I was at a party recently where a young father was getting a lot of attention as he spooned baby food into the mouth of his 6-month-old son. Several men were gathered around, enjoying the antics of the baby boy, who giggled with every bite.
Only a few feet away a young mother was breastfeeding her infant.
Both parents were doing the same thing – feeding their children – but the woman was getting the job done in a more intimate way. No one appeared to be shocked or disturbed, but neither was there a cluster of people gathering around her as they were with the man and his kid. Everyone was allowing the mother a realm of privacy in a busy room.
It seems as if people should be able to do the same for nursing moms in public places like shopping malls, but every now and then, there is a new story about a breastfeeding mother running afoul of security guards, mall managers, voyeuristic louts or prim busybodies who are shocked by such behavior.
A couple of websites I've come across credit the New York Times for reporting that 12,000 women a year are arrested for breastfeeding in public. I could not confirm that number with a quick search, but even 1,200 would be too many – or even 12. Anna Quindlen wrote a column on the subject in which she described feeling as if she were "flagrantly flirting with the law in malls, movie theaters, public parks and restaurants" in the days when she was nursing her son. She said, "the subtext of the public breast-feeding battle is the inability to make a distinction between what is female and what is sexual, what is indecent and what is utilitarian."
Quindlen wrote that column in 1994 about something she did back in 1983, yet all these years later, public breastfeeding remains a renegade activity in many locales. Last year, breastfeeding flash mobs hit public places in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia to protest bans on women feeding their babies where other people might see.
This winter, Beyonce made news by discreetly nursing her baby girl while out to dinner with her husband Jay-Z at a trendy New York restaurant. Very likely, some of the attention she received came from people amazed that a sexy pop star would use her mammary glands as something other than display objects in a slinky designer gown at the Grammys.
The Great American Breast Fixation has been with us a long time and seems stronger than ever. Breast implants are a big business, from Southern California to the Redneck Riviera on the Gulf Coast. Clothes that lift, shape and present breasts like fruit for inspection are no longer available just from Frederick's of Hollywood and are no longer sold primarily to strippers. Push-up bras and tight, low-cut tops are hot items in shopping malls across America.
From business offices to high school classrooms, modest displays of cleavage are commonplace. Bolder up-front fashions are standard at dance clubs, proms, beaches and bowling alleys. Breasts are so out in the open in America these days that it has become ho-hum.
Yet, when a new mom exposes far less skin while trying to satisfy a hungry baby, some people still get upset. Yes, some of them are crudely sexualizing this maternal function, but many others with a more traditional way of looking at the world are simply made uncomfortable when they observe a breastfeeding woman. For them, nursing is a purely private act and it should stay that way.