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. 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.