Immodesty All Over The Map

I have a new post up at Christianity Today:

“A North American evangelical woman walking the streets of Zomba, Malawi—where I live—might assume that women here are immodest. Spend any length of time talking to a woman with a baby of nursing age, and you’re almost certain to see her take her entire breast out of her shirt and offer it to her baby.

I’ve seen women walk along the street like that, a cloth snugly holding the baby in place while he sucks away. No one bats an eye. But when women wear shorts or skirts above the knee, everyone—men, women, even children—has a hard time not staring.

It’s not so hard to imagine how, in this context, knees became coded as more private than breasts. In a place where the birth rate is high, a single can of formula costs at least two week’s wages, and privacy is hard to come by, nursing in public is pretty much a necessity. Breasts can’t be regarded as for the bedroom only. The concept of modesty certainly exists, but it’s more often applied to women’s hemlines than their necklines.”

{Read the rest here.}

Where No Militancy Is Necessary: Breastfeeding Battles

Last week, a woman with the improbable name of Nirvana Jennette was berated for breastfeeding in church. I wrote a post for Christianity Today’s women’s blog, her.meneutics, in response; you can read it here.

Basically, I wanted to point out that God is pictured, in Scripture, as a nursing mother. And that in other cultures–notably, cultures that lack the excessive, well, sexualized-boobage-on-display of ours–no one bats an eye when a mom feeds her hungry baby in full view.

Well, given some of the hyper-masculine trends in churchianity these days, I thought people might get upset over the whole “biblical-imagery-God-nursing” thing!

But no. Nope.

For some readers, my article seemed to:

  • attack modesty
  • refuse to recognize that seeing a woman breastfeeding makes some people uncomfortable
  • defend bf’ing in public on the grounds that ‘it’s natural!’

Because “don’t I realize” that…

  • seeing breasts triggers sexual thoughts for people–and, yes, Ye Olde Argument “Don’t Cause a Brother to Stumble” (see Romans 14:13-15) was dragged out, too*
  • sex and pooping are natural but we don’t do them in the church pew
  • and other fallacious comparisons

I wrote the following in response:

“It is worth considering the possibility that plunging necklines, Victoria’s Secret, and (I’ll say it) porn have exaggerated breasts’ sexual meaning at the expense of their other, God given function; whereas, perhaps, a culture without constant exposure to images of glorified, sexualized breasts might be more likely simply to shrug off whatever skin they might see in the act of nursing.

This seems plausible.

It’s POSSIBLE to create a *different* culture around the natural act of breastfeeding–one that, like many cultures elsewhere–recognizes it as simply another part of community/church life in mixed-age settings–ie. the body of Christ in all its beautiful diversity?. Because that is what it is.

You don’t like what you perceive as the ‘militant’ attitude of some breastfeeding moms? Consider what attitude might have given roots to that one.

It’s possible to create a culture where no one feels that militancy is necessary.

A baby’s need to be fed shouldn’t (can’t!) be dictated by schedules or strangers’ preferences. You’re uncomfortable; you want to look away? You are free to do so.

What I’m saying is that it may be possible to look/see *in a different way.*”

P.S., re: sexualizing nursing breasts, see Annie Young Frisbie’s excellent post here.

P.P.S., on why breastfeeding is more than just a topic of the mommy wars, read my post here.

*I’m not trying to belittle this line of argument. Okay, maybe I am, just a little. But really, this line of argument belittles itself. Men have less control over where they point their eyeballs than infants or their mothers do over the when and where of infant hunger?  And women should therefore be banished to the bathroom with their infants? How ’bout we make the men go sit in the bathroom?

Breastfeeding Roundup

At the top of the list for weirdness in breastfeeding news this week, the UK’s biggest restaurant, Cosmo, charged a woman 3 pounds for her exclusively breastfed 6 week son to “occupy space” in the restaurant. To their credit, the restaurant apologized, indicating that the employee who charged the fee was in error.Next up, protests were scheduled to be held in Paw Paw, Mich., yesterday, following the incident in which a woman, Natalie Hegedus, was called out by Judge Robert Hentchel for breastfeeding her baby in court. “Do you think that’s appropriate in here?”  The baby was sick, she said, and he was hungry. And, for the record, breastfeeding in courtrooms is perfectly legal.

{I wonder, would the judge have been upset had Ms. Hegedus been bottle-feeding the baby?}

And in both the Daily Mail and Cafe Mom highlighted the unusual but admirable effort of adoptive mothers to breastfeed their adopted babies–sometimes with the help of medications, sometimes with supplemental feeding systems. Mothers who’ve breastfed adopted babies cite the desire for physical bonding–as well as health benefits–in explaining their decisions.

