Form vs. Function

So, as someone who is child-free by choice, I’ve had an informal policy of staying as far away from the “mommy wars” as it is possible for me to stay. Breast-feeding vs. formula, maintaining external employment vs. becoming a stay-at-home-mom, “mainstream” product choices vs. natural/organic ones — every choice has its costs and benefits, and every mother has her own unique circumstance that leads to a particular set of choices (some of which may even be forced-choices determined by economic or other constraints).

Since I have never faced these choices and I am never walking a mile in these particular stirrups, my general approach has been to hold an attitude of respect for each mother and her parenting choices,* on the belief that each mom is doing the best she can in any given moment.

But then there’s that moment when the mommy wars play out very personally in the life of someone in my circle of acquaintance:

Ingrid Wiese-Hesson was shopping at an Anthropologie store in Beverly Hills when her 6-week-old son, Xavier, began crying because he was hungry.

Wiese-Hesson then sat down in the store to breastfeed the infant, and that was when the store’s manager reportedly intervened.

“The exact words to me were ‘I’m here to escort you to the ladies room so that you can finish breastfeeding’,” Wiese-Hesson said. “She opened up the bathroom, and she said ‘sorry, there’s no chair’, and of course the only thing in the bathroom was the toilet seat.” (CBS Los Angeles)

Ingrid posted her experience on Facebook and it blew up and went viral almost instantly (as one might guess from seeing the clip from last night’s 11’o’clock news).  More details and slices of analysis are available at a number of places online, including information about a “nurse-in” that took place today in the store (LAist); an AdWeek post that connects the uncomfortable dots between this real-life incident and a recent student-designed public awareness campaign aimed at preventing exactly this sort of harassment; and a CBS Money Watch post that gives really good snark:

At high-end retailer Anthropologie, shoppers can select from body-baring items like its $118 see-through Gladiolus Sheer Silk Blouse. But when it comes to breastfeeding, one store location deemed a woman was showing just too much of her body.

Assuming AdWeek’s excerpt from and analysis of CA state law is on-point —

The Anthropologie manager’s actions were not just unwise, they were also in violation of Hesson’s legal rights. From the California Civil Code: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present.”

— then there’s a certain open-and-shut nature to the legal question here. Ingrid was absolutely, 100% within her rights to breastfeed her son in the Anthropologie store, and the store manager broke the damn law by  interrupting her and escorting her to the bathroom.

david-horsey-breastfeeding-moms-20120705-001So I’m going to set the legal question aside from now and just let my mind boggle from the fucking insanity of this all. What rational and reasonable objection would anyone have to a woman breast-feeding her six-week-old baby?

Answer: objections a-plenty, but nothing rational or reasonable, as far as I can tell. I know the first rule of following feminist stories in mass-market media sites is “don’t read the comments!” — well, I did, so you don’t have to. (Taking one for the team.) There were a few different rhetorical tactics, but objections pretty much all fell into being one flavor or another of this: breastfeeding should be done in private because it’s immoral/unseemly/inappropriate for it to be seen in public.

And here’s where I go into a sputtering place of incoherent rage and puzzlement. Because, to paraphrase Henry Rollins when talking about racism: these folks are tripping over an entry-level concept, a curb about 6 inches high. It’s inappropriate to publicly use your boobs to feed an infant? Feeding babies is actually the main purpose for which women’s breasts were invented! How can it be deemed immoral for babies to be fed in public?

Because, as Anna Quindlen said way back in 1994:

[T]he 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. And maybe it’s epitomized in a letter that The Albany Times-Union got from an irate citizen who asked whether women who nursed in public would be having sex on the streets as well, as though the connection between nursing and fornication was self-evident.

(Yes, 1994. Twenty years ago. The more things change, the more they fucking don’t.)

After all, I bet no one would object to a baby being bottle fed in public, and I bet the same judgmental asshats complaining so voraciously about Ingrid’s choice to publicly breastfeed would also be giving her the judgmental side-eye if she had chosen to delay her son’s feeding and “subjected” the other customers to hearing the sounds of an unhappy, hungry, crying baby. It’s only because someone’s mammary glands are involved that this has become such A Thing.

I know that the policing and sexualizing of women’s bodies is pretty stupidly crazy even on the best of days. But still. What is it about breasts? How did these secondary-sex characteristics become so thoroughly fetishized and sexualized in the culture? Why is Anthropologie okay selling see-through shirts for the sake of showing off in the attractiveness/sexuality game, but not okay with a woman discreetly using her breasts for their actual, original biological purpose?

I know, I know: it’s the damn patriarchy again. After all, no one’s having a fit about all those exposed Adam’s apples…

* Aside from those that are obviously neglectful and/or abusive.


Image credit:    (David Horsey at the LA Times.)