How my breasts got their 15 minutes of fame

by on March 25, 2011



New here?

You'll probably want to hear about how I became an accidental lactivist first. And maybe see some of the media coverage.

Over the next few weeks I'll be talking about what happened after the hoopla. My thoughts on the news coverage, what's happening with the human rights complaint, why people are sending me hate mail for breastfeeding, and more. Check back often.

You could tell by the second question and the last question the journalists asked me, that this was going to be a story about my breasts. And about Charlize Theron’s breasts.

After my story was posted by the Canadian Press, my story was covered in hundreds of media outlets from the local paper, to the London Daily Mail to the Sydney Morning Herald. It even made the Samoan media (not bad!). You can see the full list of media coverage here.

But for the most part, the coverage was disappointing. Why? Because the journalists missed the point.

The first question they asked was always “Can you tell me what happened?” Fair enough. If you’re new here, you can read the full account here.

It was the second question that set the tone: “Were you being discreet?”. (And kudos to Michael Smyth of CKNW radio, for being the only journalist who didn’t ask).

Of course that wasn’t really the question. “Were you being discreet?” is code for “Could anyone see your breasts, ma’am?”, and “Were you behaving like a lady, ma’am?”, and not such a jump to “Were you being a whore?”.

Some people will read this and wonder what I’m talking about. They’ll say I’m exaggerating. They’ll argue that the public will want to be assured that I was’t behaving “inappropriately”, so the journalists had to ask. Because I’m sure you’ve all seen that, the new mom who gets drunk at the mall, starts talking too loudly, starts dancing, climbs up on a table, takes off her shirt, flashes her breasts and starts (gasp!) breastfeeding. Yeah, I didn’t think so. That doesn’t really happen. Breastfeeding mothers don’t actually flash their breasts to the world. They sit in a comfortable chair, look for a stool to put up their feet, cuddle up with their newborn, look into her big bright eyes, and breastfeed her to sleep. Of course, my chair was not so comfortable and I was interrupted before she got to sleep, but you get the idea.

The lengths someone would have had to go to to see my breasts while breastfeeding most resembles something between an obstacle course and a scene from Mission Impossible. If you can get past the over-sized post-partum t-shirt, and the mandatory jacket, cause those t-shirts ride up, and the small but wily human blocking the view (and this one comes with a built-in alarm), you will still be faced with diaper bag, double stroller, siblings tossing goldfish crackers at you, and shopping bags full of purchases for a family of five. I’ll be sitting in a quiet corner, so you’ll have to be stealthy, and quiet, and then you’ll only be able to approach from the front. And there will likely be other mothers with me running interference.

But it doesn’t matter.

The question is a test, a qualifier. It’s meant to determine whether or not I’m deserving of public sympathy. Probably, most of the journalists who asked the questions were sympathetic. Probably they just wanted to get across that I’m just a normal person. But it’s still insulting.

My human rights were violated, but I have to prove I’m not a whore to get justice or public sympathy? Really? In 2011?

Imagine if the law had been broken and my car had been stolen. Do you think journalists would go out and ask the general public what they thought about women driving in public? Do you think people would say things like “It’s ok, as long as it’s discreet”? Or would journalists ask if the laws were strong enough? If the penalties were great enough? If enforcement were below standard? Or if there were some social force at work leading to increases in car theft?

“Were you discreet?” goes along with the question “You’re not an activist are you?” One “journalist” actually asked if I had staged the whole thing. Umm, no. I don’t even know how I could do that, plan to be thrown out of a store for breastfeeding. Probably the person who thinks they can see my breasts can think up a way. But not me.

So I also have to prove I didn’t instigate the law breaking myself now. Nice technique there, blame the person whose legal rights have been violated.

Then the journalists would often get a quote from the public and of course, the most common response: “I have no problem with it, as long as it’s discreet.”

I’ve already mentioned how unlikely public breastfeeding is to be some sort of carnival sideshow, but even if it were, why ask? Why ask what the general public thinks about public breastfeeding? The law was broken. Why not ask the what they think about the law being broken? Why aren’t you asking a lawyer what he thinks? For the record, he thinks “Prohibiting breastfeeding is one of the sillier things that I can think of“. Thank you Julius Grey. But the CBC was the only one who asked. Everyone else asked if people thought it was “decent”.

