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The debate about public breastfeeding

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Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 12:45 am

A few weeks ago, my roommates and I went to dinner to complain about our endless weeks and the massive amount of homework we had to look forward to.

While we were waiting to sit, we saw a young woman breastfeeding her child in the corner of the room, and I remember thinking how precious the moment was. It wasn’t long before a man approached the woman and asked her to stop the “inappropriate and disgusting behavior.” I thought he was joking, considering she had a blanket covering her entire upper body while she was feeding the baby.

The man explained to her that he felt uncomfortable, especially in front of his 10-year-old son, and that she should feed her baby with a bottle in public.

For a while, I didn’t know what to say.

I was speechless. I was astonished by the man’s irrational behavior and his harsh tone toward the mother who, after all, was simply feeding her hungry baby. I think I stared for a while, with my jaw wide open in disbelief. Did this really happen? The woman quickly mumbled an apology, with a bright red face and eventually left the room. The man calmly took his seat again. There we were, my roommates, the man with his son and I, and the entire time, I couldn’t shake the feeling someone should say something.

Afterall, isn’t it every woman’s right to feed her child in public even if she is breastfeeding?

Unfortunately, I never had the chance to say anything to the man, as the hostess seated him soon after.

I still regret it. Maybe it wasn’t my place to interject, but I didn’t want him to think his behavior was acceptable. Why did the man feel so uncomfortable in the situation to begin with?

The answer dawned on me one day while I was reading about sexual citizenship in a book excerpt by Brenda Cossman, a professor at the University of Toronto.

She talked about the different sexual expectations men and women face in society, and how those who do not conform to these expectations risk alienation. She argues good sexuality only exists in private spheres and bad sexuality in public.

Women are often expected to be very private sexually, while men are allowed to be more open.

Could it be the man perceived her breastfeeding as sexual? Maybe the fact that she was willing to expose her breast to her child under a blanket seemed unacceptable to him.

When I was younger, women rarely wore cover-up in public while breastfeeding. Today, however, it’s unheard of for a woman to expose her breast while feeding her child.

Instead, many women face discrimination for breastfeeding and have opted to feed their child with a bottle to avoid rude remarks.

Recently, breastfeeding laws have swept the United States and the world to protect a mother’s right to feed her child while at work or in public.

For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures lists the various laws in regard to breastfeeding in each state in the U.S. In 2010, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that requires employers to give employees a break to nurse a child until he or she is about 1 year old.

Some of the laws require some public locations to have labeled areas for breastfeeding and diaper changing that are not in bathrooms.

Although these steps make it easier for women to feed their children, it seems crazy the government has to enforce these rights.

Many people already criticize the government for becoming too involved in our personal life, but what if we can’t make these decisions on our own? Do we need our government to regulate what is considered sexual in our society and what is just human nurture?

In general, I think our society has become very desensitized in regard to sexuality.

The idea that sex sells is very common in advertisements, and shows like “Teen Mom” discuss sex very openly. Let’s not forget music lyrics that openly call women sluts and b----es and have little moral ground with regard to our sexuality.

Breasts are in most advertisements today anyway, so how is it suddenly indecent when they feed an infant?

In case people don’t remember, breasts are meant to do that job — not to sell fast-food burgers.

We worry so much about our reputation and our outside appearance in public, but what about how the public portrays us in the media? The “Killing Us Softly” videos by Jean Kilbourne are in their fourth installment, but women are now, more than ever, objectified and sexualized in media.

Society has become so hypersexualized that it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s sexual and what’s not. People are afraid to discuss sex, but they will go home and research all their questions because they are afraid their sexuality is too public.

Women who are sexually experienced are called sluts, but we no longer wonder why advertisements use women to sexualize products.

I hope this debate about public breastfeeding won’t spiral out of control, and our government won’t interfere more.

I hope when I have children, I will be allowed to breastfeed them if I want to, and I won’t have to follow “The Rules of Nurture.”

I would like to dedicate my essay to the woman at the restaurant who was openly disrespected and judged. And to the man, who obviously had no manners whatsoever, your behavior truly was inappropriate and disgusting.

Carlotta Krause is an international studies junior at UF.

Welcome to the discussion.