Lactation without representation

August 11, 2002|By Shaun Borsh

BREASTFEEDING has made a medical comeback in our country, but in our media-savvy culture, we are stuck in, ahem, hooterville. Breasts are admired, ogled and envied, but no one is interested in function, only flash.

Victoria's secret is that her cups runneth over: with milk.

Somehow, showcasing our cleavage to sell chicken wings and magazines wins approval, feeding our young publicly does not.

Remember the flap over the Redbook magazine cover with actor Pierce Brosnan, actress Keely Shaye Smith and their nursing baby? That cover picture sold copies at newsstands, but another cover was prepared for subscription readers, to avoid offending them.

Popular television disregards breastfeeding with few exceptions. The uproariously funny Seinfeld once aired an episode in which a skuzzy friend of Jerry's exposed himself to Elaine. While Jerry confronted him, the flasher's attention was distracted by a woman breastfeeding her baby. The lout was disgusted by the woman "doing that" in public.

Our society appreciates healthy, beautiful breasts for allure, not production value. From push-up and Cross Your Heart bras to exercise and surgical enhancement, a lot of time, effort and hard-earned cash are spent in creating and maintaining bodacious curves. Meanwhile, a healthy working breast is virtually scorned.

What is a lactating mother to do? Catalogs marketed to nursing women propose discretion: a nursing blanket to cover a woman's shoulder and breast, offering privacy. Who needs cover, the baby or the public?

While I was in production, I took another approach. I ran to the nearest dark corner to feed my infant son. Church nursing? Heavens no! On christening day, I laboriously pumped breast-milk into little bottles while counting chocolate croissants and petit fours for the impending party. I avoided any and all public nursing by crouching in bathroom stalls, hiding in cars and excusing myself to another room when confronted with visitors.

A big change occurred for me when my second child arrived. I turned off the Madison Avenue image of my body when I realized that feeding my baby in front of others was not a display; it was simply feeding my baby.

My realization was not a thump-on-the-head, light-flickering moment, just a practical solution as I no longer possessed time to scout cozy corners to feed my daughter. With a new baby and my 3-year-old in tow, I barely had time to brush all 32 of my teeth let alone worry about displaying my breasts to an offended public. Finally at ease, I relaxed while nursing in public.

I wonder about other women and their nursing experience. Do we need a societal change to help us along?

For as many babies we see out and about, how often do we see a woman nursing? And when we do see nursing, is it odd? Many women choose not to nurse due to logistics. For most of us, babies are not permitted in our work environment, and pumping breast milk can become a chore. Many of us are adamant about providing breast milk to our children for the health benefits listed by our pediatricians.

Yet, for some, breastfeeding in public may feel awkward. How does one overcome the embarrassment?

Practice, practice, practice. We, as a society, desensitize when confronted with the same image over and over again. The more we see women breastfeed in malls, restaurants and at the lube center, public nursing will become commonplace.

How about popular culture? Does it need a tweak? The wit, irony and pathos of popular television programs, such as The West Wing, would offer great vehicles to introduce public breastfeeding to the viewing audience. Nike, why not use your bold advertising of women in sports to underscore the health benefits of breastfeeding - didn't Steffi Graf just have a baby? Sports Illustrated, how about an annual breastfeeding issue?

OK, OK, hold on to your nursing bra. But wouldn't it be nice to let working breasts do what they do with a little appreciation?

We are women, see us nourish.

Shaun Borsh is a free-lance writer who lives in Columbia.

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