I think our culture may have reached the point where any deviation from the norm is filmed, broadcast, and blogged about. We have become our own anthropologists, studying the cultures of Toddlers and Tiaras or the Kardashian family as if they are alien to us and must be made sense of. From the same production company that brought you Dance Moms comes rumor of the zenith of this trend: a reality show about mothers who breastfeed children beyond the typical age.
When Time magazine featured a mother breast-feeding a three-year-old on its cover, there was outrage and debate over the acceptable age at which to breast feed, over whether breastfeeding should be allowed in public and on magazine covers, and over whether it was anyone’s business at all. Here’s my take on the last question: it isn’t.
Doctors vary in their recommendations as to how long women should be encouraged to nurse, but they seem to agree that at least one year is beneficial—the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends two. How long a woman will choose to nurse her child should be a conversation between her and her child’s pediatrician, not something the blogosphere gets to debate.
We live in a society in which public breastfeeding has been characterized as public indecency by appalled onlookers, despite laws defending women’s rights to breastfeed in public. On the other hand, television producers apparently are under the impression that viewers will eagerly tune into a show about breastfeeding women, hoping for a spectacle of strangeness at which they can gawk. Although the desire to ban and the desire to broadcast might seem like polar opposites, they might stem from one root cause: the objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies, and our culture’s attempts to control them.
The fundamental difference between feeding a baby from a bottle (an action which would never garner debate as to its acceptability, or be put on display in a reality show) and breastfeeding is simple: breasts. (Seriously, it’s like we’re back in 6th grade biology or something). Much of the debate about the sexualization of breasts came to a head earlier this month, when a photograph of a topless woman riding the New York City subway made a splash on the Internet.
For the record, that photo is “Not Safe For Work,” which is exactly my point: although female and male toplessness are equally legal in many parts of the country, including New York City, a topless woman is considered somehow different from a topless man. A photo of a shirtless man would never need to be tagged as “not worksafe,” because male chests have not been sexualized in the way that a woman’s breasts have been.
There is nothing sexual about a woman breastfeeding, no matter how old the child is. Now, let me be clear: I’m not advocating that women breastfeed until their child reaches puberty. What I am saying is that there is a certain age after which a doctor would probably recommend that a woman stop breastfeeding, we really should leave that to the doctors to decide, not our culture.
A show about breastfeeding women would be a step backwards for feminism, offering just another message that we can tell women what to do with their bodies and that the female body adds spectacle to even the most unsexy, mundane activities. What’s next, nurses in sexy costumes giving vaccinations?