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How They Do it in . . . West Africa. Public breastfeeding around the world. By Kim Brooks for Babble.com.

How They Do It in… West Africa

Breastfeeding in public is okay anywhere, anytime. by Kim Brooks

June 15, 2009

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a woman’s boob in a baby’s mouth. I was twelve. The woman was my aunt. The baby was my cousin. And the boob, pendular, big-nippled and bulging with milk, seemed like an alien appendage, closer to a turtle’s shell or a camel’s hump than the budding cleavage I stuffed into my training bra each morning.

One could hardly call this a watershed event, and yet I remembered it the evening my husband and I attended our first post-natal get-together, a babies-welcome gathering of our closest friends, most of whom had an infant and/or toddler of their own.

When it came time to feed, rather than excusing myself to the living room and sitting through forty minutes of boring silence like a child in a time-out, I found myself surprisingly un-squeamish about the idea of taking care of business right there amidst the homemade gnocchi and adult conversation. At first I attempted to cover up with a blanket I’d brought for the occasion, but I was never very good at this. I’m not sure if it was my lack of coordination or the baby’s claustrophobia or both, but it quickly began to look and feel like a WWE Wrestling match was taking place inside my shirt.

“What’s going on in there?” a friend asked in her most non-judgmental voice.

I threw the shroud on the floor. I turned a little to the side. I got comfortable, dug into my gnocchi, joined into the conversation. There were six of us at the table – three couples – people I’d known for years, but as the baby nursed contentedly in the sling, the conversation grew stilted, as though the Pope or a customs inspector or someone’s persnickety grandmother had entered the room. I thought of my aunt’s camel hump boob. Beside me, I could feel my husband blushing. In between sides, I decided to retire to the living room after all, forgoing a precious half-hour of the adult company I so badly craved.

In case you were wondering, I do not live in a cloistered, religious compound or Puritan enclave. Many of my friends are artists, writers, editors and students. These are people who champion gay marriage rights and teach Sabbath’s Theatre to eighteen-year-old undergraduates from Kansas. And yet a single breast, my breast – humble, leaky creature that it was – had the power to derail them. It occurred to me that culturally, something strange was taking place here.

If nursing openly at a casual dinner party could create such social awkwardness, what, I wondered, would happen if nursing mothers all across the country began unlatching their brassieres at gas stations and ATMs, on subways and at podiums? What would have happened if a certain former vice-presidential candidate whose name shall not be uttered were to have nursed on the stump? Would the fabric of civilized discourse unravel? Was there something so inherently erotic about the female breast that even in open-minded, mixed-company circles it needed to be hidden?

My first inkling that something might be amiss came a few months back when a friend of mine, an industrial designer, visited Guiana for a few weeks as part of an NGO program to teach local artisans how to prepare their goods for export. Many of his students were nursing mothers and most of the classes were taught in small villages. When I asked him what the greatest element of culture shock had been, he blushed, looked down, and his girlfriend ended up answering for him: “Tits. William has never seen so many tits in his life.”

How They Do It in… West Africa

Breastfeeding in public is okay anywhere, anytime. by Kim Brooks

June 15, 2009

Now, just to put this in perspective, my friend is a pretty sophisticated urbanite. He has an MFA from Parsons. He is a self-proclaimed metrosexual. He has posed nude for his girlfriend, a photographer. He loves babies and is looking forward to having a few. He is not the kind of guy you would peg as having many hang-ups about lactation. And yet both he and his girlfriend, an equally enlightened individual, through much nervous laughter, told us how awkward it was to be face to face, teaching these women about the color wheel while between them a baby suckled at a breast.

Pondering their discomfort and remembering my own pre-motherhood, I decided to ask an expert on the anthropology of breastfeeding if nursing women around the world – for example, in Cote D’Ivoire, where Alma Gottlieb, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, conducted extensive field work – felt the need to conceal their breasts or seclude themselves while nursing. I’d spent eighty bucks on a Hooter Hider I never used and endured more than a few hours trying to balance my infant in a public toilet stall, a grungy department store “ladies’ lounge” or simply sequestered off in a corner, alone, as though I were engaged in some unsightly act of personal hygiene. Do women in Cote D’Ivoire do such things?

Gottlieb is a soft-spoken woman with a lovely laugh that rang out like a bell at this question: “That would be absurd,” she explained. “The idea alone would elicit peals of laughter.” In the villages of West Africa where she lived, “The rights of the breast belong to the baby. It is simply not an erotic part of the body.”

I began to re-imagine how my nursing experience might have been different if, above and beyond feeling comfortable nursing at a dinner party, I’d been able to walk around topless all summer, or whip out my “un-eroticized” breast in the teacher’s lounge of my college, or nurse in the middle of a restaurant without blanket, without cloak, without feeling like I was embarrassing, at least a little, the friends or family at my table. “If I hadn’t lived in Africa, I’m sure I wouldn’t have breastfed in public.” How ridiculous it all began to seem – so much fuss over a glandular organ as functional as any other, an organ that, after all, has a far more primal purpose than filling out a strapless dress or selling Budweiser. I imagined the women of West African villages looking at the enlightened mama cloaked in a Hooter Hider or nursing in the bathroom with that same mix of sympathy and bewilderment and condescension I catch myself using on a Muslim woman trudging through the summer heat in a black burqa. Oh, I thought, how myriad and wondrous are the ways different cultures come up with to make things inconvenient for their fairer sex.

“One last question,” I said to Alma Gottlieb at the conclusion of our interview. “Did seeing what you saw in Africa embolden you when you returned to the States and became a nursing mother yourself?”

“It did,” she said without hesitation. “If I hadn’t lived in Africa, I’m sure I wouldn’t have breastfed in public. But I knew a way of doing this that made a lot more sense. And in another part of the world, I knew people were not uptight about it. The feminist in me said women have a right to breastfeed and babies have a right to be breastfed and because we lead busy lives, we have to do it in public.”

“So you breastfed everywhere?” I asked.

“Almost. I never breastfed while teaching a class or in a faculty meeting. In another life I might, but in this one, I wasn’t quite that bold.”

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