Thursday, December 29, 2011

A bit about bodily autonomy

Still frustrated. I suppose I should spend less time on the internet. The more time I spend on the internet, the more I discover that women, particularly mothers, get a lot of flak.

First off, there's this nurse-in at Target. Here's the story: a woman was in Target when her baby got hungry. She went off to an abandoned spot, sat down on the floor half shielded by a jeans display, and threw a blanket over her baby to nurse him. A store employee showed up and told her she should move to the changing room, or else be more discreet. Several other employees stood around, giving her mean looks and talking about her in front of her.

The law is on the mom's side here, so she went to the manager. And the manager told her that Target's policy is different from the law (what?!) and so they didn't have to abide by it.

Now there's been a big protest where women are coming in and nursing in Target. The larger organization claims they don't mind, because the store policy actually is fine with nursing in the store. So perhaps this was just an issue with this one particular outlet.

Now I, being an idiot, went and read a whole bunch of comments on the issue. They actually weren't (mostly) that bad. But almost every comment said something like this: "I don't mind if moms nurse in public. So long as they are discreet/use a blanket/use a nursing cover/go to the dressing room, I think they should be allowed to."

It's just -- who made YOU the decision-maker about when and how someone else is "allowed" to feed her baby?

I prefer to nurse with no cover (because those things are a huge hassle, draw attention, and you can't really see what you're doing, despite the advertising) but without showing anything anyone would object to. Took me awhile to get the knack, and it takes wearing two shirts. But I'm lucky because of my build. A heavier woman might not be able to manage what I do. Does that mean she can't feed her baby in public?

Here's how I managed it, back in the day. I don't think anyone would call this immodest.

The other big one -- really big -- was that stupid Facebook debate. I say it's over now because I've dropped out of it, but I believe the instigators are still hanging around saying nasty things about me. I realized I have the choice what I read, and I do not choose to read personal attacks on me. I also have the choice of where to comment, and that thread is not going to go anywhere good.

Anyway, it started with one person proclaiming as her status that she can't stand it when women post pictures of themselves nursing in a way that she doesn't consider "modest." She said that these women have no respect for themselves, so they shouldn't expect anyone else to respect them either.

Okay, so I don't post that kind of picture. The update was not directed at me. I have posted one picture of myself nursing on Facebook, and I doubt she ever realized that was what I was doing. And yet I still took it personally. If I should happen to feel very proud of my breastfeeding successes -- which I am -- and, in a moment of happiness, post a picture that doesn't match someone else's standards, why does that mean I've forfeited any right to the respect of others?

We went back and forth and back and forth over it. How modest does a woman have to be? How far do her rights go before they trample on someone else's rights? Is a blanket good enough? Or do we have to be so "discreet" that no one can tell we're nursing at all?

Now, we're a bunch of Catholics having this conversation. We value modesty because we don't want to tempt anyone into sin. I personally think it is very uncommon for men to be tempted into sin by the sight of a woman nursing. Secular conversations on this issue convince me of this: the men don't want to see it, not because they find the sight "sexy," but because they find it unsexy and they would rather see the breasts without the baby attached. But I admit that it is possible that the men of my circles, who have been more sheltered than average, do find it a temptation to sin if there is any skin showing in that area.

That's why I don't show any. I have mercy on my weak brethren who have an issue with me doing something women have done since the dawn of time. Women in earlier generations didn't have to deal with this, and women in other cultures don't have to deal with this, but our present culture isn't really used to breastfeeding and has made a connection between sex and breasts that isn't quite the norm. So I cave to cultural pressure, because I choose to make things easier for anyone who may be tempted to sin, and I honestly don't want those around me to feel uncomfortable or awkward.

