparked the public outrage, I was willing to give Koch the benefit of the doubt – particularly because in that segment where he interviews three women about a ‘topic of the day’ his role is to play devil’s advocate. I figured he was just being a troll for the hell of it. Roll your eyes. Move on.

But since the original comments went to air his opinions have angered me further and I feel the need to protest. In the aftermath of his offensive comments (and yes, they are offensive!) a “nurse-in” was organised to protest outside the television studio. About 100 mothers breastfed their babies and the organiser of the protest, Amy Ahearn, was invited into the studio to discuss the matter further. She did a great job staying cool, calm and collected in front of Koch who, in response to the protesting mothers didn’t back down from his argument that women who breastfeed in public need to be careful about how they do it.

He said:

“I totally agree with breastfeeding in public, but I think you’ve got to be a bit classy about it”

His comments that women need to be modest and classy make me angry because they reinforce the idea that women’s bodies are constantly being judged. Even when doing something as natural and vital as feeding our children, we have to look “classy”?? Are you serious!?

Breastfeeding is difficult. Especially in the beginning. Breastfeeding in public is also quite tricky a lot of the time. I don’t love doing it. But when I have to feed my baby, I have to feed my baby. Running off to try and find a parents room or trying to put a cover over the baby is not always possible, nor desirable (Hello, Sydney summers. Hello, baby who loves grabbing at all kinds of fabric.)

Every single breastfeeding mother that I know is actually quite “discreet” about it – as Koch so lovingly puts it. We don’t just have our boobs hanging out all over the shop. But that’s not the point! It’s hard enough breastfeeding in public as it is, but when a male media personality with a large platform for espousing outdated opinions tells us we better cover up with a “muslin” or to turn our chairs around, or that feeding an infant by the side of a public pool is unacceptable, then we are getting the message that breastfeeding is something to be ashamed of, something to be covered up.

If you’re not presenting yourself in a classy way, ladies, then watch out! Careful not to offend any middle-aged men by letting some breast tissue be exposed while you’re feeding your child her lunch.

Koch dug himself further into his hole by making ridiculous comments such as this gem:

“I don’t mind if women sunbake topless as long as they don’t do it between the flags in a high traffic area.”

ARGH!

The double standard here is mind-boggling. Sunbaking topless and breastfeeding are vastly different activities, even though both may involve some amount of breast flesh being visible to the world. But why even mention sunbaking topless? It’s completely irrelevant.

In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, “Breastfeeding, Kochie and double standards”, Amber Robinson writes:

Telling women to feed their babies in a smelly nappy-change area or to inhibit feeding with a cloth cover (babies usually yank it off in 5 seconds anyway) is discrimination. Motherhood is isolating enough without being forced out of public spaces because of the way you feed your child.

Indeed.

Fortunately in Australia it is a woman’s legal right to feed her baby anywhere anytime. So basically, if a mother breastfeeding a child in public bothers you, LOOK THE OTHER WAY. It’s as simple as that.

There are some other issues troubling me about this whole debate, and thanks to a link shared by Blue Milk (who blogs a lot about breastfeeding and feminism), I think I now know why I have been so pissed off by the comments from David Koch.

Blue Milk links to this great piece: “Transgressive breastfeeding and the rules of the public sphere“, written by an Australian living in Hanoi. I think she has a really interesting take on why breastfeeding in public is so, apparently, controversial. And why men like Koch think they have the right to complain about mothers not being discreet enough.

She writes:

You see, according to Sharwood (and his ilk), mothering is an ‘intimate’ and ‘private’ activity that should not be taking place in the public sphere. If somehow it does stray into that public sphere then it really ought to be careful not to become “a public spectacle.” This means that if for some reason a mother of young children does have to leave the house (which, by implication, is a transgresssive act in itself), then she should take every measure to ensure that her ‘private, intimate’ work of mothering young children does not take up public space, because it does not belong.

I think she’s really onto something here!

She goes on to write about the way the language of modesty and discreteness is actually about women’s body language rather than covering up… I quote again:

I have been wondering for days now what “discreet” even means in the context of public breastfeeding. I now realise that what it means is that the woman in question must show through her body language that she knows that she is in breach of the rules of the public sphere. The specific position of her body, or her cover, is not really the issue. The issue is the body language of apology (I think the code word being used is modesty). She needs to show that she is sorry for taking up public space with her private activity. Then it would be OK. Then she could be excused.

Being proud or even nonplussed about breastfeeding our babies is an issue, not because we are being public exhibitionists, but because we are (even if we didn’t realise it) openly challenging the rules of the public sphere. We are being unapologetically, overtly female it what is still, essentially, a male space. That is what is so offensive – the brazen transgression of these long-standing, unwritten rules.

Fascinating! I think this is such a big part of why Koch’s comments irk me so much. As breastfeeding mothers we have to seem as though we are apologising for doing something “private” in the public domain.

Well if feeding my daughter in public is being brazenly transgressive, bring it on!

3 Responses to “Hot water and milk”

  1. Andrea Says:

    Thank you so much for writing such a powerful and beautiful piece. I am ashamed to realize that i do it! i breastfeed with the body language of apology, AND the mindset! although i am upset with myself to realize this, i am excited to change it! I agree! Bring it on!
    Thanks again!
    Andrea (from strawberrymohawk)
    P.S. I am so honored to have my photo used for this article! I must share it!

  2. 57th Down Under Feminist Carnival! Says:

    [...] at transgressive breastfeeding and the rules of the public sphere and Pondering Postfeminism has something to say on that issue as well as does Elizabeth at Spilt [...]

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