Yesterday, I received a text from my wife, Andrea, stating, “Any chance you can get in the car and come down here. They are telling me I can’t bfeed at the pool.” I put on a nice shirt and pants [doing web design from home requires neither] and got in the car for the Gladstone Community Center.
James Ryan Valeii happened to call me about some collaborative work for HypnoBirthing we are doing, and I told him I was on my way to address an anti-breastfeeding scenario. “I want to be respectful while clarifying our position,” I told James. I also told him I was feeling nervous. James was the best person in the world to be calling me in that moment because of what he told me, “Ask to see their policy in writing.” James is no stranger to this scenario because he is married to Kathy Valeii who runs Birth Anarchy, a website devoted to standing up for the rights of women.
With the focused words of James in my mind, I marched into the community center and asked to see my wife, the one with the baby. Without skipping a beat, the guy at the front desk told me how to get to the indoor pool. Andrea was seated in a chair looking out to where Sacha and Grandma were splashing in the kids pool. Andrea had her baby bag next to her and baby Kai was asleep in her arms. She directed my attention to the teenage male life guard who had asked her to cover up. Here is what Andrea reports:
I was feeding my 8 month old son while my older son played in the pool with his Grandma. I had been doing this on and off the whole time we had been there. The lifeguard on duty came over to me and said “If you’re going to breastfeed, will you please move to the changing room,” and I said “No.” He then asked me if I had a towel I could use to cover up. I again said, “No.” I suggested at this time that he go get a manager to talk to me about it, he said it would be his manager’s call. I agreed to talk to the manager about it.
The manager came over to me and said ‘We do ask people to move to the changing room to breastfeed,” and I said, “I’m not moving. I’m not doing anything wrong sitting here feeding my baby.” He mentioned it being the policy. I said, “Has someone complained?” and he said, “No. But someone might walk in and get offended.” I said, “I’m not going to move, so you might want to go get someone else to talk to me about this.” He agreed and said that he would talk to someone else and that they would see, but probably they were going to get me to move. I did not move. I finished nursing my baby to sleep, and immediately messaged my husband asking him to come over to the center to speak to the manager. I also looked up the breastfeeding laws in Missouri to be sure that I was within my rights.
I went back to the guy at the front desk, introduced myself, and then asked to see in writing their policy on breastfeeding. His name was Adam and he was nice about the exchange, and I could tell he didn’t want to cause a scene; he kept his voice low and remained seated for most of our conversation. He explained that their effort to ask Andrea to move/stop was because they did not want other people to become offended at the sight of a breastfeeding mother. I told him that I understand their awkward position in this circumstance and that they did not want to offend anyone. Adam appeared relieved to hear this. I also explained how Missouri law protects breastfeeding mothers and that he couldn’t find the pool’s written policy prohibiting breastfeeding because it would have been an illegal document. At some point during our conversation, Adam gave me the business card of the community center administrator, and said he would be able to help me better understand the Gladstone Community Center policy on breastfeeding.
After this pleasant yet awkward exchange, I returned to my family at the pool. We packed up our bags to head out, and then the aquatics director arrived. His name is Jeremy and he was the guy notified by the lifeguard in Andrea’s story above. Jeremy said, “I apologize if I upset you,” and appeared to be going out of his way to act in a kind manner. I inquired about their breastfeeding policy, and Jeremy told me that they do not want to offend anyone, and so they ask breastfeeding mothers to remove themselves. I asked him for documentation of this policy, and that’s when Jeremy fumbled with an answer, stating he didn’t have anything to give me. Andrea told him that a twenty-second Google search revealed that Missouri has laws in place to protect breastfeeding mothers and that it is illegal to ask them to move/cover-up. Jeremy said he didn’t know what the laws were, but that the pool is a public place, so they have to do certain things not to offend their guests. That’s when I looked right at Jeremy, turned my head to the side and arched my left eyebrow. What did he just say?
There are three men in this story that each tried their best to act in a kind, unoffensive way. Here’s the problem; each of them were unknowingly sustaining the patriarchal stance that women are told what they can and can’t do. When Jeremy asked Andrea to move and she declined, he mentioned that he would talk to his manager, who would get her to move. No matter how much this manager was trying to act nice by using a soft tone, his actions were violent.
Hummm….violent seems like a strong word to describe this, right? After all, he wasn’t using brute force to move Andrea; no blood was spilled in this scenario. However, to take a stance that you control what a woman does with her body is an assumption that you have power over her. You are dictating what is appropriate behavior. You are trying to “get her” to do what you want. If she doesn’t comply, then you obtain assistance to “get her” to do so. Here’s the deal: every time you prevent a woman from choosing what she does with her body, you are acting in a violent manner. Do you see where I am coming from here?
You’ll never guess what the lifeguard had uncovered when he was telling Andrea to move. I’ll give you a hint. They are round. There are two of them. They are between his neck and his hips. Ok, it’s his nipples. Both of them were out and for all to see. Andrea had only one nipple out at the time she was feeding Kai. Why was she told her nipples had to be removed from the pool while the male lifeguard could have his out with no question?
