What is women’s responsibility to men while breastfeeding?

Today, on International Women’s Day, a conservative Catholic Twitter personality retweeted a story about a gubernatorial candidate who breastfed her baby in an election ad. He added this comment:

“Lady, cover that up. Breast feeding in public is fine but cover up. No one needs to have to avert their eyes uncomfortably.” (I’ve taken out his name because it’s not about him. His sentiment is very common among conservative Catholics.)


Curious, I looked up the ad in question to see how flagrant a bit of lactivism it was.

Now, a disclaimer: I’m rare among my friends in that I have some sympathy for men who find public breastfeeding distracting. Men like boobs, and I’m okay with that. I do believe women should be aware at the effect their exposed breasts can have on men.

Of course, it’s not always possible for women to be completely discreet, and lots of babies won’t tolerate covers, and of course there is often a flash of skin that shows while you position the hungry baby, and the most important thing is that a baby get fed when he’s hungry; but it does kind of bug me when moms go out of their way to turn breastfeeding into some kind of exhibitionist statement, hanging out at Starbucks with their entire titty on display like some kind of–


Watch the ad. Here’s the footage that made this Catholic conservative fellow’s eyeballs feel so uncomfortable.


Did you even see anything? I didn’t. Just a hungry baby getting fed.

This video is almost miraculous for how unboobful it is. Margaret Thatcher showed more skin on any given day than the woman in this commercial. She’s far more modest than I ever manage to be. (For the record, my own public nursing technique was to remove my glasses. Then everything got all blurry, and no one could see us.)

So . . . what’s the deal, here? Why does this Tweeter, and so many other men (and women, too), find even the idea of public breastfeeding so disconcerting? Because that’s all there was here: An idea. We saw a woman; we saw a baby; we knew what was going on, but we sure didn’t see anything. And yet merely knowing it happened caused the fellow discomfort.

Long have I pondered over this puzzle. I can easily understand how secular men can find breastfeeding off-putting. Many men are so warped by porn that they prefer videos to living women. Actual, real, in-the-room women are unappealing to them. They only want to see women who’ve been artfully separated into parts, like a cow at the hands of a butcher.

But how is it that conservative, Catholic men tremble with consternation if they must be in the same room with a woman using her breasts as if they are some kind of, ugh, mammary glands or something? They say they are concerned with modesty and decency, but how can that be so? They’re happy to partner with Fox News, which has a “cleavage” tag on its page, and whose female news anchors routinely show abundant skin. Conservative men don’t demand draconian modesty from their political idols, male or female. Only from nursing mothers.

Truly, I believe them when they say public breastfeeding causes them discomfort. But I don’t believe it has anything to do with the woman offending their sense of modesty, decency, or chastity.

The discomfort they feel is the discomfort of being excluded. The discomfort they feel is in seeing a woman’s body in a context that has nothing to with them. It makes them uncomfortable to see a woman in a context that even temporarily excludes them.

When a woman shows half her boobs in a skin-tight dress at a gala, men feel that this display is for them (and be honest, it probably is). They understand the situation, and they are in control of it. They feel themselves to be the central actor: I am a man with eyeballs and a penis, and look! Here comes a set of breasts for me. 

But if those breasts are in use for feeding a baby, where does the man fit in? He’s excluded. He feels weird and itchy and unhappy. He feels he has to look away, but it’s breasts, so he doesn’t want to look away, but when he does look, he sees something that doesn’t have anything to do with him. And he doesn’t like that, at all.

As I said, I have sympathy for men who struggle with public breastfeeding. It’s not wrong or bad or disgusting of men to be sexually aroused by the sight of a breast.

But here’s the thing: We feel what we feel, but we’re in control of what we do next. Normal, healthy, decent men can be aroused by a breast, but then immediately tell themselves, “Okay, that’s enough, now” if they find themselves acting or thinking like a creep. Men must earn the title of “man” by training themselves to get used to the idea that breasts are not always there to turn them on.

