Free the Nipple (from Shame)

This is a follow-up to my previous post: I left my Fig Leaf in my other Gym Bag.

To recap, I have recently discovered that nudity is strongly discouraged in the women’s locker room of my local Y.  From what I’ve heard, in contrast, the men’s locker room is a let it all hang out kind of place.   Apparently some men’s locker rooms are a bit more modest than others, but I’ll bet my best brassiere none of them require men to wear a shirt.

The root of the discrepancy here is the sexualization of the female body– or perhaps even worse, the sexualization of certain arbitrary female body parts.  The ownership of breasts does not make you a sex object 24/7.  If you are really lucky, you might manage 21/6, but even so you should take some time for yourself to hit the gym.

Having to cover myself in the locker room is a minor inconvenience, but it’s a pretty annoying minor inconvenience when men are not subjected to the same standards.

Which leads me to Free the Nipple, which if you are living under a blanket is a movement declaring female nipples should not be treated any differently than male nipples and should be allowed to be displayed anywhere male nipples enjoy sunshine and fresh air.  Laws vary by state as to whether or not you can get thrown in jail for owning a free female nipple. I gotta wonder if that’s constitutional under equal protection rights, but I live in a state where I cannot hold public office, so who knows?

I admit I’ve always considered this fairly ridiculous.  I don’t really want to walk around topless in public.  What kind of attention seeker do you have to be to insist on baring your chest for all the world to see? Have you no modesty? No.  No modesty. And that’s the point.  Modesty is what…exactly?  Modesty is nothing more than the successful ploy to convince women their bodies belong to the men who control them. This is insidiously labeled as self respect, but it’s not.  It’s self shame.  Modesty is a creation of the patriarchy. That almost makes me want to walk around Walmart topless.  Almost. Forgive me for my prudish American ways.

For the record, I did go topless for about 7 minutes on the beach in Barcelona once until it occurred to me that I might run into someone I knew..  Also, do nipples sunburn?  That’s probably  the first and last time I’m ever going  topless in public since I’ve already ruined the rest of my lily white skin with sun damage, so I figured Free the Nipple needn’t really concern me.  But upon further reflection inspired by the draconian dress code at the Y, it absolutely concerns me.  It concerns all women and the people who love them.

As a feminist, I really feel like I should have unpacked this before now.  The fact that topless beaches are not my thing does not mean I don’t have a tit in this tussle. We should all take a moment to consider the consequences of sexualizing the female breast.

First, there is the public breastfeeding issue.  I do have some experience with this.  I had a whole system of nursing bras, tank tops with slits cut in them covered by camp shirts, and blankets to cover my babies’ heads, and I’m sure I still flashed a couple of people.  I was also asked to feed my babies in the bathroom several times and once to leave a restaurant.  Mostly, though, I sat alone in my car so I could feed my child without the terrible risk that someone else might feel uncomfortable witnessing a completely normal function of the female breast.  I banished myself just in case someone might think they were witnessing a sexual act in the middle of Burdines.   My boob is not a dildo, people.  The hassle of public breastfeeding leads to some women switching to bottles of formula  or avoiding the nursing experience altogether .  As a culture, we should be ashamed.

It’s not just breastfeeding that is compromised by the sexualization of the breast. Consider that even though a woman’s risk of breast cancer is as high as 1 in 8, fewer than 70% of women get the mammograms recommended by health professionals.  Plenty of women avoid breast exams and mammograms because they require revealing a “private part” to a stranger.  Some women are especially uncomfortable with a male gynecologist, and I think it’s great to have the option of visiting a female practitioner, but I’ve also heard women say they don’t want another woman touching their breasts as if this is somehow a homosexual act.  It’s not a homosexual act, of course; it’s not a sexual act at all, but women who believe their breasts serve no purpose other than providing a man with pleasure are not getting the best healthcare they deserve.  Breast cancer goes undetected. There are women in this country who die of shame.

If you’re still not convinced that Free the Nipple is a perfectly sensible step in the advancement of women, consider this: To get around censorship rules on FB, I could take a picture of myself topless and Photoshop a man’s nipples over my own.  In theory, at least.  I believe it’s been done.  How ridiculous is that?

