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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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A few weeks ago I wrote a little blurb about a breastfeeding mother who was harassed by the security guards at The Garfield Park Conservatory. The story got around a little bit, as stories tend to do, eventually ending up on Chicago Green Parent. Garfield management replied to a commentor on that website saying that of course the Garfield Park Conservatory welcomes breastfeeding mothers and babies to the conservatory and to all of their programming and that in the future, the security guard would exhibit more tact when approaching nursing mothers.

Um, just one thing. The security guard should not be approaching nursing mothers, for any reason that has to do with breastfeeding, at all. Breastfeeding is legal. Breastfeeding anywhere you are, anytime your baby wants to nurse, is legal. It is never not allowed. It is never a situation where guards need to be called in. Now, if that breasfeeding mother has a rowdy 4-year-old who is climbing on the Chihuly leftovers, the guard could step in and say "Get your kid off of the garden art," but she could not say Pput your breast away, that's gross, and by the way, your 4-year-old is about to break our fragile glass balls."

Despite the well meaning but somewhat misguided public relations attempts from the Garfield Park and Chicago Park district management, they do seem to be aware of the law, and are certainly not interested in having this be an ongoing issue. Garfield park is a beloved institution, particularly of young family types, because it's free and a gorgeous spot to run around and have a relaxing day with your kids, no one there wishes to see that reputation go down the tubes due to one uneducated response from a guard.

The problem seemed to occur because the woman in question supposedly exposed her entire breast while nursing her baby. I know that according to popular culture breasts are pretty much all reasonably sized, either extremely small or not too large (unless they are those bizarre fake ones that look like beachballs) but breasts really do come in all shapes and sizes. Some women may nurse their babies and never show any skin, some women may have to creatively maneuver their great big boob so their tiny baby can get some lunch. Some may choose to cover themselves discreetly, some may allow their 2-year-old to pull their shirt up so she can get unrestricted access to both sides. Some women may opt to use a blanket, and the baby may decide to hurl it to the ground. It doesn't matter. It's all legal. Whatever anyone else's opinion is doesn't come into play, for any reason, ever. If someone thinks that a nursing baby, or the breast producing the milk, is a disgusting and highly offensive sight, guess what? Looking is optional. Look away.

It will come as no surprise that the current fashionable trend towards breastfeeding is not something that formula companies prefer. After all, if most babies can grow and flourish on 100% free and perfectly healthy breastmilk, then the multibillion dollar simulated breastmilk industry might be looking at losing some revenue. But, just like big tobacco and big oil, they see the green revolution coming and are doing their wierdly subsersive part to make themselves seem like the good guys and not the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, corporate giants that they really are. So there is plenty of literature out there from the formula companies saying things like "breastmilk is the healthiest choice for most babies, but...." and goes on to talk about how close to perfection their formula is. This copy is generally accompanied by a photo of a nursing mother. That's nice, right? For people who can't breastfeed, for whatever reason, there is a healthy alternative, see it says so right in the pamphlet. Well, that nursing mother will generally not be wearing a wedding ring (slut!) and will most likely have her entire shirt unbuttoned and both breasts swaying in the breeze. Hand this to an image conscious young new mother, and her response will be, "Eww gross, there is no way I'm doing that." Score one for the formula companies.

For the record, as someone who nursed for 10 years, with only a few months off for good behavior between kids, it is never the goal of the nursing mom to expose her breasts to the general population. If anything, someone nursing in public doesn't want attention or acknowledgement from the passersby, she just wants to feed her baby and get on with her day. She's definitely not going to completely unbutton her blouse and show the awesome power of her breasts to the folks on the street. At most she's going to hitch it up from the bottom just enough to allow access. Once the baby is latched on, the shirt falls back down, and all you really see is the baby's head. I'm old though, and there is a new, younger and more fabulous generation of moms coming up who give even less of a shit than I did about whether people are offended by nursing, so maybe the fresh new trends will involve total shirt removal. That would be cool. And by chilly I mean chilly. Temperature-wise.

When I had my first baby, the only person I was nervous about breastfeeding in front of was my grandfather. I thought he'd be uncomfortable, but he told me that when he was a kid all of the women nursed their babies, and he was glad to see that I was nursing mine. He told me that it was just a commonplace thing, and not a big deal.

But between then and somewhat recently, a few generations of women were told by their doctors that formula was better for their babies, and that breastfeeding was not recommended, that it was difficult and unsanitary. Once the first generation stopped, not only did the body of knowledge that used to pass from mother to daughter almost completely disappear, but breastfeeding became downright taboo. Women's breasts were no longer used to feed their babies, something they'd been used for since just about day one, evolutionarily speaking. Instead, because no one was getting them as babies anymore, breasts have become overly sexualized and fetishized, something to hide, or show off, something to desire, something meant just for pleasure. So taboo and such a big deal that women will scream at other women to cover themselves up and go hide in the bathroom to breastfeed their babies. Such a big deal that laws had to be passed to protect the rights of women to peacefully breastfeed their babies in public.

Last summer In Asheville, North Carolina, a woman was nursing her baby at a public swimming pool and was harassed by a group of teenaged boys. When she complained to the management, she and her baby were asked to leave. Clearly the teenaged boys were completely justified in harassing this women because they were driven mad by the sight of her exposed breast. What is funny about this is that all of the teenaged boys I know were once happy breastfed babies, and have since grown up seeing women nurse their babies anywhere and everywhere. It's so commonplace that it doesn't even occur to them that there is anything worth looking at. Boobs are boring. And that's exactly how it should be.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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