Thursday, September 13, 2012

Simply the Breasts

To the presses!  This story has boobs!

Working parent has a kid who normally goes to child care during the day.  For whatever reason, the child care falls through, and parent brings kid into work with them.  A completely unexceptional story, repeated thousands of times across America every day, correct?  A minor annoyance to the co-workers, and management usually turns a blind eye. But what if this working parent had, gasp!, breasts, and used them to feed her child?  While. At. Work!!!!??  Well that changes everything, and now the story is completely newsworthy.

Adrienne Pine was in a jam. The assistant anthropology professor at American University was about to begin teaching “Sex, Gender & Culture,” but her baby daughter woke up in the morning with a fever. The single mother worried that she had no good child-care options.

So Pine brought her sick baby to class. The baby, in a blue onesie, crawled on the floor of the lecture hall during part of the 75-minute class two weeks ago, according to the professor’s account. The mother extracted a paper clip from the girl’s mouth at one point and shooed her away from an electrical outlet. A teaching assistant held the baby and rocked her at times, volunteering to help even though Pine stressed that she didn’t have to. When the baby grew restless, Pine breast-fed her while continuing her lecture in front of 40 students.

This story has gone viral, not because of the rather unexceptional story of someone hauling their kid off to work with them, but because of the breastfeeding angle.  For a society which likes to stress to mothers over and over again that the "breast is best!", we are still deeply ambivalent about women breastfeeding.  We seem to want women to breastfeed, but well, somewhere else.  We intellectually understand that babies can't and won't wait until they are back in the house to eat, but we don't want to see a baby getting fed, and are offended at the sight.  Not of a nipple, but just knowing that a baby is sucking on the nipple.   This is a far from universal reaction:

...Americans think breasts are primarily for enhancing sexual activity, which results in widespread discomfort when they are reminded that breasts go into babies' mouths. While our culture defines breasts primarily as enhancing sexual appeal, other cultures emphasize the "sexiness," if you will, of other body parts: buttocks, hips, shoulders, feet. It varies according to culture, since sexual attractiveness is always culturally defined.

Yet the American obsession with breasts is so unique that it is often puzzling to people from other cultures. One of my graduate students who conducted field work in Samoa reported to me that when she told a Samoan woman that American men like to suck on women's breasts, the Samoan was amazed. She asked my student, apparently with genuine interest and concern, "Do American men like to pretend they're babies?" That is how strictly Samoans define the purpose of women's breasts. In many countries, breastfeeding in public is as mundane an activity as public conversation; no one is concerned when women use their breasts in public for their primary biological function: to feed babies...

Of course, if we get used to seeing breasts out in public, breasts become greatly de-sexualized.  And sexualized breasts are used to sell tons of things, from beer to cars. Perhaps the economy would collapse if breasts were seen mostly as baby food supply?  I can be rather tongue in cheek about this, because I don't think America is in any danger of that happening anytime soon.  We really like our boobs.  Just not when they are feeding babies.

A couple of boobs


  1. Thank you for bringing this up, Mandi. As a currently breastfeeding mother, I feel passionately enough about this issue that I actually participated in the "Great Nurse-In" last month in front of the capitol. I work at a facility where we see hundreds of kids and parents pass through the doors daily, and I have heard coworkers of mine - women with children, mind you - snicker and describe a woman breastfeeding without a cover as "nasty," effectively equating a mother feeding her hungry child with performing a public sex act.

    This Adrienne Pine story should not be a story at all. But I always remind myself that the USA was founded by puritans.

  2. Definitely a very puritan outlook Angela. Though even the Puritans were probably more comfortable seeing breasts every day than modern-day Americans. That was the pre-formula era, after all. :) I really don't know how, or if the American attitude can be changed, other than sheer desensitization. And that will probably take several generations.

  3. I think it's distinctly American. Which sure, puritan, too. We have this attitude towards sex, bodies, nudity, alcohol - like we're a nation of tittering teenagers. I think breast-feeding is one of those things - hell, Facebook just censored me for using the word "boobies." Apparently, there are many words that are considered way more offensive (swear words) that are NOT censored. But boobies? That's dangerous and must be controlled.