And that is a man’s responsibility, not a woman’s.

It’s a man’s responsibility to always remember that women are whole people, and not just body parts. This is true whether a woman is breastfeeding discreetly or openly, whether she’s dressed like Daisy Duke or draped like a dowager, whether she’s starring in a National Geographic special or if she’s a woman clothed with the sun. She’s a whole person, and it’s a man’s job to remember that.

It’s his responsibility to remember she is a whole person if she’s topless because he’s currently having sex with her. She’s still a whole person, always a whole person. It is his job to train himself never to forget this, and to act accordingly, even on Twitter.

It’s his job to train himself never to forget this even if, when confronted by a woman feeding her child, he has to “avert his eyes uncomfortably.” The man who whines about having to avert his eyes?  Barely a man. If shifting his eyeballs is the hardest thing he’s is ever required to do, this is a soft age indeed.

And so I’ve changed my mind, in recent years, about women’s responsibility to breastfeed discreetly. I used to think she should do everything she can to cover up as much as possible, out of charity for men who struggle with chastity. But now I see that behavior as potentially propping up a culture of pornography.

As I said above, I do believe women should be aware at the effect their exposed breasts can have on men. But I’ve come to understand that that effect may very well be to help restore our culture to sexual health. Public, uncovered breastfeeding reminds everyone that women are not isolated parts. They are whole. They have a context of their own, and that context sometimes has nothing at all to do with men’s desires.

My friend Kate Cousino said it well: “I firmly believe public breastfeeding is a blow against pornography culture. Context is precisely what porn omits. And the context of sex and breasts is real human beings with lives–and babies.”

As I said in my conversation with Claire Swinarski, extreme modesty culture is just the flip side of pornography culture. Both are obscenely reductive. Both rob women of their personhood. Both say that women are valuable only insofar as they do what men want them to do.

And men say the same thing, when they rage and sneer at women who breastfeed in public. It’s especially scandalous for Catholic, conservative, family men to behave this way, making a huge show of huffily leaving the room if their daughter-in-law begins to nurse at a family gathering, or complaining bitterly to the pastor when women dare to feed their infants in the pew without a cover.

When men do these things, they’re saying, “It’s more important for you to protect me from passing hormonal inconvenience than it is for you, who haven’t slept in four months, to just sit down and feed your baby. My obligation to exercise self-control is too hard for me. All the obligation is on you, breast-haver. Because I’m a man, you must make my world easier by caring for me, too, as you care for your new baby.”

It’s International Women’s Day. A very good day to be a man by taking responsibility for your own eyes, your own brain, your own hormones. A very good day to start your training. Women are whole people. If you work at it, you can learn to see them that way, even if they’re feeding babies.


Maria Lactans image By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Unpopular opinion: That Boylan Catholic High prom dress code is actually fine.

A few examples of dresses not welcome at prom, because the school is sexist.

The internet is terribly upset because “A Catholic high school in Illinois was so concerned about the modesty of their female students, they made a 21-page manual directing the girls at the school how to dress.”

According to a Scarymommy article, “It’s so perfect that this dress code exists. Because it proves in great detail why dress codes are so unbelievably sexist and ridiculous.”

No, it doesn’t.

First, let’s clarify: it’s not precisely a “21-page dress code manual,” which brings to mind a glossy, multi-page volume of draconian minutiae plus a bonus look book of modest and immodest gals. Instead, the school wesbsite includes “dress code guidelines,” accompanied by a slide show with examples of what their dress code looks like in real life. The copious illustrations are what makes it one of the more sensible, rational dress codes I’ve seen. More about that later.

Let’s take the objections in turn.

Hey, this dress code is all about girls, and not much is said about boys! That’s sexist!

