“For the children of New Hampshire to be healthy and strong, they must receive the best possible nutrition when they are infants.” So reads the front page of the New Hampshire Breastfeeding Task Force’s website. As of 1999, New Hampshire law protects a woman’s right to breastfeed in public.
New Hampshire is not alone: 49 states (with the exception of Idaho) and Washington, D.C. have legislation that specifically allows mothers to breastfeed in any public or private location.
New Hampshire is noteworthy, however, for a recent dispute in its State House of Representatives—one that took place primarily on Facebook, consequent to a legislative proposal that would make public nipple exposure a misdemeanor. State Representative Amanda Bouldin (D) opposed the bill as a whole, and prompted the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Josh Moore (R), to exempt mothers who were breastfeeding (which was initially included in the bill, she later acknowledged). Her pointed criticism of the bill prodded Rep. Moore to respond with a comment on Facebook, which was later deleted.
“Who doesn’t support a mother’s right to feed?” he said. “Don’t give me the liberal talking points Amanda. If it’s a woman’s natural inclination to pull her nipple out in public and you support that, then you should have no problem with a mans inclantion [sic.] to stare at it and grab it. After all… It’s ALL relative and natural, right?”
Rep. Moore’s outlandish, harassing comment is an extreme example of the contempt expressed towards many publicly breastfeeding mothers, independent of the woman doing so in what could be deemed a “modest” manner. Despite the legality of public breastfeeding, many women continue to face unwarranted criticism and assumptions of some hypersexual aspects about their personalities when they are simply feeding their children (i.e., “Only a certain kind of woman would breastfeed in public.”).
Hopefully everyone can agree that the first few months (years? decades?) of raising a child are exceptionally draining, and command a lot of time. Breastfeeding is an obvious example of this. Newborn babies should nurse every two hours or so for the first month, a frequency that only goes down to every three hours or so for the following few months. While alternatives to direct breastfeeding are often highlighted in this day and age, such as pumping or formula (later on in a baby’s life), providing a baby with their milk will indubitably put strain on a mother’s daily life. Recognizing the reality of a typical breastfeeding schedule helps to comprehend why constraining a woman and her child to a more “discreet” setting so many times a day can be excessive.
But the conversation about breastfeeding often extends beyond its necessity for a child’s health. The source of the stigma is ultimately a threefold cognitive dissonance: the sexualization versus the biological purpose of the female breast; patriarchal gender presumptions versus the significance of the female role in reproduction; and human socialization/civilization versus our natural state of being.
The hypersexualization of the female breast is no secret to those even minimally invested in Western popular culture or vaguely aware of how the advertising industry sells. Pop culture has established sexual pleasure as one of the primary purposes—if not the foremost purpose, in many people’s minds—of the female breast, not feeding a child. The majority of the Western world is conditioned to treat the full exposure of the female breast (as opposed to, say, bikini tops) as appropriately exposed only during sexual encounters or in cases of extreme comfort, in drastic opposition to the male breast. That double standard forms the basis for the Free the Nipple movement, a campaign that strives to expose and ameliorate the sexualization and censorship of the female nipple.
The Free the Nipple movement includes breastfeeding mothers in its campaign, but subverting the sexual purpose of the breast in favor of breastfeeding—a biological purpose—is only part of its goal. While the Free the Nipple movement works against the sexualization of the female breast that is so ingrained in American culture, its core seems to focus more on the double standard and subsequent need for empowerment of the female body in the face of a male-dominant society (on more general terms than just breastfeeding).
The crux of the issue is that female bodies are being controlled by a patriarchal society; this is illuminated through the dissonance between the subordination of women to men in traditional gender norms and the crucial role that women actually play. What does the acceptance of female breasts as sexual organs, but not biological ones, indicate about the society in which we live? That men cannot accept the significance of a woman’s place biologically, her indispensability, because that undermines his socialized conception of her subservience to him. Public breastfeeding does not expose a woman in the ways in which men have historically deemed pleasurable, effectively compromising its perceived value today.
Reconciling the roots of the expectations of the female body in our society and its natural purpose further elucidates the dissonance between the innate functions of our bodies and our attempts to shape them to our “civilized” ways. Perhaps the carnality of breastfeeding makes people feel too close to their primal roots. Breastfeeding can remind us that we are not only mammals, who first and foremost feed their young with a mother’s breast milk, but we are animals. Despite our advanced socialization and civilization, there are actions—like breastfeeding—that mark us as the same as other primates.
Understanding the assumptions and expectations that come with breastfeeding in public show that the acceptance of the female body in one of its most natural functions is in and of itself a subversion of gender norms. In some ways the law may already facilitate this acceptance; it is essential that conversations surrounding breastfeeding in light of our cultural conventions continue.
Aibinder is a member of the Class of 2018.