Thursday, December 10, 2009

When Lactivists Attack!

No, not a new reality offering from Fox. I'm speaking of the phenomenon on Twitter that has been happening on a regular basis since the #bfing hashtag entered the Tweetgeist, wherein someone makes a snide remark about breastfeeding, usually regarding nursing in public or duration of nursing beyond whatever age they feel personally feel is acceptable, and the RTs with #breastfeeding, #bfing and #lactivism start a-flying*. The original Tweeter is then inundated with responses from breastfeeding advocates worldwide, and almost invariably gets more and more defensive by the @reply.

I've joined in too, when my timing is right, and have witnessed even more. Most of the instigating remarks, I'm sad to say, I've kind of gotten used to - I mean, spend even a few months online reading about the topic in various internet forums, and you're bound to encounter tired old tropes like the typically ignorant "If he can ask for it, he's too old to nurse," and the mockery of all things logical that is "I know it's natural and all, but so is poo - do it in privacy of the bathroom." But I truly heard a new one just a few days ago.

Are you sitting down? Well, I guess you probably are, seeing as how this is on a computer screen. Are you currently in the process of consuming a beverage? Finish swallowing, put the drink down. Okay, then, read on**:

AlanArbelaez: Theres a woman #bfng out in the open, tits exposed. Wtf is wrong w/her? It's like a man feeding his baby w/his penis.
It's like a man feeding his baby - with his penis. I'll give you a moment to process that.

Yes, this really was taken from him verbatim. What's amazing is that only a handful of lactivist Tweeps descended upon him - and did a fine job, might I add, most notably MommyNews, LactatingGirl and Morgaine_LaFay. Kudos, ladies. In terms of sheer numbers, he got off easy, relative to the statement he made. But I was truly astonished that he didn't backtrack whatsoever. Subsequent Tweets of his included these gems, roughly in order of the 'conversation':
@MommyNews you wouldn't want to see a mans penis out in the open like that right? Well why is it ok for her to have her tits out?

@MommyNews If a woman wants to breastfeed in public, do everyone a moral and ethical favor and COVER UP!

@Morgaine_LaFay It's not about looking or not looking. It's the fact that you are showing your breast in public that offends people.

@MommyNews no, what offends me is the pure lack of common sense and her audacity to breastfeed in public without covering herself.

@LactatingGirl I don't want to. Milk bottles exist! use one and you can avoid annoying your kid and the public.

@LactatingGirl I kno that, but as a collective opinion, people find exposed breasts in public, offensive. Surely you can't disagree on that!

RT this. I will stop being offended when i can look at woman breastfeeding and she won't look back at me with a mad/weird look on her face.

Finally, he retweeted one of his own, a friend chiming in to support his views:

RT @phyliciax3 @Alan Arbelaez I saw a lady doing that last month, couldnt believe it! lol; people act like its normal, cover urself @ least!!
I came in after the fact by about an hour, so couldn't do much more than RT the "feeding a baby with his dick" quip, to which he later responded, saying:

Alan Arbelaez @Dou_la_la That actually sounds hilarious! but no, you are twisting my words. check the convo @MommyNews and i had before you RT stuff.
Which I had, of course (see above), and I informed him that directly quoting someone cannot possibly be "twisting" their words. It's not even remotely taken out of context, either. So goes another day of great rhetoric on the internet. Are we as a (very loosely defined) community overreacting to things like this? Why get worked up about one isolated Tweet, or even one Tweeter? He's just a 19 year old kid, after all.

Why? Because underlying his outward projection of pseudo-chasteness is the perversion of the primary, if not entire, biological raison d'etre for breasts, period. If that sounds intolerably prudish, bear with me (I've got nothing against a little healthy perversion in the right situation). The original purpose of breasts is actually not to provide visual stimulation for men or accessories to their arousal, not that you'd guess it if you were an alien to this planet leafing through pretty much any magazine or channel surfing on even basic cable. Breasts have become sexualized - fetishized, I daresay - by our culture. Hence, our 19 year old's joke about feeding a child with his penis really does reveal EXACTLY what he thinks about breasts: they are sexual organs, and hey, his penis is a sexual organ, so in his mind, why would feeding a baby with his penis be any different? Many a true word is Tweeted in jest.

