Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who Needs the Lesson Here?

Rarely have I read an editorial piece pertaining to breastfeeding in public that is so overtly hostile and full of ridicule than Shelley Fralic's "Etiquette lesson for breastfeeding mothers: Cover Up."  I am, in fact, surprised and disappointed that the Vancouver Sun decided to run this ill-informed and, frankly, immature piece, which is available online here.  Fralic's editorial concerns an incident that took place earlier this month at a Vancouver furniture store, Farmhouse Collections.  A mother, Samantha Watt, was asked to stop breastfeeding her 10 month-old son, and was then asked to leave the store when she refused.  An earlier article in the Vancouver Sun  quotes Watt:
"I chose an armchair out of the main thoroughfare, and there were actually no customers in the store at the time. Every time I breastfeed in public I’m very discreet."
If you can manage to wade through the condescending tone and language of Fralic's article and fish out her arguments, her point is this best summed up in this quote:

This is not an issue about a breastfeeding mom’s rights, or society’s skewed view of boobs, or even whether or not a business owner has the legal right to ask a breastfeeding mom to cover up or move out of public view.
It’s about an individual’s ability to size up a situation and employ basic common sense, and decency, and respect for others. The same kind of respect that dictates we don’t wear a bikini to a funeral, or say the F-word in front of Grandma, or wear a hat at the dinner table, or walk naked through a children’s playground
Actually, this is about society's skewed view of breasts.  This is about mothers' rights, and it's about babies' rights.  The second paragraph of the above quote exposes the writer's own skewed view of breasts; that she would compare the minimal sight of a breast during breastfeeding to wearing a bikini to a funeral, swearing, or walking around naked is absurd.  If, indeed, society at large views breastfeeding in public as contrary to basic common sense, decency, and respect for others, then society needs to change.
Fralic asks "So what’s wrong with putting a receiving blanket over the baby and your boob if you want to breastfeed in a store?"  I nursed my son for a significant length of time, and often in public as well.  I tried to be discreet, as most women do, mostly for the sake of my own modesty.  However, it's not always possible to prevent the occasional glimpse of flesh from every passerby.  In my experience, once my son was able to coordinate the use of his hands and arms to move a receiving blanket off his head while nursing, he did so.  I can't say that I blame him, either.  I certainly wouldn't want to eat my meals stuffed under a blanket.  Fralic claims to have connection with both "camps" in this situation as a former breastfeeding mother and as a customer of the furniture store in question.  However, I wonder if she ever nursed a 10 month old child as Samantha Watt does, or if she is speaking from ignorance?  Covering-up simply ceases to be an option for most babies.  As a baby grows more capable and interested in the world around him, the choice might become: Am I going to continue breastfeeding this baby without covering-up, or give up on breastfeeding because I can't breastfeed in public and I don't want to be socially isolated for the next x many months or years?  Thankfully, we have a third option protected by law: to feed our babies when and how they need to be fed.  As for indecency, breastfeeding typically exposes the same as or less of a woman's breast than a scoop-necked shirt.  I drove along the street where our local high school is located recently just after school had been dismissed, and I saw far more breast exposure on that sidewalk than I have ever seen from someone who is breastfeeding.  And it's not just teenage girls who bare a lot of skin either.  If this same mother had entered the store with a low-cut top, would the shopkeeper have been as concerned to usher her out?  Why is it that we are more tolerant of seeing a part of a woman's breast in the name of fashion than seeing a breast doing exactly what is was designed to do: feed a baby?
In the second article mentioned above, the shopkeeper claims that he is not against breastfeeding in public, and that four or five women have nursed in his store over the years:

