“I think you should breastfeed anywhere, any time at all. It’s just that I think you’ve got to be aware of your environment and to show respect to others and common courtesy to others and they should show respect to you as well, but depending on the situation, to be discreet and to be modest.”
Sunrise presenter David Koch’s comments on breastfeeding created a spate of vicious backlash from women nation-wide. The comments were made in reference to the story of Queensland mother Liana Webster, who was asked to leave whilst breastfeeding at a public pool. Social media exploded with public response and a “Sunrise Nurse-In” was staged outside Seven’s Martin Place studio, where mothers protested by breast- or bottle-feeding their children in front of the cameras, in a public space.
An important distinction that must first be made is between the concepts of ‘when and where’ and ‘how’. Not once does Koch express the opinion that breastfeeding is disgusting, shameful or wrong – if anything, he is vocal in his defense of a woman’s right to do so in public. His main point, which was quickly drowned in the outcry that followed, was that respect goes both ways. People respect that breastfeeding is a natural process, but as a corollary, breastfeeding mothers should respect that public exposure may make others uncomfortable.
This is where media focus deviates from the main issue at stake. Questioning the manner of breastfeeding in public is entirely different to questioning its permissibility, yet social discourse has shifted to centre on the latter. “He’s saying you can breastfeed in a limited selection of Kochie-approved public places and social situations and that’s not when and where you please, that’s when and where other people please,” wrote a commenter on my blog. “I can’t believe it’s 2013 and we’re still talking about this.”
Nobody can. Under the 1984 Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, it is illegal to treat a person unfairly on the grounds of their sex – and this includes the act of breastfeeding. After the Kirstie Marshall incident of 2003 (in which the former Victorian Labor MP’s ejection from Parliament for nursing her 11-day-old daughter during question time elicited support for combining the roles of motherhood and professionalism) it is more than clear that women possess the full legal right to breastfeed in public. Koch knows this. “These things can get out of hand and he wants to make sure the mothers of Australia know he fully supports breastfeeding in public, he just thinks it could be done a bit more discreetly or modestly,” Seven spokeswoman Penny Heath stated. “We never shy away from debate or differences of opinion: that’s the beauty of Sunrise.”
And this is where the heart of the debate lies: discretion. Never has this been a fight about breastfeeding, it has been about the social acceptability of a bare breast being seen in public. Indeed, it has been about the warring perceptions of a woman’s body that has long typified the Madonna-whore complex.
When examining the protracted and colourful history between sexism and the female body, a strange dichotomy of opinion emerges. Modern society has long allowed public exposure of a man’s nipples, but not that of a woman’s. But why is this so?
Popular culture features women in various states of undress, whether it be Kate Upton’s mountainous cleavage on the cover of Sports Illustrated or scantily clad models in an artist’s latest music video. In such a manner, breasts are neither portrayed nor perceived as functional; rather, they are regarded entirely in terms of aesthetics and are therefore sexualized as objects of pleasure. Breastfeeding is an uncomfortable reminder that a woman’s body serves to nurture, rather than to merely entertain. On a subconscious level, seeing a child at a woman’s breast creates an awkward connection between the sexual and the innocent and, as such, the act is contorted from what is natural to what is deemed offensive. Koch unknowingly illustrates this when defending his position, stating, “When you’re at a public swimming pool and you pull your top down [to breastfeed] it does show a lot of flesh… [but] I don’t mind if women sunbake topless as long as they don’t do it between the flags in a high traffic area.”
Yet, a woman is not to blame for the perception of her body as shameful or provocative by others, and nor is it her responsibility if children stare at or people comment on the act of breastfeeding. Things done in the public domain are unique in how they are viewed, with phrases such as “I’d never do that in public” common in everyday conversation, and many individuals share Koch’s opinion that breastfeeding in public is acceptable as long as it is “classy”. However, the difference between a couple kissing in a park and the same couple in a passionate embrace – both perfectly legal acts where only the latter is believed to be inappropriate – does not apply to the varying manners of breastfeeding, which is unique in the underpinning social mechanics that drive society’s reaction to public display.
There is a world of difference between a friendly reminder to cover up and being kicked out of an institution, as Koch tries to articulate, but closer consideration of seemingly different motives reveals striking similarities. At its core, this is about more than just legality and tactful phrasing: it’s about women, their children and their bodies, and our support of these should never be a point of contention.