The Natural Order of Things

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Continuing on theme of food attitudes being weird, the one I find perhaps the most absurd is the obsession with breastmilk and breastfeeding. Specifically, the dual shaming of women who choose not to breastfeed (like this extremely creepy story on a breastfeeding contract) , coupled with the shaming of women who have chosen to breastfeed in public. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, mama.

I admit I felt weird the first time I saw a woman breastfeeding when I was a young child, because I saw her breast, and breasts were things that were meant to be hidden. Only men and boys were expected to ogle breasts, so laying eyes on one out in the open seemed outside the natural order of things.

But I got over it, and as a teen made a vow to always smile when I saw a woman breastfeeding in public. I wanted to show her my support, my solidarity, and that I was not disgusted and she had every right to be doing what she was doing, out there in the middle of the mall. Today, Canadian laws are progressive, and the right to breastfeed publicly is protected under Charter of Rights and Freedom, with Ontario and British Columbia specifically spelling it out in their Human Rights Codes.

When I moved to Africa as an aid worker, all I ever seemed to lay eyes on were breasts hanging out of shirts and dresses, babies and infants attached. Everywhere I went in the Congo, and this is not an exaggeration, I saw women with one breast casually hanging outside of their clothes. The breast would not be hastily tucked back in when her child stopped suckling, either. In fact, the child treated the breast like it were a bottle of pop, regularly taking a sip, dropping it down, then picking it back up again.

Women walked around with babies on their hips and a breast exposed to feed them. The infant/child ate leisurely, at its own pace, without schedules, frantic searches for acceptable places to hide and feed, and no one around them demonstrating anything more than that this was exactly how things should be. It was refreshing.

There was a time and a place and a social class for this, and women did not do this in restaurants or the grocery store or while in an office. But not once did I notice my Congolese male colleagues avert their gazes in embarrassment, hear comments on how gross it was for these women to breastfeed in public, or hear a woman shamed or scolded for her indecency. Never did I notice those same women whose breasts were exposed hasten to cover up, shove their breast back in their dress, or a look of shame cloud their face.

Myself and my male colleagues regularly had conversations with women who had her breast exposed, her child suckling, and everyone continued on with their business as if nothing was amiss.

Because it wasn’t.

They were merely going about the business of the day, and part of that business was feeding their child. It was within the natural order of things.

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