Monday 1 December 2014

Get Your Baps Out: Feminism and Breastfeeding

I remember walking home from school, aged fourteen, and being shouted at from across the road by two lads telling me to "get my baps out" - and no, they weren't enquiring about what I had in my packed lunch box. Of course when you're younger and boys say things like this to you you shake it off as immaturity, until you reach adulthood and realise that some men still have no problem with these inappropriate requests. 

I grew up in a home where sex was rarely spoken off; where anything remotely sexual on TV was turned off with tuts before I'd had chance to question anything. I remember asking what a condom was, aged seven, and my mum told me I was too young to know. I went to school the next day and asked a boy in class, whilst gluing and sticking, and he informed me that it was "what a man puts on his willy when having sex." "Oh," I said, carrying on with my collage, satisfied with his answer. I've no idea how I knew what sex was but no doubt this education was also from the school playground.

Growing up i had two contrasting views about sex; one extreme was liberal and crude, the other was conservative and prudish. I never knew quite which camp I was in or how I should see my body. Was it something to hide or expose? On top of this, the media told me that I needed to look a certain way and make myself more attractive. Women's magazines criticised female celebrities for putting on too much weight; men's magazines were plastered with women with ample bosoms, flaunting their curvaceous figures. My body became subject to scrutiny from others and I started to feel very self conscious about the way that I looked. 

There have been plenty of challenging situations for me concerning my identity and self-worth as a women but none more so than when I became a mother. Everyone was telling me to get my baps out and now it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Not only was it acceptable, it was expected of me. Before I knew it I had every midwife under the sun grabbing my boobs and showing me how to shove them in my baby's mouth. I was told to feed on demand, to get them out whenever was asked of me, I had no control over it, or where this happened. I would go out in public and try to be discrete about feeding but my little boy was hardly that, fussing and pulling away from me every five minutes and exposing me to the world. I would visit my work office and the same men who freely commented on women's chests before I'd had children were now telling me it was fine to feed in front of them if I needed to. 

Suddenly I was being asked to ignore everything I was told in life - both that my body was sexual and that it should be hidden. It didn't quite compute with me. I was told that breastfeeding was the most natural thing in the world but it certainly didn't feel that way. It felt weird that my parents were such advocates for breastfeeding and expected me to do so too, despite my father acting very awkward around me when I did. I would go out of the room instead and feed in isolation which wasn't much fun either.

To make things worse, celebrities were catching on to the breast is best bandwagon and flaunting themselves doing so, wearing flirtatious outfits and half exposing a breast. They give the message that breastfeeding is now somehow both nurturing and sexual which somehow doesn't sit right with me. Maybe they're right to portray such an image to bridge the gap mothers feel when we breastfeed, but I'd like to know if there really are any women who find breastfeeding sexy because I certainly don't. Is this how we want mothers to be portrayed? 

Tamara Ecclestone breastfeeding
When did breastfeeding become such a controversial issue anyway? You only have to write a facebook post about it to know that everyone has an opinion on it. One woman will tell you it's her right to feed in public, another that it's her right to formula feed. Another will ask what about the right of the child to have natural milk from her mother? Another will question whether breast milk is actually best for her contented formula-fed baby and rested family. 

You will notice that all of the above are about the women making choices. I am all about independent women, but it seems slightly unfair that when myself and my husband decided to formula feed our firstborn after four months of agony that any judgement was directed solely at me. It seems that there is too much placed on women to be the sole provider and decision maker for their child. What about the right of the father and his responsibility to support and encourage his wife and family? 

Our society is one that tells me I am a sexual object to be looked at by men; the same society that tells me how my post natal body should look; how I should raise my children; how I should apply myself at work. This is the same society that pays women less than men; that often portrays that my influence is far less important than a male 'equivalent'. So why are my feeding decisions so important to you and why should you care? Or is it because I'm raising boys and I need to teach them that women should get their baps out anytime they demand? 

I've no idea how you tackle an issue that has unnecessarily come under the scrutiny of such public opinion. It is no one's business how a family chooses to feed their child. If you ask my opinion, women need to feel supported no matter what method of feeding they (and their partners) choose. It's a shame that society focusses so much on the physical and not on the mental and emotional transition that motherhood involves. 

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