Boobs and Nipples, and Aureolas, Oh My! How to Act Around Breastfeeding

Dear Lucy, a “Dear Abby” etiquette column in the UK’s The Guardian, recently had a question from a reader about how to act when someone breastfeeds  in front of you.

What is the etiquette for a man when a female friend starts to breast-feed her baby in front of him? Do you look away but continue talking? Do you look her directly in the eyes – and nowhere else? Do you share the moment with her by looking down at her baby whenever she does so? Or should you just make your excuses and leave the room?

 Her answer is adequately funny and does conclude that people should grow up and get a grip but she also uses some imagery that I think hurts the breastfeeding movement.  She states,

For (straight) men, boobs are primarily sexual objects. It is ridiculous to expect any heterosexual with a penis to be able suddenly to put aside however many decades of experience he has accrued in this associative field and treat the advent of real, live boobs before him – where habitually none was displayed before – as if it were an ordinary event.

While I will agree that in our culture boobs are primarily sexual objects for men and women I disagree that it is ridiculous to expect a grown man to act like an adult.  I think we discredit many men who are capable of discernment between the sexual breast and the functional.  Would these same men of which Lucy speaks avert their eyes or giggle and salivate over boobs exposed during a defibrillator rescue?  If I were a guy this assumption that I can only think with my penis would be insulting.

So, how do you act around a breastfeeding woman?  I think there are a few things to remember.  First, if you are uncomfortable that is your problem.  Admit it and choose to act like an adult.  Second, think of how you would act with any other uncomfortable situation.  Have you ever talked to someone with a deformity?  You can be rude by refusing to look at someone just as much as by staring.  You tell yourself look past the difference and talk to the person.  Of course, I’m not comparing feeding a baby to a deformity!  Just the feeling of discomfort it might create.

I honestly don’t think it is necessary to avert your eyes from the baby and the breast.  It is normal to look at a baby!  If a woman wanted no breast visible she would use a cover.  If she isn’t using a cover then she isn’t (or shouldn’t) freak out if you glance down at the babe.  Of course you could probably glance down in a licentious way and piss her off – but then you better go get some serious therapy.  At the same time remember where her eyes are when you speak to her.  Didn’t your mom ever tell you that staring is rude?

Do you have a question?  Want to know if it hurts or something? Ask.  You are in a conversation so I’m assuming you are an acquaintance.  She isn’t going to be offended at your natural curiosity.  We are aware that breastfeeding is all too rarely seen in our culture.  We would be happy to answer your questions.  I also don’t mind noticing that someone is mildly uncomfortable as long as they are attempting to accommodate me.

What about if your child sees me in a restaurant and says “mommy, I see that woman’s boobie!”?  This is often one of the arguments for why I should cover myself.  How about explaining to the child that some babies drink from bottles and others drink from their mommy’s breasts.  It isn’t sameful – it is nature.  This is an opportunity to learn something.  If you act like it is shameful then your child will feel that way too.  Raise your boys to be a new generation that won’t balk at the breast.

My father is a perfect example of a man who gets this.  He is from the baby boomer generation where breastfeeding was rarely done (unless you were living in a hippie commune).  I don’t even know how many women he has seen breastfeed and add to this the fact that I’m his daughter.  He could act all uncomfortable but he doesn’t.  If he turned the other way, left the room, or wouldn’t look at me it would make me feel shameful.  He continues talking to me, glances at his granddaughter, and generally is ok with it.  I think it helps that he knows the benefit his granddaughter is getting from breastfeeding and sees that this is something our society lost and is need of again.

One of the reasons I refuse to hide when I breastfeed is just for this reason.  When more women come out of the shadows and show that breastfeeding is not shameful but normal, natural, and beautiful then we won’t be asking “How do I act?”

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2 thoughts on “Boobs and Nipples, and Aureolas, Oh My! How to Act Around Breastfeeding

  1. Men friends could see it as an opportunity to catch a peek! But really even Great Gramdpa isn’t uncomfortable with his granddaughter breastfeeding in front of him. The fact that this is even blogged about is astonishing. America really needs to get a grip.

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  2. Your dad sounds great! Mine has always avoided eye-contact and looked the other way when I breastfeed. I wish he would read your post 🙂

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