Being a feminist means that I am used to being shocked by the double standards in our society but recently there seems to be a worrying trend in terms of women being shamed for using their bodies for firstly producing babies and subsequently having the nerve to feed them. Kim Kardashian’s shiny naked butt glistening at me from Facebook was shocking enough, but the fact that it is seemingly more socially acceptable than images of women breastfeeding or giving birth is indicative of a disturbing new double standard. I am not suggesting you peruse the photos of Nigel Farage’s naked mother, but I don’t see him telling her to go and hide in the corner. And don’t get me started on the irony of Jeremy Clarkson complaining about women getting their boobs out in public in his column in the Sun.
Women’s bodies aren’t just for lactating and producing sprogs but I am sick to death of the public shaming of women doing the things for which their bodies are designed. When I had my first baby I decided that I wouldn’t be ashamed of my boobs and that I was going to breastfeed anywhere and everywhere. Consequently I have breastfed on trains, planes and automobiles. In cafes, bookshops, cinemas and pubs. I once accidentally squirted my father in law in the face when I fed my son in a fancy restaurant, but still I was not deterred. At times I felt self-conscious but I decided that if you didn’t like seeing my boobs, then that was your problem and you had to deal with it. The thought of having to retire to the toilet to feed my baby just made me feel cross and I never did it. When I had baby number 2 I became adept at feeding her in a sling but would often wander round supermarkets with one of my breasts hanging out because I’d forgotten to pop it back again afterwards. I absolutely refused to feel ashamed of my body and almost wanted someone to challenge me so that I could tell them exactly what I thought of them.
Luckily (for them), nobody ever did challenge me, but some of my friends have been told to stop feeding their crying baby by officious idiots in the employ of various public spaces. Not only is this an attempt to control women and their perfectly normal behaviour in public, but it is also symptomatic of a society which can’t seem to deal with seeing female nudity unless it is highly sexualised and covered in baby oil. People in the UK are currently campaigning against the current government’s attempts to regulate internet porn because they see it as an affront to their liberty, and yet at the same time we have right wing tossers like Farage and Clarkson who seem to think that feeding your baby is a bit icky and should be kept out of sight and out of mind. We want the ‘right’ to watch people having sex whenever we want and yet we don’t want to see women breastfeeding at Claridges?
I recently read some criticism of white feminists for apparently condemning Beyonce for her willingness to sexualise her body on stage but applauding Lena Dunham for doing the same thing in her TV show. I thought about this a lot and I realised that I don’t think this is because there is some sort of racist double standard at work, but that by showing her imperfect body in all its naked glory, Lena Dunham is trying to subvert a norm. Lena Dunham’s nudity in Girls is a big fuck you to the idea that we only want to see perfectly toned oiled bodies being objectified. It should not be necessary for Laura Dodsworth to photograph a hundred women’s breasts for us to realise that all bodies are beautiful in their diversity, but I think her work is equally revolutionary in challenging the current idealised notion of female beauty. The perfect body is a myth created by Photoshop and clever lighting, and is not something we should be tricked into aspiring to.
I think the real issue here is that patriarchy is constantly seeking to keep women in their place – perfectly bronzed, manicured, and made up objects that should be sexually available at all times. To see a woman giving birth or feeding her baby is to see a woman who is not in the service of a man at all, but powerfully intent on meeting the needs of her child. This is what white middle aged privileged men like Nigel Farage and Jeremy Clarkson find threatening – the outrageous notion that women might not actually give a fuck about what they think about when and where they should feed their babies because they have other more pressing concerns. It is this unspoken power of women that makes men afraid. It is the reason that birth has been sanitised and medicalised and pushed into a hospital in order that it can be constrained. Birth is all about a woman breaking out of her objectivity and becoming the subject in her own story, and so it is hardly surprising that society tries to control it. Women are more than the sum of their body parts but we need to remember that our bodies do not exist purely for male pleasure. They are our bodies and they are powerful.