The above is not to say that I don't relate to the aesthetic appeal of the human body, including the female form - I most certainly do. Do I buy into it to a degree, even if mostly unconsciously? Like an animal lover reconciling their dietary compromises with their idealism, I have to admit that I do. I own cleavage-revealing clothing and bust-enhancing bras, and have been known to, let's say, exploit my own figure from time to time. And it's also not to say that a woman's own experience of her breasts as an erogenous zone is not legitimate - believe me, I most definitely understand that too. But this is all about context, and about reducing the damage, just as it is with the analogy of our food choices, and starting to change the entire framework. I am certainly not saying it has to be one way or the other - breasts are EITHER for aesthetic and sexual pleasure OR for feeding babies only. I don't believe this has to be mutually exclusive. But I do think that choosing the former over the latter is both destructive and completely irrational.

Getting more fundamental, why else is changing this perception important? Because every negative remark to the effect that a mother had the "audacity" to nurse her child - i.e. feed her child according to the biological norm - within view of another adult is a remark that shames, and that shame may contribute to another woman deciding to cut her breastfeeding relationship short, or to never start one at all. It may cause her to feel guilty and uncomfortable and defensive about nursing throughout her baby's time at the breast, to the detriment not only of her baby but of herself as well. And our already low breastfeeding rates are nothing less than a national health crisis.

*Twitter terminology: RT is a retweet, as in reposting someone else's statement. And putting # in front of a word is called a hashtag, which makes that tweet searchable & thus spreads it to a wider audience of people looking for tweets on that topic.

**If you're unfamiliar with Twitter, the posts with @ plus a name right afterward are Tweets from this guy replying TO the person named, i.e. if it started with @Dou_la_la, it would be addressed to me.

EDIT: I originally withheld the name of the Tweeter in question, but it was recommended that I go ahead and name names, since it's all public domain by definition anyway. I gave it some thought and decided to go ahead. Congrats, young master Arbelaez!


  1. It's interesting which body parts get sexualized- the breasts are no more inherently sexual than the neck, the feet, or the legs, yet we can turn our heads and walk in public.

  2. I'm a bit sad I wasn't online to witness this stupidity. Clearly the poor boy failed biology and needs to return to grade school immediately.

    Sadly, however, you are right. It's one symptom of a larger issue. The female breasts have become so sexualized the real purpose of them is no longer understood. Breasts and penis do not go hand in hand any more than milk and crap do. Yet too many people cannot grasp that milk from a cow's breast is no different than milk from a woman's breast. Sad, sad, sad.

  3. I have to kind of agree with both sides. I think the breast is created to be both a sexual object and a means of feeding for our children. I am a Biblical Christian and the Bible does teach that a man is supposed to be satisfied with the breasts of his wife, to take comfort and pleasure in them (as opposed to going after another woman). But obviously the breast is ALSO a functional part of the body used for a necessary and UNsexual function. I have seen pictures of African women, covered head to toe in a black burka with their breast pulled out a slit to unabashidly nursing their babies. These women would never think to bare themselves outside this specific instance, and certainly their society would never permit it, but its totally normal while they nurse.
    Some women can and do (unfortunately) nurse in public inmodestly and inapropriately. If you've got your whole breast, including nipple, completely bared and showing, obviously the child isn't latched on and perhaps they should be more aware of how they are exposing a potentially sexual area of the body. But if a babe is latched on and the mother happens to be showing a slice of rounded flesh, or even most of the swell of the breast, there is no reason why this should be considered inapropriate nor is it more flesh than is (unfortunately) exposed in many pieces of modern fashion. All that being said, men ALSO have nipples (and actually all the anatomy needed to breastfeed technically), yet their inmodesty is ignored as they wander around without a shirt on. A man's bare chest can be just as sexually appealing to a woman as a woman's is to a man, yet there isn't a huge public outcry when men take their shirts off in public, and its common practice to see them in tv, print, and store adds topless! To me if you are going to be upset by the one if follows you should be upset by the other. I wonder if [name withheld] has ever appeared in public without HIS shirt on!

  4. Right, ummzak? I use my mouth and hands just as much if not MORE in expressions of sexuality that I do my breasts (TMI?), and yet I walk around with them unexposed every single day.

    Summer, YES. And yet also, for so many, milk from an anonymous barnyard animal living in usually inhumane conditions: hunky dory. Milk from one's mother within one's own species: cause for squeamishness and suspicion.

    Jespren, very thought-provoking. I love the image of a woman in a burqa nursing her baby openly by typical US standards. I think you would really appreciate this piece about modesty and breastfeeding from an LDS (Latter Day Saints) perspective.

    Many have remarked that Mary herself surely never used a Hooter Hider.

  5. Breasts are so horrible! They are indecent and should be covered in public...unless, of course, you are a hot, big-breasted woman in a tiny bikini at the beach (sans nursing child) or in the latest, greatest new movie which has the female bossom splashed all over the big screen. That's perfectly acceptable...because they are being used in a way they're supposed to be used for.