Possibly, but probably it’s just practical. Boys’ clothing is generally designed for style and comfort. Girls’ clothing is generally designed to be provocative. (See this essay in the Huffington Post, which rightly calls Target to task for the ways girls’ shorts are designed and sized.) When prom clothing is concerned, this discrepancy is magnified times a thousand. Boys are still wearing more or less what they’ve worn for the last hundred years: Long pants, a dress shirt, and a jacket. Sometimes the pants are super tight, and that’s no good. Beyond that? A suit is a suit.

Scarymommy says:

What if they decided against sleeves? Can they were[sic] those 90’s style cropped tuxedo jackets with a tail? What if they wear flip flops? Will that work? Oh, you don’t care?

Nope. Those clothes would look silly, but they wouldn’t be immodest. And that’s the purpose of the dress code: Not to crack down on girls, but to crack down on anyone dressed immodestly. It is almost always girls who are turning up dressed immodestly; therefore, the manual is directed mainly toward girls.

Now, I can easily imagine a future where boys start turning up at prom in skin tight, shiny pants that cling to their testicles, or filmy skirts that barely cover their butt cheeks, or strapless bodices made up of transparent netting, or pants with cut-outs designed to draw attention to their penises or asscracks. These styles could become popular, and when they do, I suppose there will have to be guidelines addressing that kind of thing.

But, folks. Boys don’t have as many sexy parts as girls do. Even if a boy did turn up wearing a stripper costume, he just wouldn’t have that much to show off. A man’s exposed or semi-exposed chest may be sexy, but it’s not sexy in the same way as a girl’s exposed or semi-exposed breasts. File under: How Does One Explain Things That Any Cat Would Understand?

Second objection: They want girls to dress modestly, and that is stupid because modesty is stupid!

The writer assumes all right-thinking people agree that immodesty itself is an arbitrary standard people apply to girls just because they like jerking girls around, and not because modesty is an actual (if subjective) standard we ought to expect from our kids and ourselves.

Here’s a screen shot that Scarymommy shares as evidence of . . . something or other.

Scarymommy is incredulous that girls are not supposed to show cleavage, because, it snarks, “God doesn’t like cleavage.” I don’t see the school bringing God into it, actually. (I suspect the military also disallows cleavage, and it’s not because it will upset God.) And anyway, if a religious school does design its rules based on what God likes, where is the freaking problem with that? If you think Catholicism is oppressive and God is lame, maybe don’t go to a Catholic school? I promise you, a ban on thigh-high slits is not the hardest thing you’ll encounter in God’s law.

As I read through the guide, I was amazed at how permissive it is. A top shouldn’t be cut below the navel, and we’re supposed to be outraged? They allow spaghetti straps and strapless dresses. They allow slits and mid-thigh skirts. They even allow two-piece dresses that expose midriff skin. I’ve seen far more restrictive dress codes. Scarymommy is just upset there is such a thing as guidelines at all. And that is bonkers.

Objection #3: They are bringing actual inches into it! This objectifies girls and reduces them to bits of meat that can be measured and weighed! More sexism!

Scarymommy shares the next section of the guide


and says

NO NAVEL. And we’re bringing a ruler, so don’t even try to show more than two inches of your midsection. Dresses should not be excessively tight, so good luck if you’re girl with actual curves. And no cover-ups are allowed over dresses that do not meet dress code. You can’t hide your immodesty with a sweater, ladies!

Let’s pick this one apart, thereby giving it much more thought than Scarymommy did.

Using rulers, or even giving specific numbers of inches for this and that, can be a tricky game. There is something intensely dehumanizing about laying even a hypothetical ruler on a girl’s body. But if they don’t get specific, then girls will claim they had no idea their little scrap of sequin-encrusted lycra could possibly be considered inappropriate.

So the school is in a bit of a bind. If they get too specific, they look petty, and appear to be objectifying girls, as if their fittingness as human beings can be reduced to how many inches of flesh they reveal. But if they don’t get specific, some girls will show up dressed like strippers. Or, even worse, if they don’t get too specific, some overzealous monitor will tell a specific girl that, in his or her judgment, her dress has crossed a subjective line — leaving everyone to conclude that (if it’s a man) he has the hots for that girl, and is a pervert, or (if it’s a woman) she is just jealous because she’s old and fat.

