You Know How Not to be Offended? Stop Gawking!

Hunger is a natural part of the human existence, whether it’s a figurative hunger for something abstract like power and success or a literal hunger for food. When an infant is hungry and his mother decides to nourish him from her breast, a controversy should not ensue. However, it does, and it’s baffling to say the least. All manners of straw man arguments break out. The mother is derided for breastfeeding in public, and if she has a picture of her taken while feeding her child, she’s chided in a number of offensive ways.

During her college graduation ceremony, a 25 year old mother in Los Angeles breastfed her infant daughter. She had a photo taken of the moment then posted it to the Facebook group, Black Mothers Do Breastfeed, as a way of showing support for mothers like her: black women who have opted out of using formula and have chosen instead to nurse. A number of studies and surveys reveal that black mothers lag behind other mothers when it comes to breastfeeding, hence the creation of the Facebook group. The goal of it is simple: to encourage via sharing that many black women do, in fact, breastfeed. Karlesha Thurman, the graduating mother, is one of many.

Since the picture went viral, she’s received an outpouring of support. Those folks understand. Her child was fussy and hungry, and it was a long graduation ceremony. (I can vouch for the lengthiness of the ceremony. My cousin also graduated from CSU-Long Beach two years ago, and even though we arrived as the ceremony was underway, my family and I still sat for nearly two hours until the program was finally concluded.) There has also been kvetching about the picture.

But why did she have the baby with her? The baby should have been with family. Why couldn’t she sover up? She should have covered up. Would it be OK if I just whipped out my penis? To the first two questions, Karlesha has explained in interviews that her mother initially had the baby, but when the little girl became fussy in her grandmother’s arms, she collected her daughter and began to feed. A graduating friend asked to take the picture, and there you have it.

Though I am not a mother, I do know that, if I am able, I will breastfeed once I have children. I think it’s perfectly natural, and when you see a mother nursing her child, what is visible is really only some décolletage. During summer months, one can spot a number of women with revealing cleavage thanks to low-cut tops. Why is there so much emphasis on visible cleavage when the woman is breastfeeding? Is it that we’ve so classified breasts as objects solely for sexual gratification that there’s a feeling of cognitive dissonance when we see them being used as a source of nourishment for infants and toddlers as well? Perhaps therein lies the Catch-22: Public breastfeeding isn’t seen as “normal” and when a mother does take a picture doing just that (or actually breastfeeds sans photo), as a way of normalizing breastfeeding, some people have near-strokes because seeing a baby suckling from a breast is “weird.”

The first time I witnessed actual grousing about public breastfeeding was a couple months ago. It was in the checkout line at the Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom, and this woman (black like me) was positively scandalized. At first I didn’t understand what was going on. She was in front of me. I was minding mine. She was all, “Oh my God! I can’t believe she’s doing that!” Me: *Should I get that chocolate bar over there?* Woman: Does she really have to do that right there?” Me: *You have chocolate at home. You don’t need to get that chocolate bar.* Woman [speaking directly to me]: Can you believe what she’s doing? [motioning to a woman on the sidewalk breastfeeding her toddler] Me: Oh. Well… Woman: She shouldn’t be doing that. The child has teeth. That’s too old. Can you believe? Me: I mean, the kid’s hungry… [blank stare] Woman: That’s like child abuse.

Then I tuned her out, and she got the message. I’m not even a mother, and I was offended. No one compelled the woman to keep gawking at a mother feeding her child, yet the woman refused to look away. The more she looked, the more worked up she made herself, acting like it was an offense to her. And I kept thinking: You know how not to be offended? Stop fucking gawking! Damn.