Rounding out the week’s breastfeeding news is this story in the Washington Post: Rhode Island has become the first state in the Union to eliminate those free bags of formula from its hospitals. Just 38% of RI mothers nurse their babies 6 months after birth, compared to 44% nationwide. Rhode Island’s health director hopes that ending the formula giveaways will bring the state’s breastfeeding rates up. Giving away formula in hospitals and at doctor’s offices sends a mixed signal, many health and lactation professionals say–with their mouths doctors and nurses say “breast is best,” but when they hand you a bag of free formula, it looks a lot like an endorsement.

And that’s the week in breastfeeding news! Clearly, breastfeeding sometimes complicated, sometimes messy, sometimes embarrassing yet still very, very worth it.

{You can read previous breastfeeding posts here (Breastfeeding and Justice) and here (Advertising Formula Works…But for Whom?}

On Being (or wanting to be) ‘Skinny Pregnant’

Twice in the last week I’ve been asked how I went from disordered in my eating and body image to joyfully (if occasionally) consuming pie for breakfast. And while I’m never quite sure how to answer the question–because no one, simple answer could really suffice and because I’m afraid of boring everyone by going into too much detail, for example:

(“and then there was the time I thought my shorts felt tight so I cut them into shreds with fabric scissors, and I realized ‘I may have a problem,’ which reminds me of the time I tried to live entirely off of Sugar-Free Jell-O, which made me think, ‘THIS can’t be good!’ which reminds me of how I was too chicken to use REAL laxatives so I just ate a LOT of prunes…”)

See? No one wants to go there. Not even me!

But there is one thing that I can point to for sure. Wait, two things, actually:Yeah, I know. Cliche, right?

In Waiting for Birdy, Catherine Newman talks about how pregnancy and parenthood brought forth all kinds of true and applicable cliches from her, such that she considered making pitches to Hallmark. I think that is kind of true for me, too. Eating disorders can be very, very isolating. If I was going to refuse to feed myself adequately, the person I would hurt worst was myself.

When I became pregnant, that was no longer true. I’m ashamed to say that at first, with my first pregnancy, I really didn’t want to gain weight. I didn’t even realize that “skinny pregnant” was a thing.

(I do remember reading this article about pregnant New Yorkers who worked out like crazy and counted every ounce and learning of this exercise program aimed at preventing and reversing the “mummy tummy.” And I learned of the oddly titled Pregnancy Without Poundsall of which taught me that “skinny pregnant” WAS a thing.)

Anyway, I was one of those pregnant women who get nauseous from breathing air and as it turned out, it was hard for me to put on weight at all. Apparently, I take after both grandmas, whose pregnant bodies were of the basketball-under-the-shirt variety, like so:

{Hey! That basketball is my mom!}

Even though I’m pretty sure this grandma, at least, stayed skinny partly because she was doing plenty of this throughout her pregnancies:{I know smoking is bad for you and all, but she sure made it look glam, no?}

Nonetheless, I fretted about getting a belly (will it ever go away?) and confessed to my husband that I “just didn’t want to gain weight.”

“If you don’t gain weight, Aidan will die.”

Well. That was painful.

And so I did the best I could. I ate. (And managed not to puke it all up.) I got bigger. And I had a really, really beautiful baby, whom I nursed. And as I nursed him, I felt a powerfully strong sense of our connection. To feed him, I had to feed myself. I wanted him to get bigger and stronger. I had a context for seeing feeding and weight gain as unquestioned positives. From there, I felt like exploring how my eating connected me to other people–to my son and my husband, to my neighbors and to the people who grew my food.

Having my baby showed me my unmistakeable connectedness.

I think that’s the thing that’s scary about the obsession with pregnancy skinniness, which I see reinforced everywhere–on Facebook, in conversations, and (certainly) among the tabloids, which seem always to be screaming about how skinny this or that celebrity just X number of weeks after having a baby. The obsession misses the point, which is that women’s bodies are capable of making room for, carrying, and bringing forth a new life.

{Grandma was so ridiculously beautiful.}

That is–or can be–a powerful, miraculous, transforming thing. It was for me. And it had nothing to do with being (or not being) “skinny pregnant.”

For once, it had very little to do with me at all. (And that was a good thing.)

And now for some more pie.

Advertising formula works…but for whom?

Well, whadd’ya know? Formula advertising reduces breastfeeding rates.

A World Health Organization study in the Philippines has shown that mothers who have been influenced by advertisements or their doctors to use infant formulas are two to four times more likely to use those products. The study, published by the Social Sciences and Medicine Journal, also reported that mothers who saw ads for infant formula were “6.4 times more likely to stop breast-feeding babies within one year of age, a move that increases the risk of illness and death for the infant”–particularly in and among at-risk population groups.

See also my post Breastfeeding and Justice.