LAURA: I breastfed my oldest longer than most North Americans do. I just passed the average age of weaning with my youngest, who shows no signs of being done. Buoyed by my knowledge of worldwide data, a supportive community, and my own stubbornness, I’ve never cared about others’ opinions on this topic.
I got lucky in having the support I did. When I struggled to learn how to breastfeed, I had online forums and individual friends who could offer advice and point me in the direction of trained professionals.
My husband and I initially argued over the appropriateness of covering up and disagreed about when it was “respectful” to breastfeed uncovered. We had many tense conversations about navigating family situations when I refused to put someone else’s comfort above my baby’s needs. He is less stubborn than I am, and eventually he realized the arguments were wasted and his time would be better spent educating himself about breastfeeding norms. He’s now as vocal a supporter as I am.
I’ve been scolded, side-eyed, and gossiped about by family members who thought I should cover up. When my company purchased tickets for employees to a sporting event, I was called into HR. Although repeatedly assured that I did nothing wrong, they still wanted me to know that one of my coworkers was bothered by me breastfeeding in that public environment. And I’ve been (illegally) asked to cover by teenage lifeguards who were caught off guard by the sight of me nursing in a swimsuit.
I’ve done photo shoots and interviews regarding my breastfeeding journey and tried to pay forward the support I received in the initial, excruciating days when I fought through tears, pain, and exhaustion to make breastfeeding work. I’ve made being a militant breastfeeder a badge of honor in my life.
And yet, unlike some, I’ve never once been counseled by Mormon lay leaders for breastfeeding openly and uncovered. Most of the time it was shirt up, showing very little skin, but sometimes neck down, with my whole, gigantic breast exposed.
Perhaps they were too afraid to talk to me. Or perhaps my local leaders were aware that breastfeeding a baby is nothing a woman should ever be ashamed for. Maybe they had served missions in places outside of North America and had become accustomed to the act of women openly breastfeeding. Or maybe they just never noticed and no one ever complained. Maybe I just won leadership roulette.
Western culture has commodified women’s bodies to sell everything from tires to hamburgers to vacation destinations. Polygamy culture in Mormonism has also commodified our bodies to sell heaven.
By placing tight restriction on what, where, and how breastfeeding is acceptable, patriarchy reasserts ownership over women, reminding us that we can only use our bodies in ways it approves of. By tying breastfeeding to modesty and sexual temptation, breasts are repurposed into a sexual object that culture has designated for the benefit of the male gaze.
Breastfeeding openly tends to disrupt this. It forces us to acknowledge that a woman’s body is not, in fact, placed on earth for the benefit of men to admire. It requires women to face that patriarchy has classified us as sex objects and that our bodies are actually not.
Women who come face-to-face with that knowledge and cannot incorporate it into their worldview tend to become the most vocal shamers of breastfeeding uncovered (or sometimes breastfeeding at all). These women worry that the act of breastfeeding might tempt their husbands into impure thoughts. They insist we must “think of the teenage boys” who aren’t in control of their raging hormones and might be turned on by the exposure of a bare breast. They fret over how feeding a child might make the lives of porn addicts harder.
Ironically, no one worries about the babies or the moms. The perceived welfare of men and teenage boys is prioritized – by other women – over the needs of infants and women. Nor does this do men any favors, turning them into perverts who are driven by appetites that may not even exist.
Men who face their own role in objectifying women and want to justify it often wield their authority and their own fragility to bully moms into covering.
Shame, pressure, barriers to breastfeeding (things like having to go to a mother’s room), and a lack of support often causes women to stop breastfeeding sooner than they would otherwise. Babies who would get the benefit of breastmilk and moms who would get the health benefits of breastfeeding pay the price. Breastfeeding is stigmatized. Women’s bodies are continually objectified.
There’s no middle ground in breastfeeding support. You don’t really support breastfeeding if there’s a “but” attached. You don’t really support it if you’ll only stand behind it if it meet your rules. You don’t really support it if you use shaming or colorful language that makes some breastfeeding moms less than.
You can’t circumstantially support breastfeeding and call it support.
In my own little sphere, it’s past time for Mormon leaders in Salt Lake to speak up because no woman should ever be shamed for feeding her baby. Make no mistake, though. This is an issue of who owns a woman’s body. Breastfeeding challenges the belief that female bodies belong to the collective male-lead society to serve their appetites and ensure their bloodline.
Our bodies aren’t objects to be owned. Our breasts aren’t sex toys for the benefit of the male gaze. Our babies and our consciences get to drive our choices. We do not need to be hidden away to prevent society from facing reality.
Some mothers are more comfortable in a mother’s room. Some mothers are more comfortable covering. Some babies need quiet spaces or covered cocoons to focus on eating. Some. Not all. Parents get to make that choice for their children.
And some of us also choose to use formula for part or all of our babies’ nutrition. That gets to be our choice, too, because it is our bodies that have to do the work of breastfeeding.
We don’t owe it to anyone to use our bodies in the way someone else thinks we must.
As long as the female body is commodified, we’re going to have people draw lines all over the place. The solution, of course, is to turn women back into people instead of objects.
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