Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lactivists at Applebees

Applebee's targeted by angry nursing moms

It all started when a manager at an Applebees asked a nursing mother to cover up.
Organizers of today's event say moms should be free to nurse in public without being interrupted. They also don't want to be forced to cover up their children with blankets or Hooter Hiders, one of a number of fashionable wraps on the market to cover nursing moms in public.

But businesses say breast-feeding in a restaurant or store makes other patrons uncomfortable, and that they have to consider the needs of all customers.
. . .
Spaulding . . . plans to participate in today's nurse-in to remove the stigma of breast-feeding in public.
. . .
The response from Thomas & King, the owner of the franchise she had been eating at, said management was considering keeping blankets in the restaurants for use by breast-feeding mothers.

"The response is not acceptable," said Lisa Carey, one of the organizers of the Chatsworth protest. "We want (Applebee's) to be breast-feeding-friendly and have a policy in place to accomplish that."
The protests happened at several locations, and a news search turns up some local coverage of these events. As one would expect, this amplified the problem of having several mouthpieces discussing what is already a more complex topic than people realize.

The problem is, that this is not one single issue, but people treat it as such. There are several issues wrapped in this.

1. The ability to breastfeed in public.

This is not at issue here; the Applebees manager simply set conditions (covering up) on that ability. Therefore, all the arguments that relate to the healthiness of breastfeeding, the necessity of a mother being able to do it while eating out, the naturalness of the act are not directly relevant. They only come into play if somehow covering up is a true obstacle to feeding.

2. The ability to do so uncovered.

We don't hear much about why using a blanket or other cover is so difficult, whether some mothers in particular have trouble getting their infants to nurse while covered, etc. Without this information, we cannot really parse out the issues. But since many mothers do cover, we know that at least for some, it is a feasible option.

That then turns the discussion into one of a). what we should do with the exceptions who have a particular difficulty, and b). whether there is a right to do so uncovered just because you want to or are more comfortable doing so.

The former is a much smaller issue, and could theoretically be handled on a case by case basis. I will set that aside for now. As to the second question, we can finally look at what we have on both sides honestly, instead of raising red herrings such as child welfare. The importance of what the woman is doing is only a small part of the calculus that weighs her discomfort on one side, and the unease of people who are bothered seeing an exposed breast on the other. To be honest, I cannot sympathize with either, which is perhaps why I am trying to frame this into piecemeal balancing tests instead of the emotional rhetoric that seems the usual dialog of the debate. So I can't say which side is being inconvenienced more. Assuming they are fairly equal, one takes into account the Star trek "Needs of the Many" consideration, and the fact that the whole situation is the result of the woman's choice to procreate, and comes to the conclusion that the woman should have to cover up.

Yet that is not where it ends.

3. The right to public exposed breastfeeding as political statement.

The huge rows over LiveJournal and Facebook's bans on breastfeeding photographs were replete with cries of "breast milk is a healthy way to feed my child!" Except that no child has ever gone hungry because his mother was unable to upload a picture of nursing to the internet. Likewise, Carey's demand that Applebee's be "breast feeding friendly" implies the same demand in her rejection of blankets. Where the mention of any downsides to covering are absent, what we have is demands for rights unattached to utility, but springing from the idea that breastfeeding is a right unto itself.

There seems to be an undertone or implication in La Leche's statements that because breastfeeding is natural and healthy, the right to do it wherever one wants without any conditions follows. This stems not just for the increased convenience, but from the idea that we need to accustom society to breastfeeding, make people get over their hangups, and encourage other women to breastfeed.

So what we end up with in that instance is the right to bear one's breast for a political statement. Although I know some readers will disagree with this, I'm not so sure this is a bad idea generally. If applied equally to all lobbying groups, this idea may actually fall in the gender rights vein that led Manhattan to allow non-commercial toplessness.

Where I find this idea troubling is where we assume that this speech right always and automatically trumps the property rights inherent in restaurant owners. Unless you own an outdoor shopping mall in California, or a shanty town for your company's employees, the rights of owners usually prevail here. You have the right to free expression, just not in my cafe.

This collides with the more pragmatic considerations when you begin to discuss breastfeeding, since places of public accommodation are restricted in their property rights (just not in matters of free speech). Many states have passed laws mandating that such places allow nursing. But need they allow uncovered nursing?

And so we return to where we began, asking the question of when the issue stops being about the necessity of breastfeeding, and when it starts being about discomfort or political speech. Until we realize this, we will be barraged with useless rhetoric, and will not be responding in kind.

Speaking of which, I shall leave this last quote uncommented, since I cannot do it justice. And now, your moment of zen.
An Applebee's spokeswoman said the fallout from Ryan's experience has provided an opportunity for the company to make nursing mothers feel welcome. Moms say if that means having to cover up with a blanket, then it isn't within the law.

"They just don't get it," Ryan said in an e-mail post about her experience. "It's like saying Rosa Parks has to be in the back of the bus and we will give her a pillow so she will be comfortable back there."
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4 comments:

Blaese said...

"There seems to be an undertone or implication in La Leche's statements that because breastfeeding is natural and healthy, the right to do it wherever one wants without any conditions follows"

Umm - so it would follow that since sex is natural and healthy one should have the right to do it wherever one wants without any conditions to follow ? idem taking a crap, peeing and any other innate bodily function ? Although the sex analogy would be the closest being a shared activity.

Lisa said...

It seems to me that in my mother's generation, if a woman breast-fed her infant, she did so in the privacy of her own home. In fact, it really wasn't an issue because in those days, people didn't take infants to restaurants, or drag them anywhere and everywhere.

I just fail to understand why these women feel that they need not be modest in public when breastfeeding. Is it really unreasonable to drape a towel over oneself? Does this need to be a public display of "look at me, look at this wonderful thing I'm doing for my child"? It's just another form of babystalking. I wonder what will happen when some advocate of attachment parenting decides to publicly nurse a toddler, or worse yet, a child of preschool or kindergarten age.

It's another irritating example of children being used as a "statement" of some kind, whether social (such as the brood as new status symbol) or political or feminist. And that definitely is NOT a wonderful thing to do for one's child.

Sarah said...

I would like to see equality for breasts everywhere. It's already not fair that men are allowed to walk around shirtless on a hot day. Maybe I'd like to air the girls out from time to time, too. If a nursing mother has the right to sit topless at a restaurant table and nurse an infant, then I should have the right to do that same thing-- sans attachment. After all, a boob is a boob, right? Isn't that what all the "lactivists" want? The desexualization of the boob in the name of open-shirted public breastfeeding? OK, then, La Leche League, I'd like to see you put your money where your boobs are. A boob doesn't have to have a baby glommed onto it in order to be seen in public!

I just wish I had the balls (boobs?) to let my own feel the breeze when I see some woman with her shirt hiked up over her shoulder with her boob on display for all to see. And at its core, that's really what it is: a display. "Look at me!"

Vinny C said...

Sarah,

In New York, you can bare your breasts in public, as long as it is for a non-commercial purpose. Anyplace a man can do it, a woman can do it.

I don't think you'd be able to at Applebees, though, since it is a private business.

Although I wonder... if they must allow breastfeeding, would they also be forced to allow breast pumping? And if they must allow breast pumping, then it stands to reason they should allow manual stimulation of the breasts to express milk, right?

And I imagine it's difficult to get the milk flowing all the time.

So, there you go, ladies. You can sit down in an Applebees, whip 'em out and play with your breasts, under the guise of stimulating milk production.