And then the last question: “Can we just get a quick photo of you breastfeeding?” Um, no.

I was asked to breastfeed for the 5 o’clock news. The Gazette declined to take my photo at all when I refused to breastfeed for their photographer. The Globe and Mail asked me to stand in front of a perfume ad featuring, what else, Charlize Theron’s breasts, after I refused to let them feature mine. And does anyone question the 8 foot high perfume ad featuring women’s breasts? Of course not. (Hers are much nicer anyway, and I really shouldn’t complain about their choice of body double).

Why so camera shy? Because this isn’t a story about my breasts. It’s a story about the law, articles 10 and 15 of the Quebec charter of human rights specifically. It’s a story about human rights.

How many journalists asked me what I thought about the law? Two. How many asked a lawyer what he thought? One. How many asked a lawmaker? Zero.

As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism or if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.

bell hooks

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And the law will be the subject of my next blog post. I filed  human right complaint and you can hear about it in my next blog post. There’s a mailing list in the right hand column, if you want to be alerted.

And don’t forget to leave your comments! What do you think of the media coverage? Do you think mothers need to be “discreet”?



6 comments

All this story has made me ultra aware of the public opinion on breastfeeding. I didn’t realize before that today, in 2011, people still found disgusting public breastfeeding. I was shocked, really. I read things like : “they should go in washrooms”, “it’s like peeing in public”… I don’t think I’ve been able to breastfeed in public since. I know it’s natural, I know it’s against the law to discriminate, but I can’t help to think that many persons that see me breastfeeding think that I’m a big pervert, and it saddens me very much. I really don’t understand what the fuss is about. I think you’re right, the media were really beside the point, and from my point of view, they didn’t help the cause at all.

by Marjorie on March 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm. #

That whole discretion question really bugs the crap out of me. In BC I’ve been quite lucky that no one has bugged me about my breastfeeding in public. I have never been ‘discreet’ in the way most people suggest, meaning I have never used a cover and am still breastfeeding my 15 month old, wherever the mood strikes her to eat. That being said, for my own comfort I always find a nice quiet area, with comfy seating to breastfeed because trying to breastfeed a 15 month old in a high traffic area is akin to herding cats. I have always felt confident in my right to breastfeed wherever I want, because I was informed enough to go looking for the laws in my province regarding breastfeeding in public and just for good measure I always carry a copy in my diaper bag. While I have gotten a few weird looks and there was the one woman who said somthing under her breath while walking past me, I’ve never been confronted by anyone with anything other than support. No one calls me an activist for exercising my right to vote, yet exercising my right to breastfeed in public makes me (or you, or anyone) a lactivist?

I think a number of the media outlets that covered your story tried to get it right but were off the mark, like you said, concentrating on the feelings of people towards breastfeeding (which we already know are unfortunately in the dark ages) versus our legal right to breastfeed our children. Discretion shouldn’t even be an issue here!

by Margaret on March 25, 2011 at 3:13 pm. #

I agree. Discretion shouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately it is. And I find it so discouraging is that the general public continues to discuss breastfeeding as a decency issue, instead of a health issue, or in this case a legal issue. Breastfeeding, no matter how it’s done, should be a bit like walking: lots of people do it, no one pays much attention.

by Another Mother on March 28, 2011 at 4:10 pm. #

Wonderful story! If formula had never been invented I wonder if we’d be having this conversation?
I’m sorry that you’re having to defend your situation. You’ve got my support 100%.

by Canadian Army Wife on March 25, 2011 at 9:51 pm. #

Thank you! Every supportive voice makes it easier. And while I usually think of myself as a bit of a tough cookie, I hope people who aren’t feeling quite so tough read comments like yours on this blog and feel a little bit stronger.

by Another Mother on March 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm. #

It’s not about my right to breastfeed (well, a little bit anyway!), but lets see it as my child’s right to eat!

by Genevieve on March 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm. #