Sunday, February 27, 2011

link: covering up is a feminist issue

Annie @ PhDinParenting has produced a video version of her blog post, "covering up is a feminist issue." In some ways, it reminds me of the Vagina Monologues bit entitled "My short skirt"--applied to breastfeeding. And in some sense, that's right: it seems that part of the motivation for the video includes recent comments about women avoiding rape by not dressing like sluts. But it's the more direct public square commentary, often from other women, about how "inappropriate" it is to "NIP" (that's nurse-in-public, for the uninitiated) or to do so without hiding yourself and baby under some kind of massive tent-like cover, that's the real issue. What the video does is connect these, as well as throw in a visual cue that there are other cultural and religious standards at play as well (early in the video, you see a burka), and draw the conclusion that the more general problem is that standards of dress are imposed externally on women, in all sorts of contexts and for all sorts of reasons. Breastfeeding in public is just one of those.

One of the more subtle points in the video happens right up front, in the pairing of conflicting cultural messages to Western women--"cover up"/"strip down." While the video doesn't spell this out, this highlights the way in which women's breasts, in our culture, have become public objects in sexual contexts--but stick a baby on there, and suddenly it's gross. So we're left with a situation where cleavage is fine, but God forbid you let a curve show if you're a mom with a hungry babe.

Personally, one of the many gains I experienced as a woman finally loving and appreciating my body through experiencing pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood was learning to see my body as functional and vital--and part of that happened through redefining my breasts, not as sort of pointless objects on the front of my chest that other people seem to enjoy for some unfathomable reason, but as a necessary, important and life-giving functional part of my amazing body. This meant thinking of them as special and awesome--while at the same time, thinking of them as something akin to my elbow--just there for a reason, because I needed them to do their milk-making thing. Not just hang there and look, I guess, pretty.

I loved nursing Clare, at home, in church, on trains, wherever. She hated being under a cover and so I didn't use one--and nursing tops make them, IMO, unnecessary. Clare's big ol' beautiful baby head completely blocked whatever wasn't covered by the nursing top. And I'm looking forward to nursing Baby Z...and reinforcing with Clare that breasts are awesome milk-making things and she's right to look forward to the day when hers get great big--so she can feed her babies.


Anonymous said...

and what if your daughter isn't able to have babies, and then feels worthless because she's been told her whole life that her body only reaches it's full potential through biological child bearing?

which by the way is basically the same thing churches have historically told women, just not under the guise of feminism.

Tera said...

Thanks for the post. I always felt like I should be able to nurse Owen where and how was best for us, but it was hard to get used to the surprised looks. (Having an infant can be isolating enough without having to retreat into some back room every 2 hours!)

JJT said...

Yes. This is part of what turned me decisively away from essentialist views of gender and womanhood--which end up being extensions of woman-as-universal-mother. Not all women are mothers, not all women want to be mothers, and being a woman doesn't make automatically make you a "naturally" nurturing person (metaphorical mother) either. That sort of rigid ideal leaves people out--and then makes them feel that being left out is somehow their fault, or that there's something wrong with them, when in truth, it's a wrong that we perpetrate on each other. (This is also, incidentally, why the "supermom" bit drives me INSANE. But I've ranted plenty on that in other blog posts.)

I'm curious: did I phrase something inadequately in the blog post that prompted your comment? I can see the potential for the body-functionality talk to be interpreted in an exclusive of nonmothers way. It's not meant to be--just my personal anecdote of belatedly coming to appreciate female bodiliness in a way that references something other than someone else's sexual pleasure. I don't think it's the only way I might have come to this much healthier regard for my body, and certainly not the only possible way for every woman out there. Seeing my boobs as functional eventually led back around to appreciating them, and the rest of me in a way that doesn't rely wholly on the functional milk-making bit. After Clare weaned herself I had to learn to love my slowly deflating boobs without that functionality, after all. Having never before cared about them (except being glad I'm small enough that they're not totally inconvenient) it was nice to actively appreciate my breasts, and the rest of me, in both mothering and nonmothering contexts. So that new-found love of my body didn't disappear but enlarged. And of course someone else could land at this place without the detour through pregnancy/birth/breastfeeding.

One more thing and I'll stop rambling (I have some packing to do)...this is just one of the hardest things about feminist talk about embodiment, I think--there's such a rift on mothering. But it's an unnecessary one, and we've got to get better at talking about it and through it and honoring every woman's experience and not just the ones that match up to our problematic "ideal" of womanhood--whether it comes packaged in feminist essentialism or the religious/cultural essentialism we get pounded with in every paper towel commercial and Bible class...

JJT said...

Tera, I anticipate NIP with Baby Z in a whole new context come June, at the CSC. I'm convening a couple sessions and I'm pretty sure that I'll end up talking through it with a baby sling on my front and a (hopefully contentedly feeding or sleeping) baby on my chest. I have to say, I expect to feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time--mental shrug--sometimes, folks, academics are moms too, and we all better get used to it. ;)