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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.