To feed or not to feed -- in public

May 27, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

IN '83 I was on the lam, flagrantly flirting with the law in malls, movie theaters, public parks and restaurants.

The closest I came to arrest was when a security guard suggested that I might want to take my modest state of undress into the ladies' room.

Intimidated, I complied, despite the fact that there were more nudes on the walls of the museum I was visiting than in your average health club locker room.

Yes, I breast-fed in public, often in Chinese restaurants, where I felt guilty not about my exposure, such as it was, but about the way I sometimes dripped oyster sauce on my baby's head while I moved food from my plate to my mouth.

I learned to drape a dinner napkin over his pate, which had the dual effect of protecting him from flying bok choy and foiling the state statutes on indecent exposure, which in New York were not amended to exclude breast-feeding specifically until the year after his birth.

Now the New York state legislature has gone a step further, making public nursing a civil right "irrespective of whether or not the nipple of the mother's breast is covered during or incidental to the breast feeding."

Proponents say the legislation is necessary to promote breast-feeding and the use of nature's perfect food, which is said to reduce a woman's risk of certain cancers, to provide children with antibodies, even to raise the IQ. The Assembly sponsor of the New York bill, Susan John, says it is an issue of equal protection: "A father can feed his child in public, a mother can't. A 4-year-old can get fed in the mall, a 3-month-old can't."

But 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. 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.

The truth is that there's nothing sexy about nursing in public, a process that usually includes a deft disarrangement of garments and the weird stares of passers-by and is quite like hiding a soccer ball beneath your shirt.

But there's nothing sexy about a woman asking for a raise, either, which didn't stop a male supervisor in one sexual harassment case from suggesting that the best place to discuss the matter was at a motel.

In Florida, where obscenity statutes were amended last year specifically to protect nursing mothers, a woman reported being asked to leave a movie theater where, one assumes, patrons could see a whole lot more of the female form than what's revealed during a breast-feeding.

When an actress takes off her clothes onscreen but a nursing mother is told to leave, what message do we send about the roles of women? In some ways we're as committed to the old madonna-whore dichotomy as ever.

And the madonna stays home, feeding the baby behind the blinds, a vestige of those days when for a lady to venture out was a flagrant act of public exposure and immorality.

New York becomes the third state to safeguard the civil rights of nursing mothers who don't want to hide in the house while their children are small.

Anyone who has breast-fed knows two things for sure: The baby wants to be fed at the most inopportune times, in the most inopportune places, and the baby will prevail, mall or no mall. And so the baby should, and the mom, too.

Sometimes a breast is a sexual object, and sometimes it's a food delivery system, and one need not preclude nor color the other. "A unique gland, an underestimated gland," one scientist who is studying breast-feeding enthused recently. Less sexy words were never spoken. And with good reason.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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