The female body continues to be a contentious platform for politicians and rappers alike. Our ovaries have been tossed about like a ball on the congressional football pitch as our big behinds are giggled and slapped by rappers on larger than life TV screens. In some of these actions, there is freedom of expression yet we still find ourselves bound to political processes that make the female body a federal asset. This constant “asset mapping” of women’s bodies and our reproductive rights by government is problematic. Our bodies are not our own.
Having grown up in an African household where our family genetics result in big boned and well curved beings, I was always advised not to wear skirts that were too short or blouses that made my breasts look like they look-big and full. Despite all the caution, I grew up around women who breast-fed their children and around men who did not berate women for doing so. If anything, men and women alike got annoyed when babies cried from hunger and the mother showed no intention to feed it the way she was culturally expected to – not that I am saying it was right for them to expect every mother to quiet the baby by breastfeeding. However it is considered normal for women in my community to plop out their breast and swiftly insert it into their child’s mouth each time they hear it crying. It is actually expected of all mothers.
My mother often reminds me that when I was a baby, I would wake up in the middle of the night and like a little milk monster; look for her breast to suckle on. I could go on and on about the nuances of breasts and milk and babies. All these analogies are to reinforce that one of the ‘primary’ functions of the breast is to feed a baby, or so I was made to believe.
A few weeks ago, I was on public transit when a woman started breast feeding her baby. She took her breast out and inserted it into her baby’s mouth who was crying like babies often do. A man who was sitting a few seats away came forward and began to shout profanities at the woman. He was up in arms because from where he was sitting, he felt that she was “indecently exposing herself and should do that at home.” The breast that was performing a ‘primary function’ hopefully as the woman’s personal choice offended him. As I stood up to try and defuse his anger, I was overcome by the almost uncontrollable heat of anger as my cheeks burnt with resentment for the clear misogyny and entitlement.
Men’s Entitlement on Women’s Bodies
I do not want to jump to conclusions on his reason for wanting a woman to stop feeding her baby but we need to be brutally honest about the blatant sexualisation of women’s bodies. The issue at hand was never that a woman was feeding her baby; the real issue is hidden under the “indecent exposure” accusation. Her focus was on her baby and not on using her breasts as an object for male or female sexual satisfaction.
For centuries, women’s bodies have been treated like objects that are meant to satisfy the male libido. This phenomenon is not new. It goes all the way back to the 19th century when South African Khoikhoi woman Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was exhibited for her large behind in British museums, to 2016 when women walk down a street to the constant sound of whistles and sexual jibes from men. Social norms have made it easy for sexual jibes and assault to be perpetrated against women with sometimes little or no repercussions which further perpetuates the notion that women are second-class citizens.
So what do we do about it? How do we normalise the literally very normal act of breast-feeding and stop shaming women for it while praising men for harassing women about their bodies? The solution is not new either but I think it can be unbelievably effective if we commit to it.
“It is About How We Raise Our Children”
We have to change the ways in which we raise our children. I am tempted, like other authors, to emphasise on the socialization of boys but I think at the end of the day both female and male children need to know how to respect each other regardless of their gender. We need to teach both girls and boys that breast feeding is a normal occurrence so that boys don’t grow up to be men who shame women for it and women do not feel the need to hide in corners in order to feed their children. Men and women alike have to work towards removing women’s reproductive rights from the hands of the government. Help raise boys and girls who will make sure that decisions that affect a woman’s body remain hers and whoever she chooses to share these decisions with.
No woman wants to be mapped out like an asset or to sleep with the majority old white and male legislators between her sheets while they scream at each other about what she should do with her own body. Let a woman breast feed with no shame, let a woman choose what she wants to wear, let a woman choose what she will do with her body.
Let a woman be as human as a man can be.
Article written by Paida Chikate. Paida is a recent Masters of Global Policy graduate from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a policy analyst with a passion for women’s policy. She is also a global strategic planning consultant who helps organizations chart ways forward in a constantly changing world.
Main Image taken from Youtube channel by Emory University, video titled,‘Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mom and Baby’