Sexy breasts are for the men, lactating, stretch-marked breasts are for the women

The great breast debate, including but not limited to Page Three, breastfeeding in public, lads' mags, contains a frustrating lack of acknowledgement of female sexual agency.

Earlier this week Philips Avent, a leading manufacturer of breast pumps, sterilisers and baby bottles, hosted a #breastdebate on twitter. You’d be forgiven if, even as an owner of breasts, you’re already feeling less than impressed. First, there’s always something suspect when a profit-making company puts on their “sympathetic” face and tries to convince consumers it’s only there to help. Second, while I do believe these issues are important, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re all now suffering from breast debate fatigue. If it’s not breastfeeding in public, it’s Page Three, if it’s not Page Three, it’s the Convoy of Cleavage. Breasts, breasts, as far as the eye can see. And the more we talk about them, the less real your own can start to feel.

To be fair to the hosts of this particular breast debate, even they admitted “seems our debate isn’t such a ‘debate’ after all”. Most contributors were hugely in favour of having the freedom to breastfeed wherever they needed to and wanted employers to be more supportive of women who continue breastfeeding after having returned to work. Woo-hoo! Of course, this is very much a self-selecting group. Usually Twitter isn’t such a welcoming place for breastfeeding mothers, there being a coterie of tweeters eager to share their horror at having spotted a nursing mother out in broad daylight.

For some, the mere sight of babe on tit is just too much:

The only site of milk (soy) I expected to see this morning was in my cereal. Breastfeeding on the train?? Not cool

So this woman was breast feeding her baby when I clocked in at work. We made eye contact. It was the most uncomfortable situation. #awkward

A woman on my Facebook posted a picture of her breast feeding her kid. I didn’t think I had boundaries but I might have just found them.

What is it with young mothers and the need to expose their stretch marked boobs when breastfeeding their 5-year-olds?

Hey lady breastfeeding in public. I know you’ve gotta feed your baby, but damn! You had to whip out your milk bags in the check out line?

These were all from one hour. I’m not sure what’s worst: the stretchmarks, the shame of meeting someone’s eye, the fact that the most offensive thing someone’s seen on Facebook is a woman feeing her baby, or perhaps just the lack of coolness that’s being imposed on a train carriage. I suppose with the last one we can at least credit the tweeter with knowing what breastfeeding’s for (the clue’s in the “feeding” bit).  Anyhow, I hope these guardians of public hygiene and moral propriety aren’t too traumatised. After all, if you can’t handle the sight of some breast, this isn’t the society for you.

It infuriates me that while, on the one hand, we are debating the rights and wrongs of sexual objectification in the form of Page Three, on the other the active choice to use one’s breasts to feed an infant is positioned as transgressive and socially embarrassing. While we may question the impact of the image in a particular context, the choice to bare one’s breasts for money is just that, a choice. Meanwhile baring one’s breasts to feed a baby or young child is portrayed as inconsiderate and even narcissistic, a “need to expose”. What a strange reading of female psychology, based, it would appear, on the relative attractiveness of one’s breasts (the less “acceptable” their appearance, the more you’re a wilful show-off, babe or no babe).

The thing that really depresses me in all this is the lack of acknowledgement of female sexual agency. Whatever one is doing with one’s breasts this seems to be the one constant. Sexy breasts are for the men, tucked away with the news and sport. Lactating, stretch-marked breasts are for the women, for feeding our young (good) and/or for making some offensive proto-feminist statement on trains or in workplaces (bad). And yet this isn’t necessarily how we experience our bodies at all. For some of us, whatever they’re being used for, whatever they look like, breasts remain sexual, even if you’re lactating, even if they’re engorged, even if you’ve just accidentally squired some foremilk into your little one’s eye. They’re breasts but they’re also tits.

Much as I’m behind it, there are times when I feel that the pro-breastfeeding in public lobby veers a little too close to saying “it’s just food”, as though the only alternative is some misguided male objectification which leads to breasts being seen in the “wrong” way. And yet to me this is just as damaging the hyper-objectification of Page Three. The more we sanitised our representation of the nursing mother, perfectly absorbed in her role as feeder, the less space we give women to engage with their own bodies and the sheer complexity of experiencing parts of it as both nurturing and, well, rude.

The more certain men reduce women to disjointed body parts – pretending to serve up sexual organs on a plate – the more we start to perceive said body parts as weapons of protest, as the Convoy of Cleavage shows (regardless of whether or not it is meant purely as satire). I worry this can create a form of alienation, and even guilt. As a feminist and an owner of breasts, I would have to say I do find breasts sexual – even, in the right contexts, my own. Particularly when you are breastfeeding, this can be quite jarring. I remember feeling terrified that if I accidentally achieved let-down during sex this would mean I was a bad mother. I also remember feeling guilty when my midwife told me that the best way to get the milk flowing when expressing was to look at a photo of your baby, whereas for me the most effective thing seemed to be thinking of rather different scenarios. I don’t know how this all works – whether I am a strange example, whether distorted cultural messages about the female body mean even I don’t see breasts in the “right” way. What I do know is that our current way of handling the “breast debate” seems to suggest women, and mothers in particular, are too busy handling male sexual responses to have any responses of their own. This isn’t fair.

The price of being able to show one’s breasts in public should not be desexualisation. There needs to be an acknowledgement that real sexuality is more complex than what is offered up to the heterosexual male gaze in the Sun, Nuts and Zoo. Page Three models aren’t just sexual agents in their own right; so too are those of us with babies at our breasts. So perhaps, to a certain extent, our presence in the middle of a crowded cafe, reddened areola on show, will continue to provoke a strange mix of responses. We can, however, move beyond either sanitised idealisation or objectifying hostility.

 

A woman breastfeeding her baby during a blackout in the maternity unit at St Andrews Hospital, Dollis Hill, in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.