Showing your breasts in public

Protest ... mothers descended on Channel Seven on Monday morning.

Protest ... mothers descended on Channel Seven on Monday morning. Photo: Sunrise, Channel Seven

Last month, David Koch urged breastfeeding women to be more “discreet” and avoid “high traffic areas”, adding that breastfeeding women have  “gotta be a bit classy about it."

Why does breast-feeding make (some) people so uncomfortable anyway? And why is there such a double standard around how and when breasts can be acceptably displayed? After all, when presented in a sexual light (on billboards, magazines etc) very few folks complain. But the moment breasts are presented for reasons outside male gratification, all sort of people (both male and female) start squirming.

The most ridiculous example of this double-standard occurred in 2006 when an American woman was told she could not breast-feed her hungry child in a store change room because the shop assistant viewed breast-feeding as indecent (the customer was then directed to a nearby toilet).  It didn’t help things that the store in question was none other than Victoria’s Secret - a lingerie company whose entire business model revolves around women’s breasts. (Apparently the shop-assistant didn’t grasp the irony of rejecting a woman for breast-feeding from a shop that trades off women’s breasts and which uses women’s breasts in almost all their advertising campaigns.)

Standing by his comments ... David Koch on Sunrise today.

Standing by his comments ... David Koch on Sunrise today. Photo: Sunrise, Channel Seven

Examples like this remind us of the conditional ways in which women are permitted to display their breasts in public space. But they also highlight our culture’s deeply ingrained (and hugely problematic) mother-whore complex (where women are permitted to present as either maternal or sexual -but never both at the same time.). Indeed the reason breastfeeding is seen as so troubling is because it takes an often eroticized part of the female anatomy and re-presents it in a maternal context, thus blurring the distinction between ‘virtuous mother’ and ‘lascivious sex-pot’.


In other words, the anxiety around breast-feeding doesn't only stem from our culture's preoccupation with breasts: it also stems from our policing of 'virtuous motherhood'.

Of course the result of this policing is that breastfeeding women are not permitted to occupy public space in the same way that male bodies are. Just ask Kirstie Marshall, a Labor MP who was escorted out of the Victorian parliament by the serjeant-at-arms, for breast feeding her 11-day-old daughter in 2003. (In 2007, NSW created the nation's first breastfeeding-friendly state parliament by allowing mothers to nurse in both the upper and lower parliamentary chambers. It’s a positive move, but clearly there is still a lot more work to be done.)

However our culture’s mother-whore complex is not the only factor that informs our cultural aversion to breast feeding. There is also the issue of classism. Historically, aristocratic women would hire wet-nurses to feed their babies (this was done so that the aristocratic woman’s milk would dry up and she could fall pregnant again sooner).  The result was that nursing became associated with ‘common’ women and breastfeeding was seen as something rather base. Today, we still hear echoes of this classism (such as Kochie’s insinuation that breastfeeding can be unclassy.) 

But as Ash Zuko says, it’s time for this attitude to die out. Shaming breast-feeding women into covering up is just another form of slut shaming, “and the effect will be a more dramatic decline in breastfeeding numbers as women will feel it's embarrassing/wrong to do it in public.” It’s time we got over the discomfort and accepted breastfeeding as a normal, natural part of life.

61 comments so far

  • The thing that's really got me fired up about this is other women shooting other women down!

    So far I've read far too many comments like "they're just angry mummies who want attention / the world doesn't revolve around you and your baby / I don't display MY breasts when feeding so why should you? / eewwww / it's not hard to cover up / if you don't like it, STAY HOME! / Ok that's enough now, no need to keep going on and on about it" and that really disturbs me.

    It seems to me, yet another mechanism to keep mothers silent, and the role of parenting in the "private" , where they can be isolated and in the realm of "not my problem". What a selfish society we have become.

    I'm not even a mother and this pisses me off.

