So apparently Kim Kardashian has been saying – or, rather, tweeting – some silly things about breastfeeding. You know,the usual stuff: ew, some woman has her boobies out, she should cover up, yuck, blech, ugh, etc. This, of course, begs a very simple – I would, and will, argue, too simple – response: HYPOCRITE AHOY! Who is Kim Kardashian, she who has profited from her oft-exposed bosoms, to demand that a nursing mother cover herself while nursing? Does Kim Kardashian not show more booby on one page in Us Magazine than the average nursing mom does in a year? Let us all point our fingers! BOO, KIM KARDASHIAN! BOO! You cover up!
This makes us feel better, of course. It’s gratifying when the biases and hypocrisies of cultural discourse come neatly packaged in such transparent wrapping. All we have to do is point at them and shout LOOK! Kim Kardashian recoils from a nursing boob as crumbs from the cake that she has and is eating spill ironically into her own exposed bosom! It’s so much easier to point at such an example of cultural hypocrisy in action – or to the 140 character tweet that describes it – than it is to lower one’s voice to a serious register and intone: hark ye listeners and note well the dissonance! Society accepts – nay, celebrates and rewards! – the exposing of boobies as sexually desirable subjects of the cultural gaze, but rejects exposure of boobies when such exposure denies or precludes titillation! Oppressed wymmins of the world, unite and revolt! I personally find that no one really listens to me when I do that.
But here’s the thing: it’s too easy (it also veers dangerously into slut-shaming territory, but I’ll come back to that). It reduces the argument to HA! Just that – HA! – with a footnote stating TOLD YOU SO! Which doesn’t really get us anywhere, because – as anyone who has ever argued with a four year old will tell you – neither HA! nor TOLD YOU SO! resolve questions or controversies.
We know that there’s a double cultural standard when it comes to women’s bodies. We know that nursing mothers continue to experience public shaming while the Kim Kardashians of the world expose their cleavage with (for the most part) impunity. We know that our culture promotes the sexualization of women and girls and that it disdains any aspects of womanhood (weight, reproductive cycles, childbirth, nursing, aging, etc) that do not lend themselves to sexualization, or that problematize such sexualization (childbirth and nursing do this, arguably, inasmuch as they assert non-sexual functions – some might say, counter-sexual [hard to fetishize boobs or nethers when an infant's head is in the way] – for sexualized parts.) The real question is, what are we going to do about it? And – arguably more importantly – how are we going to do something about it without rejecting those aspects of sexuality that we value, and without belittling each other?
I wasn’t going to write about Kim Kardashian’s unfortunate tweets for this very reason: I wasn’t sure how to comment without falling into the trap that I’m describing. I get outraged when I hear about nursing-shaming, and my impulse is always to shout loudly and slap hands. And rightly so, I think: we won’t see an end to nursing-shaming unless we persist in calling it out wherever we see it. But in this case I was concerned that my outrage at Kim Kardashian’s nursing-shaming would tip too easily into counter-shaming, into some variation on slut-shaming, into me wagging my fingers and deploring her boobs and her cleavage and her seeming inability to keep her puppies contained and who wants to see the great bare prow of her chest spilling over onto a plate of carbonara, readers of Cracked.com and Maxim excluded?
Because, why should I deplore that? Why should I suggest – even by implication – that she cover up? Because that’s what it amounts to, doesn’t it, when we snort derisively at any woman baring her cleavage for fun or profit? When we assert the moral superiority of nursing in public to wearing a low-cut shirt in public? I’ll be the first to say that I think that nursing babies is more important, more necessary, more deserving of public support than is exposing one’s breastal units to sunlight and the public gaze, but I don’t know that I want my right to nurse in public to come at the cost of Kim Kardashian’s, or any woman’s, right to feel comfortable dressing however she likes and to not face censure for doing whatever it is that she does that causes us to shout YO HYPOCRITE when she expresses discomfort with the exposed nursing boob.
Because, I think that we need to have it both ways. Or, that we should want to have it both ways. Maybe not to the extent that we covet the Kardashian style credo – I certainly don’t, and I cling to the (possibly hypocritical) hope that my daughter won’t, either – but at least to such a degree that we’re comfortable acknowledging that while nursing boobs are awesome, sexy boobs are awesome, too, and that there’s not necessarily anything counter-feminist or counter-maternalist or counter-lady-power-in-general about that. Maybe this is too much to hope for in a culture where the sexualization of women’s bodies has been taken to absurd and oppressive extremes, extremes that have served to make us wary, in some degree, of anything that gives any ground to that sexualization, I don’t know.
What I do know – or, at least, suspect – is that reducing debates about public breastfeeding to ‘Smart Feminists And Noble Mothers Against Scantily Dressed Skank-Hos Who Don’t Realize They’re Oppressed By Their Heaving Cleavage’ obscures what’s really at stake in this issue: our right and freedom to define the terms and practices of our own womanhood, and to not only resist but reject such false, culturally-imposed dichotomies as Madonna/Whore, Smarty-Pants Feminist/Unthinking Tart, Dutiful Asexual Mom/Lusty Young Woman. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m much more complicated than that. And I like my boobs in a whole variety of ways, that includes their life-sustaining baby-feeding superpower but also their pleasing appearance (they cut a smaller profile post-nursing, but are nonetheless charming and also indispensable as sweater-fillers) and their none-too-insignificant role as (forgive me) sexual playthings, and I’m not comfortable with any discourse that suggests that they can only be one or some of these at once. And I worry that when these discussions get oversimplified (Bad Tarty Lady With Unseemly Cleavage Disses Noble And Totally Unsexy Nursing Boobs, Lo The Hypocrisy) we promote a discourse that does exactly that. Sexy Boobs Bad; Nursing Boobs Good. Nursing Mom Good; Cleavage-Barer Bad. Babies On Boobs Good; Tight T-Shirt On Boobs, Bad. Why can’t all those things be good? Why can’t all those things co-exist? (An aside, that maybe warrants further discussion: is the nursing boob never sexy? The nursing mom never alluring? Why does the very idea seem to cause discomfort? Does it compromise our cause? At what cost?) Why can we not have our sexy cakes and our nurturing-mama cakes and eat them, too?
I’m not suggesting that we let Kim Kardashian off the hook for shaming nursing moms, which is exactly what she did when she made a public statement to the effect that she found public nursing disgusting, nor am I suggesting that we accept the sexualization of women and girls uncritically. And I don’t know if it’s really possible to reconcile the polarized stereotypes that I outlined above. But I do think that we serve our cause, and ourselves, by resisting the temptation – and believe me, I understand that temptation well – to perpetuate those stereotypes. And by reminding ourselves that we are, and Kim Kardashian is (don’t laugh), complicated creatures, that we are infinite and contain multitudes, that we can be and should be many contradictory things all at once, and this is our strength, and our magic.
That, and that our boobs are awesome.
(Am I right? What do you think? Should we just keep chasing her with pitchforks, mocking her cleavage? Or?)
(And I’m not the only one who thought that her own nursing boobs were kind of sexy, right? I mean, after they recovered from being ravaged and bleeding and all. No?)