In news that has shocked precisely no one, it turns out that men who don’t like women also don’t like women breastfeeding in public. Well done, Jeremy Clarkson and Nigel Farage. It’s always good to know that some things never change.
In response to news that a woman was asked to cover herself while breastfeeding in Claridge’s, Farage has suggested that women “perhaps sit in the corner” while they feed their babies. Clarkson, meanwhile, has explained that breastfeeding “is natural, just like urinating. But when we want to do that, we go to a little room and do it in private”. So there are your choices, ladies: corner or toilet. You can’t risk offending the terminally offensive while feeding your own child.
To be fair, I genuinely believe that Farage and Clarkson are disgusted. All this ostentatious personhood on the part of women is hard to take. It’s not just that we live in a culture in which female breasts are sexualised, and hence no longer seen as functional. It’s that women aren’t meant to have flesh-and-blood bodies at all. Of course the likes of Clarkson will be appalled at any sign that women are not surface-only propositions. When we lactate in public we might as well be pissing; it’s an indication that beneath our skin there’s just as much blood, guts and passion as one would find beneath the skin of any man. When our bodies leak it’s a sign that we’re human, not dolls. Of course it causes offence.
To exhibit any kind of bodily function in public – whether it’s pissing against a wall, spitting in the street, picking and flicking earwax while one waits in a queue – is still seen as a male thing to do. We might consider such things disgusting, but men can assume the right to be disgusting in a way that women can’t. It’s understood that male bodies are a part of what men are. Female bodies don’t have the same status. Even though, on a basic level, we know that they work in much the same way male bodies do – we shit, we piss, we perspire, we snore – we don’t really want to know this. A female body remains a thing to use, to own and to look at. It’s not something which does things suggestive of some real, human messiness inside.
These days the phrase “real woman” is associated with Dove adverts, not with women who fart and burp and might occasionally want to cough up some phlegm while out on a jog. I’m not saying these are pleasant things to do – nor am I proposing we organise a feminist fart-in (unless it’s held at Claridge’s) – but I do think we need to ask ourselves whether the perceived “maleness” of bodily functions is harmful to women. If we pretend that other women don’t snore, sweat or have smelly feet, how much more ashamed will we feel of our own bodies, simply for existing in their natural state? (Even in writing this, I’m fighting the urge to add “obviously I don’t do any of these things”, just in case it is just me.)
Changes in sexual mores have allowed us to pretend that women are no longer under enormous pressure to be “ladylike”. However, being ladylike and being chaste are not the same thing. If anything, the more flesh we are permitted to have on show, the greater the pressure upon us to make said flesh hairless, unscented and perspiration-free. Last week the Mirror ran a report on “the most lifelike sex dolls ever” (“even the close-up shots show their pouting beauty, which would make any red-blooded male’s pulse race”). I suspect that, in terms of actual bodily functions, my childhood Tiny Tears doll was more “lifelike”, but that doesn’t matter. The ultra “real” sex doll is what we’re up against – a fantasy female body that’s allowed to take up far more imaginative space than a flesh-and-blood woman ever can.
In contrast to the female body, the male body is simply allowed to be: to fill the room, legs spread wide, adding its own sounds and scents to the air. To assume the right to be a little bit revolting – to spit on the street, to jokingly raise your arse cheek to fart – is, I would argue, a form of privilege. It expresses an ownership not just of the body, but of the space around it. We don’t see it as such because we presume men and boys are “naturally” into this sort of thing. On several occasions my sons have been bought books on wee, poo and snot because it’s assumed “boys like that”. Presumably girls don’t, or at least they know they’re not meant to, given how fragrant and pristine a little girl is supposed to be (she might want to pick her nose as well, but it’s not funny when she does is). It’s not that I think we should be encouraging all children to delight in eating bogeys, but the current imbalance does suggest that, somehow, girls aren’t meant to experience themselves fully in their bodies in the way boys do.
Breastfeeding is neither disgusting nor unhygienic; it does, however, create at least one scenario in which it is clear that a woman is her body, inhabiting it as a functioning organism rather than presenting it to the world as a façade. I imagine that’s why, to the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, it really is as repulsive as public urination. It’s as close as a woman – and not just any woman, a mother, of all people – gets to dropping the act and being more than just an object beneath the male gaze (and what a shame that to do this, she first needs the excuse of nourishing another human being).
Female bodies don’t just exist to be looked at; they leak, smell, make involuntary noises, and what’s more, if they do all that then it’s also likely that they think and feel. But a woman having thoughts and feelings won’t do. Best put her in the corner so no one can see.