However -- I see this as my choice. My choice to be charitable to those around me. Not some strange man's decision about what is and isn't appropriate for the women around him to do. Just like it is a man's choice, when he sees something he'd rather not, to look or not to look -- to lust or not to lust. (Keep in mind: anything that is sinful is a free-will decision. If I could force him into lusting, he would not be responsible and has not sinned. If he sins, that is because he gives into temptation instead of looking away.) I don't want to tempt anyone to sin. But, on the one hand, I think it is unlikely that he should be tempted, and on the other hand, I do have to feed my child. I do it in the most modest way I reasonably can -- I'm not deliberately presenting a stumbling block to anyone. Any temptation he experiences is not willed by me. If I went out in a bikini in the hopes of attracting attention, I could see being in some way culpable for the sins of others. But if I feed my baby, minding my own business, and without attempting to call attention to any bare skin I'm showing, I don't think anyone has the right to tell me I may not.

This is a complicated issue. I realize that. But I keep seeing time and time again, various sources -- mostly patriarchal Protestant ones, but Catholic ones too -- that suggest that anything a man thinks about a woman is her fault. She must dress in a certain kind of attire, specified by men, which usually includes skirts, long sleeves, and shapelessness. And if she doesn't do this, and receives harassment, negative attention, or even a rape -- that is HER fault. Men can't help their reaction to women's bodies. Only women can prevent men from lusting.

Obviously, that's simply not true. Men control their actions. If they can't control their actions, they shouldn't go out in public. Women have the right to be treated with respect, even if they don't act appropriately, because they still have human dignity.

Meanwhile, I think a woman's responsibility -- her personal responsibility -- ends with doing what is reasonable. She should dress modestly by not choosing clothing that is intended to incite lust in men, and by taking reasonable precautions to prevent wardrobe malfunctions. We might disagree about where the line is drawn -- I think that it is not reasonable for a mother to have to restrict when, where, and how she feeds her child. But, in the face of this disagreement, I think it's the woman who makes the call. It is, in the final estimate, her body we're talking about. And it is not the right of anyone who is not her to tell her what lengths she has to go to to avoid tempting others.

As a culture, we've decided to give up some of our rights, like the right to wander around naked. We decided there was a very basic limit we wouldn't go past. So we have indecent exposure laws. We also decided that, for the good of nursing babies, breastfeeding is not in any way indecent exposure -- regardless of how it is done or how much shows! You can't be persecuted for nursing in this country.

I think the law is reasonable. We have a very basic limit, and beyond that, it's up to everyone's comfort level and sense of courtesy. Some people have a very easy time nursing without offending anyone, and so they do. Some having a very difficult time nursing without kind of a lot showing ... so they weigh their options and decide that their baby's hungry tummy is more important than some strangers' discomfort. So they do that. No one else is really qualified to make that judgment call than her, because no one else is in her situation.

And ... let me say it again ... it is her body. I know Catholics don't like this phrase because it's a catchphrase for abortion: "her body, her choice." But the reason it's fallacious is because her baby's body should be her baby's choice -- not because bodily autonomy is a bad thing. I'm a strong believer in bodily autonomy, which is why I'm against circumcision or even ear piercing being done to my babies. I believe that they should undergo these procedures when they decide they want them -- not when I decide.

I also believe that a person has the choice what medical procedures they undergo when they are an adult. If they don't want some supposedly lifesaving treatment, they can refuse, even if it means they will die. This is a right defended by Catholic teaching. We are not permitted to take our own lives or mutilate our bodies, but we do have the right to refuse any and every treatment we want.

That means a woman who is giving birth may give birth where and with whom she wishes. I am downright tired of arguments that women couldn't possibly be making an informed choice when they choose homebirth. They are. I believe that a woman has the right to give birth in her bedroom by herself, or in an operating theater with twelve doctors on hand. When the Mississippi personhood law was coming up for a vote, I heard a lot of arguments that women would be forced into c-sections or bedrest or other treatments they didn't consent to, for the sake of their baby. A good understanding of bodily autonomy should tell you that you can't force a person to consent to surgery, even to save someone else's life. You can prevent them from taking someone else's life, but you can't force them to save it at risk to themselves. (In any event, as the parent of the baby they're carrying, they also have the right to make medical decisions for the baby.) Any law, court order, or doctor who tries to force a woman to consent to medical intervention for the sake of her baby is wrong. That is injustice.