    Date and time
    January 21, 2013, 12:31PM
    • I am an expectant mother and I fully intend to breastfeed. I never knew that such things as nursing aprons existed, where you could cover yourself "discreetly" whilst feeding your baby until I went out baby shopping. Whilst you can probably cover yourself and them when they're very little and not so mobile whilst feeding, I can't imagine that nursing aprons, blankets, covers, or anything would be able to cover up a squirmy baby or toddler and allow the mother to be "discreet". More importantly, breasts biologically have one purpose and that is to produce milk for your child(ren). People who feel uncomfortable about mothers exposing their breasts in public are prudes who need to get a life and just deal with it.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:20PM
    • I am just amazed that Mr Koch thinks breastfeeding is an "indiscreet activity". Surely he can't be saying using breasts for the primary purposes women have them is an activity that should be discreet?

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 4:15PM
  • I have no problems with breast feeding but let’s be discrete…. It’s not legal for woman to walk round topless, or have I missed something??

    Date and time
    January 21, 2013, 2:57PM
    • Asking a breastfeeding woman to "cover up" or move away to a more "appropriate location" is ILLEGAL, or did you not get the memo?

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:21PM
    • Absolutely agree. More power to women if they choose to breast feed. But discretion wouldn't go astray. I recently boarded a plane with a women sitting on the aisle seat with breast out and child nursing as two hundred people filed past her. Why not just place something light over your shoulder to be less obvious? I'm sorry, but what are women trying to prove with a bare breast? If I was nursing, I would want to put something light over me if I was in public. I completely agree with Kochie. We don't need to fight the world. Some people are uncomfortable with a bare breast and child nursing. Yes it's natural, but so is changing a tampon and I don't do that in view of everyone either.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:23PM
    • Which law prohibits being topless in public? Or are you just assuming it’s illegal? And I’m certain there’s no law prohibiting breast feeding.

      And what is your definition of discrete? Surely sitting still and exposing one breast at a time is discrete no matter where and when. If you don’t like it you can look away; I doubt there’s any women running around forcing their breasts to be in people’s line of sight. If you don’t like, don’t look, but don’t try and regulate how women conduct a lawful act.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:29PM
    • Ok for a start, could we please use discreet in this context not discrete (look it up - they have different meanings.
      Secondly, the fact that so many women are as Miffy said shooting other women down. This shouldn't have to be a feminist issue in the 21st century, but it would be nice if women supported each other on this most natural and normal act. I really worry about anyone male or female who has an issue with seeing a glimpse of breast as women feed their bubs in public. Shaming women into thinking they must throw a scarf or sarong over their baby and (mostly covered breast) is totally absurd.
      When I first needed to feed my 1 week-old son 28 years ago - I thought I'd find a parents room in the shopping centre I was at; there wasn't one and I made the mistake of feeding him in the women's toilet. Then and there I decided I never, ever do that again. I fed all 3 of my children in public places if needed and was never approached or reviled or made to feel self-conscious.
      So please remind me, why in 2013 are we having this conversation again. Oh, that's right - because Kochie is a self-righteous prig - an accountant and not a journalist.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:44PM
    • Puckster, breastfeeding mothers aren't "walking around topless" they're feeding their child. Doing it in public is both legal and inoffensive to most Australians except perhaps you, David Koch and a few hundred dinosaurs who seem to think it should be done in secret. Why, I ask you? And I ask not because I think you have any valid concern about it. If you don't want to do where other people can see, then don't. If you don't want to see other people doing it perhaps you need to have a good long think about why the sight of a woman feeding her baby offends you so.
      I live in a fairly conservative Asian society where I have not seen even one woman breastfeed in my more than two years here. This is the same country where the majority of men and fair percentage of women think that all women should stop work as soon as they get married. Sadly, most women here are generally confined to the role of wife and mother for most of their adult lives. They must be at home feeding their babies for months on end.
      Australia is far more open-minded about the role of women in public life. When you,David Koch and others talk of class, discretion and offence in public forums you are telling millions of others that there's something shameful about breastfeeding. The only shame here, is that women need to keep insisting on that our equality and dignity is to be respected.

      Keeping Abreast
      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:49PM
    • @Jo

      Many babies don't like being covered when they feed. It's that simple.

      Honestly, it's unbelievable that so many adults are so removed from the realities of breastfeeding and yet think they have the right to pontificate about what mothers and babies should or shouldn't do because they can't understand that the use of breasts for feeding is different from the use of breasts for sexplay.

      Grow up, Australia. It's positively embarrassing that so many adults are hypocritical prudes.

      Date and time
      January 21, 2013, 3:58PM

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