Well, you might say that women’s breasts are sexualized in our culture, so we cover them up in the effort to remain decent. Yes, female nipples are sexualized in our Western culture. Here’s the rub; a woman decides when her nipples are sexualized, not a teenage male lifeguard, not a 30-something aquatics director, not any other person in the world.
Let’s look at it this way: if some man gets turned on by the low-hanging oak branches of the trees on the street, we don’t cover the branches because they are sexualized by that one guy. The oaks tickle his fancy, but they don’t tickle mine, so I go about my day, enjoying their summer shade rather than their erotic pleasure. The same is true for nipples, because there are times when they will be seen as a source of erotic pleasure and times when they will be seen as a source of baby food. One doesn’t negate the other.
I think the same is true for women everywhere. If they want their nipples to be sources of stimulating pleasure for others, then awesome. I love that. Thanks. You’re so kind. However, if a woman wants my attention to be focused elsewhere, say on her ideas about our culture, then me staring at her boobs is missing out on a good connection with her. It’s also rude, because it says, “Yeah sure, whatever. I don’t care about your ideas or what you care about, because I only care about you being a source of sexual stimulation for me.”
The same is true for breastfeeding. If a woman decides that her nipples are for her baby, and a guy says that her nipples are inappropriate and that she needs to cover them, then I see that guy as being violent. You might disagree with me here and say I am taking it too far. However, I am coming from the idea that violence is dictating what someone else can and can’t do with his or her own body. Violence is saying that you decide what is right for another person. Violence is negating someone else’s needs in order to serve your own. Violence is using power and force to obtain compliance. Violence is the end of communication and the beginning of war.
To tell a mother to cover up or to move while breastfeeding is to say that your needs are greater than hers. You are trumping her choice for her own body. You are missing out on the opportunity to have connection with her. This is sad, because mothers can be amazing, wonderful people that bring life into the world. Literally, mothers bring life into the world. It’s in everyone’s best interest as a species that we respect the mothers.
How do you respect mothers? How do you see your nipples? What do you think about our culture saying YES to man-nipples and NO to woman-nipples? Do you think that is fair? I remember once when Gena Kirby was staying at our house she brought this up. She said she was pissed that it is OK for a man to take his shirt off when it’s hot, but it’s not OK for a woman to do so. Crap. I felt embarrassed. I had never thought of it like that.
It comes down to this: a woman should have the freedom to decide to use her breasts for feeding a baby just like she can decide to use her breasts to stimulate the attention of a sexual partner. In either situation, it’s her decision. If a man finds the sight of a breastfeeding woman to be stimulating, then it doesn’t mean that he has the right to tell her to stop breastfeeding. It certainly does not mean that the breastfeeding mother is being inappropriate. Remember the low-hanging oak limbs? We don’t cover those up just because someone is turned on by them.
Let’s be honest; breastfeeding is titillating. The female nipple has been sexualized in Western culture in a most tremendous way and to such an extent that the vision of it is literally banned from television, so seeing one provides a thrill because of our cultural conditioning. The same is NOT true for an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea where the women leave their breasts out. The vision of a nipple to a boy or a man would be no more eye-catching than the vision of an elbow or an ear. What I am saying is that a heterosexual Western man will likely have a variety of emotions arising at the sight of a woman breastfeeding her baby. This is understandable. It does not mean he is bad or the woman should cover up.
If we are to march forward into the future with the health of our families in our best interest, then it behooves us to consider the nipple of a mother and what it means to us. We are mammals and all mammals feed their babies from the breast. Consider a world where the vision of a mother breastfeeding her baby is seen as wonderful and natural.
Hold Up: you’ll never guess who just called me. I am not kidding..as I am typing this post, my phone rang. It was Adam, the front desk guy from the community center stating that they are having building-wide training to address the situation yesterday, and to offer education on the Missouri breastfeeding law to all of their employees. Adam apologized for our experience yesterday and explained that they were in the wrong to ask Andrea to move. He explained that they were unaware of the law and also that they hire some young people whose first job may be to be a lifeguard at the pool. He apologized for the community center’s actions and hopes that we feel comfortable to return to the pool and enjoy our time there. I asked if he had my number from when I called yesterday to get his name. He told me that was true and that it took him a while to find my number in the phone records so he could call me back. Well done, Adam. I feel relieved that you took this seriously and made a strong effort to make the situation right.
Joe Valley is a feminist web designer working from home while supporting his young family. He and his wife, Andrea, have two boys born at home and an aging black cat who must be at least 20 years old by now. Joe came from the world of counseling where he worked with families finding relief from the rigors of life. Joe teaches counseling skills to birth professionals and also cheers for dads’ supportive role in birth at EmpoweredPapa.com.
Read the letter Joe wrote to the administrator of the Gladstone Community Center by clicking here: Dear Justin Merkey
Also, THREE CHEERS FOR ANDREA!!! Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooray! Hip Hip Hooraaay! Andrea stood her ground by remaining seated when she was asked to remove herself for breastfeeding. She said NO to the men claiming that they decide what she does with her body.