And that means a woman can wear what she wants. As a Catholic, I have the responsibility not to tempt others into sin. However, that is my responsibility. No one else can force me into complying. And when I weigh that responsibility with the responsibility to feed my child, I came up with the solution that I use. Others come up with other solutions.

And for some man that I don't know to waltz into a public forum and say, "Oh, I think it's great that you want to nurse your baby, just do it the way I say or you are [a sinner, rude, flagrantly immodest, undeserving of respect -- choose one or many]" -- well, I personally find that pretty rich. Especially when I have sweet, loving friends with no desire to tempt anyone or shock anyone, who don't obey the "rules" someone else has laid out, who are being called all these names. This, by the way, does cause a lot of women to quit when they didn't want to. That brings out my inner Warrior Princess. It's not a pretty sight.


JenniC10 said...

I'm really curious about the debate, but I am also glad I haven't seen it. People are idiots. Great post, and well said. As always, I'm on your side here. ;)

Betsy said...

Go, Sheila!

The debate was horrible, which is why I didn't get involved. But I definitely agree with your blog post. :-)

Anonymous said...

"But I keep seeing time and time again, various sources -- mostly patriarchal Protestant ones, but Catholic ones too -- that suggest that anything a man thinks about a woman is her fault."

This was exactly the reason I originally left the faith (I was raised Baptist). If I had not had a conversion experience, I would never have been Christian again. If I had not *then* been led to the UCC, I am not sure what I could have done.

An aside:

Though I don't always agree with everything you say (mainly this is due to me not being Catholic), I *always* love the way you say it. And I certainly agree with what you have to say about terrorists, motherhood, temptation, nursing, and bodily autonomy (I could go on). SO I just want to say - THANK YOU so much for saying it. I am alo incredibly impressed with your writing skills - so thank you for blogging too:) Thank you for kindly welcoming me as well, as I am a bit of an outsider in your readership.

Sheila said...

Aw, thanks! Though I have to say, if you look around at my followers, they have almost nothing in common. Some are Catholic like me. Some are moms like me. Some are into real food like me. And some, I can't figure out what they see in my blog, though I'm glad they enjoy it!

Let me tell you, I needed a little praise today. I'm getting a lot of grief from other places for my "radical" opinions, and it's nice to remember that *most* people I know actually do like to hear what I think, and don't think I'm nuts.

Been thinking of you a lot since you posted about your family's loss. Hope all are well.

Anonymous said...

Sheila, I have seen that debate and did make one comment. I agree completely with you about nursing whenever and wherever you need to. I respect your decision. I have no children of my own (unfortunately) but if I had to nurse "in public", I would do so, and would do everything possible to remain discreet. But that would be because I would be uncomfortable making anyone else feel so.

I find it amazing that the debate was started and carried on by some who have not only no children, but no life experience beyond going to college. I think you remained graceful in the debate and don't blame you for doing what you did. Though I don't always agree with you, I respect your opinion as a woman and a mom. (oh and I do enjoy reading your blog).

Hope you, John and Marko have a great New Year. :)

'Akaterina said...


I enjoyed this post. Andrew and I started a loooong discussion on issues of modesty. :)

In short, Andrew said from a guy's point of view, on a scale of 0 - 10 (0 being grandma and 10 being a lap dancer as far as temptation goes), he said a nursing woman is about a 3. The reason he gave was because, even though a woman is nursing, for guys, context doesn't usually matter. So if it is a pretty girl and the breast is exposed (even just a bit) it can (though not always) be a temptation. But still, only a 3. He also pointed out that these thoughts have little to do with "controlling one's actions" and can come to many who are trying to be virtuous. The difference would be whether or not he dwells on those thoughts.

That being said, I totally agree with you. As a larger woman (especially in the bust) I get a little annoyed when people criticize my nursing in public. Because I am a little larger in the chest, I usually bring a nursing cover or blanket, just because there is not good modest way for me to nurse otherwise (I either show my midriff or expose at least the top of both breasts).

But I think some people are unduly scandalize, as though they are looking to be scandalized. I found this both at my alma matter and around here among some of the ultra conservative (shapeless plaid jumper types). Being a curvier woman, yes I have hips and yes I have a bust. Sorry I am not a tooth pick, but I am not going to wear a tent! There has to come a point where my effort matches the man's restraint. Yes I will most likely show a "divot" because of my bust size, but it isn't like I am wearing a plunging neck line.

