I was disappointed to learn about a mother who was asked to relocate while breastfeeding her child at a YMCA in St. John’s. After reading the story online, Google connected me with many other instances of women being asked to not breastfeed, or breastfeed somewhere else. Apparently, some Canadians have a problem with seeing a person breastfeed, or feel the need to control where it is appropriate to do so. It surprised me that people make it their business by placing complaints either toward the mother, or the organization involved. Atlantic Canada – and in particular Newfoundland – has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the country, and I have to wonder whether this trend has something to do with a cultural flaw in how women’s bodies are treated.
I’ll leave the debate about breastfeeding over bottle feeding to the health professionals. After all, it’s important that mothers have the right to choose what’s best for their children, their bodies and their families. However, when women’s decisions around breastfeeding are affected by the way breasts are treated in general, it becomes a different issue. There’s a good chance that a decline in breastfeeding in our province is related to the larger issue of objectification of women’s bodies.
We all know that breasts exist on women for the purpose of feeding babies. But do we still accept that? When a young mother chooses formula over breastfeeding out of fear of her breasts changing shape, this indicates one concern. When a mother feels she doesn’t have the right (this is untrue) to feed her child unless she is doing so in private, we see a pattern emerging. This pattern demonstrates that the idea of breasts existing more for sexual purpose than for feeding children, has been culturally reinforced (along with the expectation for women to prioritize sexual attractiveness above other things in life). This is a symptom of cultural sexual objectification.
What’s the big deal?
When a person is being sexually objectified, it means that their body (or a part of it) is being portrayed for its sexual use value. The words “sexual use value” are cringe-worthy, but the truth is we are surrounded by these ideas and images every day through increased media engagement. That’s why it may feel somewhat normal or okay to engage in objectifying behaviour. This subject-object relationship is expertly defined by Caroline Heldman, and boils down to one thing: in media, women are 95% more often portrayed as the object being acted upon, and their worth is all too often determined by how they serve the purpose of being acted upon. And so it’s suspicious that the same generations that experienced the influx of mass media, are the same generations that are representing a decline in breastfeeding. Breasts are one of the many parts of women’s bodies for which their sexualized use value (objectification) is portrayed as more important than their actual use value (meeting babies’ needs).
Just as aggravating as a woman being asked to breastfeed elsewhere are the campaigns that claim to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research by sexualizing breasts. And, of course, I’m not saying breasts and women are not attractive – of course they are! But when it comes to combating an illness, should sexiness be the focal point of supporters? “Save The Boobies” on wristbands. “Save Second Base” printed on t-shirts. The objectification factor cancels out its humour. The message this sends to breast cancer patients and survivors is, “I’m upset about breast cancer because I value breasts for sex,” instead of, “I’m upset about breast cancer because I value the people diagnosed with this illness.” It’s insensitive. Those breasts are attached to a person, and those breasts are a tiny fraction of who that person is. These “Save The Boobies” wrist bands are being sold in convenience stores across this province, which means that contributing to a culture of objectification is easier than a beer run.
When shopping for a bra, women are forced to choose between what level of “support” they want (a gentler way of saying breasts should be lifted and confined), what degree of padding, and of course what aesthetic style. The ideal to achieve is: breasts appear naturally abundant on a perfectly calculated place on the torso, defying gravity, and denying the existence of nipples all while making sure the bra is hidden under the outfit. It’s hilarious, expensive, and another way that breasts are sexually objectified. I’m still waiting for someone to provide me with a reasonable answer as to why the shape of a nipple is so offensive in the first place. Because in a world where bras would be designed for comfort of the wearer, evidence of nipples would not be shamed, and nor would bras that permit breasts to react to gravity. Objectification, in this case, is as simple as the expectation for women to prioritize appearing sexually desirable.
In case you haven’t heard, St. John’s will soon be graced with the presence of a Hooters – a chain restaurant that’s been closing doors in other cities. Servers at Hooters are always women, called “Hooters Girls”, and are expected to “represent the Hooters brand”. This type of restaurant – restaurants that require female wait staff to wear uniforms that are less-than-practical for food service work – are nicknamed “breastaurants”. The nickname “breastaurant” suggests that there’s a widespread understanding that the bodies of staff are there for patron consumption, just as much as the food. It encourages patrons to normalize the objectification of servers’ bodies as part of a dining experience. If this wasn’t the case, the job description for a ‘Hooters Girl’ would look a lot different. This trend also says a lot about organizational values. How can an organization like Hooters possibly have an effective anti-harassment policy? Where does “entertaining the patrons” end and sexual harassment begin? Oddly, many fans of the brand call it a “family-friendly restaurant”. Assuming that we’re all on the same page – that Hooters has nothing to do with owls, and everything to do with objectifying the workers’ breasts – I think the only thing that would make Hooters a good family restaurant would be if the Hooters Girls were responsible for advocating for normalization of breastfeeding. Instead, it is an entire corporate chain founded on exploiting unrealistic ideals of women’s bodies, with fries on the side.
Decide for yourself
If you’re a person who feels offended by the sight of a mother breastfeeding her child, or find yourself assuming that the woman who opts out of wearing a bra cannot take care of herself, please be advised that her breasts have nothing to do with you. Even the breasts of a Hooters Girl have nothing to do with restaurant patrons. Be conscientious that you too are experiencing a culture that encourages sexual objectification, and then decide: will your actions be those of a person who treats women and their bodies in terms of “sexual use value”, or will you be brave enough to call out sexual objectification for what it is?
If you’re a person that feels restricted about what to do with your own breasts, know you’re not alone. There are a ton of people who are tired of being expected to sexualize and self-objectify their body. Present yourself in a way that feels authentically comfortable to you and accept your beautiful body for what it does for you. Instead of not tolerating breastfeeding and nipple sightings, people ought not tolerate objectifying imagery. It isn’t breasts that need “extra support” – it’s the voices that speak out against sexual objectification.