So that’s why the school gives these specific guidelines. It can lead to heartache for girls with very long legs or girls with especially big busts, but what is the alternative? Subjective standards? No standards?

That is Scarymommy’s soluation, I guess. Many kids and parents and readers will say that it’s always wrong, always sexist, always objectifying, and always body shaming to apply standards to girls’ clothing.

I can only ask you to ask my cat, which I don’t have, to explain these things to you.

(I don’t understand the part about no cover-ups. Probably they have noticed that girls wear a little jacket to get past the door, and then take it off to dance, and then someone has to worm him way through the crowd and shout over the blaring music, “Marissa! Marissa! Principal Horace J. Patriarchy says you have to put your jacket on! I said put your jacket on, Marissa! Your jacket!” and then next thing you know, the Huffington helicopters of outrage are circling the gym and Marissa is crying because it’s really hot in the gym, which puts a damper on the party. )

Objection #4: The same dress can look very different on different girls! This is body shaming, and just proves how ridiculous it is to even try to impose objective standards!

Scarymommy riffs, “Dresses should not be excessively tight, so good luck if you’re girl with actual curves.” (I’ll just proactively deploy my meta-anti-shaming comment here and say that girls without curves are “actual” girls, too, okay, Scarymommy? Check your reverse body positive privilege, sheesh).

Guys, I am a bona fide fatty, and I have an enormous bust. A lot of the clothes I try on are too tight. What I do then, see, is I get the next size up. 21st-century America is actually a really, really good time and place to “have actual curves.” There are options for proportionately-sized clothing that were unheard of when I was shopping for my own prom dress, where you had to travel (by car! No internet!) to a specialty store to find clothing above a size 14.

All they’re saying is, different dresses look different on different girls.

My potential cat is getting exhausted here, with the explaining.


Scarymommy splutters:

Translation: if you weigh a little more, there are a lot of dresses you can’t wear. Because, curves. Sorry. They don’t make the rules. God does. Oh, wait. They totally make the rules. Never mind.

Um? The guidelines are pretty clear that it is, indeed, the school making the rules, and they’re trying to do so in cooperation with the kids and parents. And the school didn’t even mention weight. Maybe they’re talking about girls with short legs and long torsos, or girls with huge boobs and tiny hips. My cat thinks the Scarywriter is projecting a little bit, but my cat is, well, kind of catty.

And now we’re getting down to what is actually the best part of this dress code.

So many dress codes behave as if you’ll be fine if you just follow some very specific, numerical guidelines; and so many others behave as if you’ll be fine if you just decide to be less of a slutburger for once, what with having not one but two breasts and all.

Instead, this dress code acknowledges that any modesty guidelines are going to have shortcomings, because of what a subjective thing modesty is, and it does girls and parents the favor of asking them to “not put school administrators in the difficult position of upholding school standards.”

In other words, it asks them to think about and uphold those standards themselves. To behave as adults, and not to throw a temper tantrum over their sacred civil right to have a cut-out heart on their ass. “We’re all in this together,” is the basic message, “So please help us have a nice time at the dance, rather than turning this into one more exhausting battle over stupid stuff.”

No dice, Boylan Catholic. The internet chooses temper tantrum every time.

Now, let’s talk about why the internet is mad about the idea of a dress code. There is actually some reason for it. 

In some places, especially in some religious circles, modesty really is something people only care about if they are interested in making girls feel bad, or if they believe that boys are ravening beasts who just can’t stop themselves from rapin’ everything that insists on exposing its – gulp – knees.

There are really are people, including some Catholic institutions, that say “teach modesty” when they really mean “teach girls that their bodies are dangerous and shameful, and any time a boy does something bad to a girl, it’s because the girl wasn’t following the Very Clear Rules.”