    This is why, when you go to other countries, you can spot the American tourist. They will be the only people appalled by the nude beaches OR running with their cameras and nudging each other and walking with dropped jaws.

    Being that the mother's breast makes milk AUTOMATICALLY when she has a baby and a man's penis does not...I find that analogy quite disturbing and if I saw a man trying to nurse anything with his penis, I sure would call the cops!

    I'm amazed at the hostility of a partially exposed breast while nursing. All this while sex and nudity is what sells a movie. Oh, the irony.

  6. What got me the most about it was that he was saying that it's offensive to some people because of their religion and morals, but in reading through this tweets he constantly spouts swear words and the word "nigga"—which are both offensive to many people.

  7. Words like "innappropriately" and "modesty/immodesty" (mentioned by a previous commenter) in regards to breastfeeding or any other female specific activity are simply means of controlling women & our bodies. Christianity ridiculously labels a basic human need (sex) as a sin and then proceeds to *blame* it on all women. Because, apparently, its our fault that men are generally raised to think with their penises. Western culture seems to have, unfortunately, absorbed these unhealthy attitudes thus producing morons like AlanAbaleaz. If a woman exposes some nipple while trying to sooth a crying baby (or even if the baby is not crying, it makes no difference) ... big freaking deal. She does not deserve to be shamed by people like AlanArbaleaz or even the commenter mentioned above labeling her as "inappropriate" or "immodest" just because she dared to show her nipple. Its a nipple. We all have them. Get over it.

  8. His comment was so absurd I laughed out loud. of course, it's not so funny when someone actually SAYS it. a lot of this is similar to what i brought up in a recent piece about the target incident: it drives me NUTS that people can't see the absurdity in being totally ok with breasts all over tv and advertising but take issue with them being used as intended.

  9. @ausmerican Absolutely! It irks me unendingly when people label breastfeeding mothers as modest/immodest and refuse to understand that their opinion of whether that mother is breastfeeding appropriately is zero to the left (of the decimal point AKA totally irrelevant).

    I was so tempted to respond to that twitter storm but the vast majority of the potential responses that came easily were simply disparaging of his age and education. I sat on my fingers instead.

  10. BTW - He said in a later tweet he was going to post to his blog regarding his position on breastfeeding. Has anyone been able to dig anything up? I am considering tweeting him to ask if he's gotten around to that yet... :P

  11. Carol, I noticed that tweet too! I'm not exactly holding my breath, but we'll see.

    Nice post on the topic!

  12. Just what I was trying to say to my Aunts a few months ago. One thinks that it should be up to Hollywood to put it out there as normal first, then the public will accept it. I'm not sure who is supposed to be in charge of telling them this. With our awful BF rates and the state of our healthcare I don't think we've got time for all that. They had never said anything to me before but then told me how uncomfortable it made them. I'm sure I'll be getting the questions about when we'll stop any month now. It's funny because one of them is an art teacher, I doubt that she finds nudity in a museum offensive. Of course I didn't think of that point until later.

  13. I can't appreciate or respect previous commenters' views that there are immodest ways of nursing in public. I pull my breast out the top of a scoop neck shirt, completely exposing my breast and for a short moment before my daughter latches, the nipple is exposed and when I can tell my daughter is almost done, I am ready to pull the breast right back in my shirt.
    This skill took me about 9 months to get really good at. So up until then there was a bit more nipple before and after nursing because I was less skilled. I never cover up because my daughter doesn't nurse covered. She just won't, she will fight a blanket, fight a cover, and flat out refuse to nurse if any block between her gaze and mine is created. Just as I wouldn't want to eat in a bathroom, nor would I eat under a blanket.
    As for being "over the top" this is again related to my daughter's insistence that there be nothing covering her, even a little bit of shirt. She refuses to nurse under the shirt. I have been publicly humiliated by complete strangers for nursing in public immodestly. I wish I had quicker reaction times and that the breastfeeding protection laws permitted violence towards offending strangers. The emotional toll that publicly humiliating mothers are doing the "breast is best" thing can be overwhelming. All of you concerned with modesty need to take a F*#@ing step back and remember what made the baby in the first place, remember how babies are born, and remember how every single other mammal on the planet feeds their babies (nursing anyone?). Bsbies are sexual beings, humans are sexual beings, and doing what our biology prescribes doesn't make us immodest or savage, it makes us human. And next time you can't handle the immodesty of a woman taking care of her infant, cover your own damn head with a blanket!