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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The Brocialist’s Dilemma: joining the revolution inevitably leaves others behind

We have to remember that other people have priorities, which might clash with our hero-worshipping of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

It was Tony Blair who got me used to compromising my values for the sake of party unity and electoral success. After I voted for him in 2005, I knew in my heart that I could talk myself into voting for anybody if it kept the Tories out. Sure he’d planned and waged a war of aggression with disastrous consequences for millions of people, but he hadn’t privatised the railways. I’m not an Iraqi, I’m a guy who travels by train.

Having taken the Blair masterclass in compromising ideals, watching Jeremy Corbyn getting dragged over the coals for his various missteps all feels rather trivial. I found myself wondering just what it was going to take for Corbyn, who I don't dislike and will vote for, to outrage me to the extent that I’d want him gone.

Hell, I voted for the man who brought in university fees. I voted for him, and I knew as I did it that –had I been born just a few years later – there’s no way I’d have been able to go to university. I don’t know what Corbyn might do that would be a compromise too far given those I’ve already had to make over the years.

Left wing politics will always come with compromises, but what is telling is who has to make the biggest ones. We all want a unified and functional opposition, maybe one day a shot at government, but can we expect Jewish party members to simply ignore the failure to handle antisemitism in the party, or women to ignore so much about recent Labour selections?

It seems, at times, that what matters in Corbyn’s Labour is the new found sense of ideological purpose, rather than the trickier practical business of ensuring everybody is fairly treated and properly represented.

This brings us to the titular Brocialist Dilemma, because this is something that many of the men in the party will face whether they realise it or not. “Brocialist” is a generally pejorative term that tends to be applied to pugnacious white men piling into left wing or radical politics with earnestly held good intentions but little empathy and experience – and even less awareness of their lack thereof.

The Brocialist Dilemma is one born of coming into politics by choice looking to Fight the Good Fight, rather than having the Good Fight thrust upon you.

The dilemma is that if you are engaging with politics because you are an idealist looking to solve problems, which problems do you solve first? And whose problems do you push to one side in order to solve those problems? Where do you make your compromises?

You have to figure out who you’re willing to go to bat for and who you’ll let fall behind. There is no guide book for this, no master list of all the things that need to be fixed in left wing politics before it can be wheeled out like a massive cake to bring about global utopia.

We are all raised on stories of heroes leaping to the aid of the downtrodden for altruistic reasons. Plenty of us want to be that hero, but the shock of finding out that our personal intervention is not the tipping point in the struggle that we hoped it might be can be disheartening.

Nobody expects to answer the call to action only to be told to take a seat while the beneficiary of your munificence tries to find you something that you are qualified to help with.

More importantly than the disheartening effect on the enthusiastic would-be hero is the potential damage that can be done to the body politic itself. When thousands of energetic crusaders rally to the cause – intent on saving the world – but decide that your particular issues within that are less important, that your insistence on pursuing the agenda you got into politics to pursue is damaging, then we can see all kinds of unpleasantness.

It is not a coincidence that when you get huge numbers of highly engaged new people piling into a political cause that they bring with them what can charitably be called complications. I choose that word carefully because I’m still optimistic enough to believe that – for all the bile and spite being hurled around the Labour party in recent months – everybody is still, on a fundamental level, trying to do right.

Jeremy Corbyn is a huge draw for brocialists in much the same way as Bernie Sanders was in the US. This isn’t a complaint; you do want a leader who can motivate people, who can draw people into politics. Corbyn comes across like the wise old shaman who turns up in stories to guide the hero on the start of his journey to greatness. He is Obi-Wan Kenobi to a generation of left wing men who can see the world is an unjust place but don’t know exactly what they need to do to change it other than joining The Rebellion.

If there is a solution to the Brocialist Dilemma, perhaps it lies with Corbyn. What lesson can we take from the man himself? Is it to never compromise, to stick to your principles against all the odds? Perhaps. But also, and I would say more importantly, it is patience. Corbyn has spent decades campaigning for the causes he believes in, standing on picket lines, going on demonstrations – not always popular, though often right in hindsight.

At no point in his long and storied history of activism did Corbyn read the first volume of Das Kapital on his phone before getting bored and calling somebody a Blairite on Twitter.

If people can find the patience to learn, and the patience to teach, then perhaps we might all make it through this period in Labour’s history in a spirit of mutual respect. Otherwise we’ll be spending the rest of our lives calling each other names.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture