The human animal: Breastfeeding in public

A new production puts the quiet, intimate act of breastfeeding on stage, and asks us to consider what it means to be an ecofeminist mother to a girl in the 21st century

Dr Lara Stevens, University of Melbourne

Dr Lara Stevens

Published 10 May 2019

Although it has been legal to breastfeed in public in Australia since 1984, many women still feel uncomfortable or unwelcome breastfeeding in public.

It’s a sign of the times that in 2019, stickers still appear in the windows of child-friendly shops, health and day-care centres to remind clientele that the establishment welcomes mothers breastfeeding on the premises - alongside the ‘No-Smoking’ sticker.

Public breastfeeding only became legally protected in all 50 US states in 2018. Picture: Shutterstock

But some mothers breastfeeding their babies in public are still occasionally asked to move to designated ‘parent’s rooms,’ away from other patrons.

And it’s not just here in Australia.

Public breastfeeding only became legally protected in all 50 US states in 2018 - with Utah and Idaho the last to support mothers ‘nursing’, as Americans describe it. On French beaches, topless sunbaking is celebrated but breastfeeding is stigmatised, despite being legal.

Women in the UK are still not permitted to breastfeed in the House of Commons. In Germany in 2016, a woman was asked to leave a café in Berlin because she was breastfeeding. She was unprotected by German law which allows establishment owners to set their own rules. The list goes on.

So, what is it about public breastfeeding that can still make some people feel so uncomfortable? Why do the terms ‘indecent’, ‘unpleasant’, ‘provocative’, ‘immodest’ persistently appear in debates around breastfeeding outside the home?

This unease cannot be explained away as a concern of indecent exposure given how habituated we are to seeing women’s bodies in public on advertising billboards, film, media and in fashion trends.

I think that breastfeeding sparks public anxieties because it forces us to face our human animality, our mammalian biology.

In 2017, Senator Larissa Waters became the first woman to breastfeed her baby in Federal Parliament. Picture: AAP

The history of Western philosophy and science has worked hard to set up clear distinctions between the animal and the human, while simultaneously categorising the human within the Animal Kingdom.

Seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes wrote that: “On thus coming to know how different the animals are from us, we comprehend so much better the reasons which prove the soul to be of a nature entirely independent of the body”.

Descartes put forward an idea of the human as a purely rational being, summed up in his famous proposition ‘I think, therefore I am’.

He saw the mind as disconnected from the body which belonged to the ‘lower orders’ of nature because it is what humans share in common with other animals.

As a consequence, the natural world, the ‘non-thinking’ world as defined by Descartes, other philosophers and scientists, was regarded as inferior.

For many, it still is.

While ideas like this now seem antiquated in the secular West, written in old-fashioned philosophical terms that can seem worlds away from the everyday person’s lived experience, they still pave the way for public attitudes to nature as a force to be mastered, controlled and placed in the service of human needs and wants – food, agricultural labour, building materials, fuel.

Breastfeeding sparks public anxieties because it forces us to face our human animality. Picture: Shutterstock

In practice, humans try to suppress signs of our animality. Fashions for removing pubic hair, concealing the smells of the body with deodorants and perfumes and, above all, the construction of socially acceptable and deviant behaviours around sex, masturbation, eating, defecating, menstruating.

This is the stuff of our animality – our desires, cravings, biological impulses, bodily functions, capacities and limitations.

Ecofeminist philosophy and activism reacts against the attitudes of the dominant philosophical view of the natural world as servant to man.

Australian ecofeminist philosophers, like Val Plumwood, have shown how the mistreatment of women and the mistreatment of the environment have a shared history.

She argues that the cultural construction of human as ‘outside’ of nature has led to our ‘existential homelessness’ – a phrase that aptly describes our present environmental predicament and our global inability to respond adequately and in solidarity to the deepening ecological crises.

Australian economist Julie Smith advocates for human mother’s milk to be counted as part of Australia’s national GDP. What a country measures in economic terms shows what it values. Smith has calculated that breastmilk created by Australian mothers is worth, on average, $A3.5billion per year.

Dr Stevens’ new show explores what it means to be a mother to a daughter in the 21st century. Picture: Meredith Rogers

I am a mother with two young children, a performance scholar and ecofeminist. For me, the lack of value attributed to my breastmilk and the climate crisis are intertwined problems.

I wonder what kind of future awaits my children and, particularly, what kind of gender imbalances that acute environmental changes might exacerbate for my daughter.

So, what happens when you take the quiet, intimate and private act of breastfeeding and put it on stage, in a theatre, before an audience? How does this mammalian bodily capacity – an act of love and nourishment – raise other questions about what counts or should be counted in modern Australia?

Dr Lara Stevens’ new show Not Now, Not Ever is a sing-and-dance-a-long to Julia Gillard’s ‘Misogyny Speech’ and a meditation on what it means to bring a girl into the twenty-first century. For more information and tickets please visit the ART+CLIMATE =CHANGE 2019 site.

Banner: Shutterstock

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