So when it comes to nursing, I think people are unnecessarily squeamish. It isn't like most women who nurse are just bearing it all out there (though I have seen that! Good grief!). The article you posted make a great point too. If the majority of people aren't tearing down Hooters and the Playboy mansion, then why so up tight about a natural process?

Sheila said...

Anonymous, you are so nice that I wish I knew who you were!

'Akaterina, exactly. I make my effort out of charity for the men, and they can make the rest of the effort out of forbearance for me. Deciding how much to cover is my job. Deciding where to look instead is their job. I'm doing my best, and whatever my "best" ends up looking like, I wish this were always understood and assumed.

See, I'm a stick. I don't anyone has ever, in my life, accused me of immodesty. My great-great-aunt once mistook me for a boy though. So I don't think I'm the standard for what most women are able to do in terms of modesty. I know other women have a tendency to say, "Well, *I* never had a problem, so I don't know what *their* problem is!" But for women with a larger bust size, it appears to be a heck of a lot harder. I'm certainly not going to be the one to march up and tell them they could be doing better.

I've never seen anyone in real life "baring it all." I've seen pictures online, but generally on blogs that are read by women. It just doesn't seem a big deal to me, even if I do see "everything." I suppose it might be shocking in public because people aren't used to it. But still, we're NOT out there storming Hooters, and they show just as much, in a much more provocative way. It's just a matter of being culturally unaccustomed to nursing -- and I find the older a person is, the more squeamish they are. Perhaps in 20 years this will all be a non-issue.

Anonymous said...

There are people out there nursing "for show," to make a point. That, I think, is just using your baby.

Sheila said...

I have never, ever, even once, seen anyone nurse "for show," or heard of it from a reliable source, either. How would you know what the mother's intentions are? Did she tell you?

Sometimes, mothers do make a point while feeding their baby. Their point is, "Please stop harassing women who are doing this. Sooner or later, you're going to have to get used to it." But it is physically impossible to make a child nurse who doesn't want to. And if you choose to nurse in public instead of in private to support women's right to nurse where they want -- that's just advocating for other moms and babies, while giving your baby lunch at the same time. I don't see what's wrong with that. When that point no longer needs to be made, no one is going to waste their time making it. The very fact that you are seeing "nurse-ins" in response to harassment women are receiving is proof that the point hasn't been taken yet.

'Akaterina said...

I have only once seen a woman do something which I thought was indecent when it came to nursing, and this I attribute to too much pot in her youth and too much peyote in recent years.

We were in New Mexico visiting my family. While there, I went to the farm where my stepmother works. At the farm there is a play area and a corn maze (it was fall). A woman who decided she was not only going to forego the general undergarments appropriate for women, but she was going to take her entire top off too in order to "nurse better." The kid was at least two, if not old - he knows what he is doing and doesn't need unrestricted access to mommy like that. At least wear a shirt! Again, too much peyote?

But yes, generally women don't "nurse for show." Most women I know who nurse are modest, even when it is just us women and the kids around. There may be the occasional slip, but that usually is because kids are running around, nursing, running around, nursing, etc.

Sheila said...

You might find the culture's a bit different in New Mexico. ;) I know that in Mexico itself, people are a lot more relaxed about the whole thing because they have never lost their breastfeeding culture like we did.

My point in this whole post, though, is that it isn't MY call if a woman is being "modest enough," it's HERS. Because anything else would be saying that I have the right to tell other people how to dress, which I don't. I might be surprised or startled by how someone else dresses, but since I don't own their body, I don't really have the right to criticize.

Hannah said...

Great post. I am a (Protestant denomination) Christian and I agree with what you are saying. I prefer the two-shirts method of keeping myself covered, but if the situation were different (if I was larger, twins, difficulty getting latched on), I don't think I would have any problem showing more skin. I define being "immodest" as displaying ones self in a sexually inappropriate manner, and nursing never/very rarely falls into that category.

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