So Free the Nipple!  I really want a T shirt that says that.  As long as it covers everything.

 

 

Time to Nurse the Baby

Breast feeding is the most natural thing in the world. Or so they will tell you when you are blissfully pregnant with your first.  For many of us, it’s not quite as easy as all that.  The last thing we need is public scorn for trying to feed our babies in places other than darkened nurseries.  I have no patience for people who are so scandalized by the possibility of an errant nipple that they insist we feed our children in bathroom stalls.  Get a grip, people. When I was nursing, I couldn’t find a nursing bra I liked, and I developed an entire uniform around a “sleep bra” and men’s undershirts with slits cut in them under huge camp shirts.  I still flashed people, I’m sure.  Because that’s what happens when your baby decides he’s done for the moment and spits out your boob in public.

And yes, I was asked to feed my children in the bathroom.  I am so sorry my breasts inconvenienced you.  By the time I was confident enough to actually leave my home with a nursing infant, I had already overcome the hurdle of bleeding nipples.  “If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong,” advised my la leche counselor.  “This is the only way he knows how to do it,” I replied.  Bleeding nipples are almost as painful as childbirth, and while it only lasts for a few days, it’s enough to make some women give up, and I don’t blame them.  I was educated and determined and I had the support of my family.  I still didn’t manage to nurse either of my children for the full year recommended by pediatricians.

In my state, only 10% of babies are still being breast fed at 12 months.   This is despite the many known benefits of breastfeeding including a decrease in obesity, diabetes, ear infections, allergies, and asthma. Higher IQ scores in children who were breastfed have also been reported as well as a 30% decrease in SIDS deaths.  The cost of formula (as much as $2000 for a year’s worth) is prohibitive and damn inconvenient.  As far as I’m concerned, the number one benefit to nursing your baby is you can do it while you are asleep.

We as a society need to commit to breastfeeding as the healthiest start to a baby’s future.  Pamphlets and free breast pads are not enough.  New moms need our support. Education is certainly a factor.  Some cultures, even in the United States, still see an ick factor to nursing that can only be overcome by patience and exposure.  It would help if women were seen nursing in public on a regular basis.

But let’s be realistic.  Lots of women stop nursing for a variety of reasons.  Lack of adequate milk production is one.   Pediatricians and lactation consultants will tell you this is a rare phenomenon. But a lot of women run into it, especially faced with THE PUMP.  Some women are pumping pros and do both breasts at once in their cars while they are driving while learning French. For the rest of us, we nurse our babies, put them down for a nap, pump so we can leave the house alone, manage to produce 1/2 ounce of milk, cry for 45 minutes, and eventually go buy formula.  But for working mothers who want to nurse, the pump is not a luxury item reserved for date night.  It’s a necessity.

The only reason I was able to breastfeed my children for seven months was because I was not working.  Women do not need better breast pumps.  We need time to nurse our babies.  If we are serious about the health of women and children, we must address the fact that we are one of the only countries in the world with no mandatory paid maternity leave.  Even the Family Medical Leave Act, which is guaranteed unpaid leave, only lasts for 12 weeks.  This is barely enough time to form an initial bond with a new baby.

In a depressed economy, taking time off for a new baby is a luxury few can afford.  A 2012 Department of Labor survey showed that nearly 25% of women took less than 2 weeks off after the birth of a baby, and about half of those took less than a week.   It is no wonder that women with longer maternity leave also report higher rates of breastfeeding.   A generous maternity leave is also associated with reduced rates of depression in women, even years after returning to the workforce.

Some economists contend that maternity leave also benefits businesses as it prevents high turnover rates and training costs.  Some companies are starting to realize this, and maternity leave is offered as part of a competitive benefits package.  For most women, however, this remains out of reach.

If we as a culture believe in the health and well-being of women and children, if we believe that the health of our infants should not be dictated by Nestle, if we believe in work life balance, we cannot accept current American leave policies.  And for those of you afraid of accidentally seeing a nipple while a baby is eating her dinner, go put a blanket over your head.