There are people who really do believe girls and women are, by their nature, always at fault, because if they didn’t want their pussies grabbed, then why’d they have to go out in public with female bodies? What did they expect?

I get it.

I know that people abuse the idea of modesty. I know that some dress codes are sexist. I know that some people treat girls badly. I know that, every year, nice girls show up to prom and get harassed by weirdos with hang-ups, even though their dresses are perfectly modest and pretty. I know that there are problems with many dress codes.

But it does not follow that any dress code is, by definition, sexist and oppressive and worthy of jeers and outrage. If girls are going to turn up wearing intensely sexual clothing, then the school is going to have to respond in some way.  

And boy, is it tough to get it right.

If they make objective rules, they’ll be mocked for reducing girls to inches.
If they make subjective judgments, they’ll be excoriated for shaming individual girls, or for projecting their own personal issues onto girls.
If they tell girls to use their common sense, girls will show up wearing inappropriate things.
If they set down rules and turn away girls who don’t follow the rules, they’ll be raked over the coals for humiliating kids who paid for the right to be there.
If they ask girls to submit photos of their dresses ahead of time, so there’s no embarrassing surprises, they’ll be vilified for holding an inquisition and not trusting girls.

And that’s where the much-maligned “21-page manual” that provides dozens of examples of actual dresses comes in. It’s not some kind of freakazoid Scrapbook of Shaming put together by “two women with way too much time on their hands,” as Scarymommy claims. It’s an acknowledgement that it’s hard to just describe what is and is not acceptable. It’s an attempt to be as clear as possible about how the standards of dress look in real life, so we can avoid unpleasantness and just spend the prom, you know, dancing, or crying in the bathroom, or whatever.

Scarymommy concludes with turgid sarcasm:

We’re really doing a great job inspiring confidence in our young women, America. As if being a teenage girl isn’t hard enough — now they have to shop with a manual in their hands to make sure that dress that shows their back (the horror!) doesn’t show too much of their back.

It is hard to be a teenage girl. I remember. And I have three teenage daughters. It is hard. But we’re not going to make life easier by telling them anyone who helps them make decisions is just out to get them. That’s not how you train people to be adults; that’s how you treat people to be perpetual victim babies. Girls should be shopping with a manual, in their heads and hearts, if not in their hands.

That is part of growing up: learning that there are boundaries. There are some things you want to do that are not acceptable in certain settings. I refuse to be outraged that there is such a thing as boundaries, even when those boundaries are called “modest dress.”

Another objection: But what if this dress code is just a symptom of a larger problem, and girls really are being treated unfairly?

I know nothing about this particular school. I hope with all my heart they are also teaching boundaries about other sorts of things, especially to boys, who tend to lag behind girls in figuring out where boundaries are.

I hope they are teaching boys there are clear standards of behavior toward girls (and toward other boys). I hope they are teaching boys it’s okay to say certain things but not okay to say certain other things. I hope they are encouraging boys and their parents to do their part in learning how they behave, so they can have a prom (and a locker room, and a science classroom, and lunch) without being perpetually at war with each other.

And I hope they are teaching all these things to girls, too. I hope the kids don’t graduate thinking that anything goes, except when it comes to prom dresses.

For all I know, these modesty guidelines are the tip of the iceberg, and the school is positively riddled with sexism and injustice and oppressive patriarchal garbage. Maybe it is. But this modesty guide is not evidence of something wrong. It’s just evidence of a school trying to teach kids how to act decent, because no one else is telling them.

Final objection: But it’s so hard to find a dress that meets these guidelines. 

If it’s really so hard to find dresses that fit these not-excessively-strict guidelines, then why be angry at the school? Be angry at fashion designers, who are hell bent on turning girls into sparkly little buffets.

And be angry at the nitwits at Scarymommy, who are teaching girls to think that sexy is the only kind of pretty, and that rules are inherently oppressive.

Good luck building a happy life after learning those lessons from hell. I’d rather take my chances with a dress code.