One of my observations of American culture as a foreigner, and in my particular foreign identity (African, Nigerian, black, Third Culture Kid) is that Americans (especially white Americans) are obsessed with women’s breasts. Don’t get me wrong, breasts are great, and for many reasons. And perhaps it’s my cultural upbringing where other parts of women’s bodies are more scrutinized by that unceasing male gaze, or that my particular breasts are a member of the small boobs club, or just being a woman who didn’t really have a say in having these body parts, I’ve never quite understood the fascination.
From what we see in our mainstream media, to the types of conversations we have about sex, sexuality, and the body; and indeed the socialization of what constitutes attractiveness in this society, it is quite clear that breasts (of a certain particular imagination) continue to be in high demand. Sure, white America finally decided booties are “in vogue” too. (Yawn, centuries after they have been for black people everywhere.) But really breasts, at least in recent popular cultural conversations of beauty and womanhood, have always been “in,” in this part of the world.
Breasts are “in” when we turn to magazines, television, and Internet sites that attempt to get people to purchase the latest car or clothing item or just about any object known to mankind, by showing a pair of woman’s boobs. Breasts are “in” when there is an entire industry that ultimately benefits from the desire of women to alter their bodies in order to achieve a look that they (and society) deem appealing. However much people want to claim people do things for individual reasons, human beings live in societies, not apolitical vacuums. Our choices or lack thereof, are at least in part, always a political act, born of community. But you know when breasts are not “in” for a lot people? When a woman is breastfeeding in public.
Now from the cultural lens I use, I was to put it mildly, shocked when I was informed that public breastfeeding was a point of contention when I moved here. You see many African cultures live in a certain type of contradiction – there is a certain conservatism or traditionalism about how women should move through the world, and one that is cultural as much as it is religious. But at the same time, in traditional African societies which hopefully will always be retained in cultural memory, is an understanding of the beauty of the human body, the woman’s body, that predates a Western puritan ideology of the naked body as intrinsically bad, or at least controversial.
In other words, naked bodies are not really a big deal within a certain African framework. Heck, I have had the pleasure of visiting and interacting with traditional communities, notably some Khoisan communities in Botswana, where but for the covering of the genitals, people were naked. It wasn’t a shame or an act of freedom or femininity or feminism, as far as women in particular, were concerned. Rather it serves as a reminder that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. And without the necessity of weather that demanded clothing, or ideology that insisted on the body being covered, nakedness, and not for the purposes of capitalism or sexuality or objectification, was/is a part of life.
Now it would be poor cultural analysis to use those particular lenses on American culture, especially given the legacy of Protestant ethics and cultural attitudes that are still deeply embedded in society. But it is worth asking why we allow breasts to be in so many different gazes, except the one for which breasts actually serve a biological function – feeding newborns. I do not understand how the culture that will expose breasts in various ways that sometimes serve nothing, other than the socialized senses of something as non-functional as beauty, will then be offended by something as important as feeding a baby when he or she is hungry.
They’re breasts and by a certain age we’ve all seen them – either because we have them or because we’ve been exposed to them in person, in media, and in society. And in the act of breastfeeding, you do not even see the entire breast in most cases. It seems rather an obtuse perspective then, to declare this more than natural act as indecent, given the context of its function, the practicalities of what we see when the act is performed, and juxtaposed to all the other ways in which breasts are unprotected from the average citizen.
By all means, I wish to hear valid and intelligent arguments to the contrary that are contextualized in how it serves the culture and/or the individual well, to police women who breastfeed in public. Because I am yet to be convinced thus far, and simply implore those who are troubled by the sight of public breastfeeding, to well, look away.