He said unlike the previous breastfeeding women who were discreet, Watt did not cover up with a blanket or ask to use a private area in the store such as the washroom or staff kitchen.
Nursing in washrooms is often cited as an alternative to covering up.  For some reason, people sometimes fail to realize that breastfeeding in a washroom is gross!  I certainly don't eat in washrooms, and I wouldn't feed my child in a washrooom either.  Especially a public washroom.  The best available option in a public washroom is to sit on a dirty counter, or the equally filthy floor.  And can you really expect a mother to keep her three and four year old entertained and keep them from touching disgusting things while she nurses a baby in this public washroom?
Fralic also asks: What’s the big deal about going back to your car, turning on the heat and feeding the baby while the toddlers listen to Raffi in the back seat?  Last time I checked, the heat in one's car only works when the engine is running.  Also on last check, doesn't Vancouver has an anti-idling law that prohibits you doing what the writer suggests?  Additionally, even if it wasn't a cold day in January, it can be a big deal to pack up two toddlers and a baby, walk back to the car, get everyone settled, feed your baby, get everyone back out of the car, and go back to finish your errand!  Thank goodness for laws that protect a nursing mom's rights, and for all human rights laws, which see the big deal in something that seems insignificant for others.  Beyond the practicalities of the big deal, the message of having to leave the store to feed your baby is that breastfeeding is or should be somehow wrong or at least a little bit embarrassing for mothers.  There's no debate that breastmilk is the best thing for babies to consume, so shouldn't we be sending a clear message of encouragement to mothers?
The one valid concern that I glean from the shopkeeper's comments is that he was concerned about the baby spitting-up on the chair upon which the mother was sitting on.  I wouldn't buy a brand new chair that had baby spit-up on it, so I can understand his point on that issue.  However, that was not the issue that he brought up when he approached Watt, and he could have easily brought her another chair, perhaps a chair from the staff lunch room that he mentioned in the article.
Fralic's supposed "etiquette lesson" is summed up by her words:

Some people think bare-boobed public breastfeeding is vulgar or sexual or culturally inappropriate. Others, especially citizens of the older vintage who were born to a different era of decorum, are embarrassed by it.
You don’t have to like that, or agree with it, but surely it’s not that big a sacrifice to respect it.
Breastfeeding is not vulgar, sexual, or culturally inappropriate.  Unless a woman spends her breasfeeding years in the seclusion of her home, breastfeeding in public is reality,  a reality that our society has decided to protect with legal rights.  The benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mother are proven by countless, valid sources.  To pressure women to stop breastfeeding in public directly, as this shopkeeper did, or indirectly, as in this unabashedly shame-mongering article by Fralic, is to subtly pressure women to stop breastfeeding altogether.  To place the irrational thinking of people who view breastfeeding as something to be embarassed of above the importance of giving a baby the best nutritional start in life is a big sacrifice.  Too big of a sacrifice.  My fear is for the women who aren't prepared to stand up to ill-informed shopkeepers, or who may give credence to thoughts of those like Fralic, whose article may do more damage as such than the original act by the shopkeeper.
I'm terribly proud of British Columbia for having laws in place that protect the right to breastfeed in public.  Sometimes, laws take time to reshape society's thinking about issues.  It wasn't that long ago that we thought it sufficient to have a smoking and non-smoking section in restaurants or airplanes, even though you could be sitting next to a table or a row of seats in the smoking section.  Now, the memory of how I worked in a smoky restaurant as a teenager, or how I sat on a fourteen-hour long plane ride home from the Philippines one row ahead of a nervous flyer turned chain-smoker seems absolutely absurd.  I hope that one day, in the near future, it will seem equally absurd that we used to turn women out of public places for feeding their babies.  And I hope that the women and men who see the value in protecting the right to breastfeed in public can lead the change in our society's thinking bravely, but with more decorum, sensitivity, evidence-based information than Shelley Fralic's incendiary words.

5 comments:

  1. Good on you! Maybe you should send this to the Vancouver sun, letter to the editor?

    I agree..so much boobage exposed in daily life but you can't modestly feed your child in public? So exposing boobs in a sexual way in public is acceptable, but using them for a more utilitarian purpose is not?!? Especially when one tries to keep them covered up while nursing.

    I think you also made a good point that if the shop keeper had asked her to move off of the new chair, that would be a different story. I wouldn't breastfeed anywhere where my baby might damage others' belongings with potential spit up.

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  2. Doing some research on public breastfeeding for a UBC gender course and this is the best thing I've read thus far!! Well done - such an eloquent and accurate response to a very sad and discriminatory (not to mention, rather pointless) article by Fralic (who I can hardly believe is a woman or mother). I'll likely cite it in my work, thanks for writing!

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  3. Thank you, anonymous! I appreciate your feedback.

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  4. Hey anonymous commenter, if you happen to check back here, do you have a link to the original article by Fralic? I just noticed the links don't work anymore. Perhaps the Vancouver Sun has removed it?

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  5. Hi again Andrea,

    Yes, the original was a little tricky to track down...hope this link works for you:
    http://www2.canada.com/components/print.aspx?id=62fc4b0b-93fb-4454-aaf5-b13765f89773&sponsor=

    I'm also emailing Fralic to see if her stance has changed in response to this awesome feedback (I've read a few responses to her article by now). Hopefully she'll get back to me and say that she has since been enlightened! :)

    Thanks again,

    K.

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