The other day I was at the zoo with my family. While I was waiting in line for our lunch a goofily grinning police officer on a segway zoomed up, waving to the pointing children and calling out hello’s like he was in some sort of a parade. I was half waiting for him to start throwing candy. With nothing better to do, I watched him as though he were the lunch line exhibit. When he paused, a woman approached him sheepishly.
“May I ask you a question?”
“No,” he sternly answered from his wheeled platform, towering two feet over her.
She looked up at him, stunned.
“Of course you may.”
I leaned in, curious what she was about to ask him with such trepidation and intent. It was hard for me to hear because she lowered her voice (which of course made me more curious). But when I heard the officer’s response of a restroom or other quiet, grassy locations where “no one will bother you,” I realized she had asked if there were any permissible locations in the zoo for her to nurse her baby.
Witnessing this interaction frazzled me for the rest of the day. I felt angry that there was even a debate to be had about where she should sit; angry that the restroom is still the first option thrown to parents who breastfeed their babies and have the audacity to leave their home and do so in public view. Most of all, I felt overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed that we feel the need to pursue permission for using and existing in our own bodies.
Not surprisingly, we are cultured to be the most passive in circumstances that innately signify our greatest power. Growing a baby in the dark crevices of our bodies, nourishing it with our own blood, bringing a being forth in anguish and from our deepest reserves, and then sustaining this new life with our breasts… we give and sustain life.
During pregnancy we will be lectured monthly, then bi-monthly, then weekly about the requirements and expectations we must meet. How much weight we may gain, which tests we’re obligated to take, how long we’ll will be “allowed” to remain pregnant, and which items on our birth plans are frivolous fantasies, and “we’ll see dear; it’s important to have an open mind; I need you to trust me when I say it’s time for an epidural / c-section / episiotomy / pitocin.”
At the time of birth, we will have our express wishes ignored, endure forced penetration, verbal reprimands, and condescending, “you need to let me do my job” comments. We will be coerced into procedures and surgery, treated as sideline participants in our own birthing process. When offered a routine intervention we may muster through contractions, “can … we …. just…. wait .. a little … longer?” and we’ll receive combative eye rolls or “No, your doctor said….” as though we are an incompetent child existing as a mere pupil under the dictative tutelage of the staff around us.
And when we brazenly choose to use our breasts, openly, for non-male-gazing purposes, we are ridiculed, shamed, and censored. We will be told to sit on a dirty public toilet seat lest someone take offense at us and our baby’s perverse habit of suckling like an animal. We will reflexively look over our shoulder in a restaurant as we carefully lifts our shirts. We might ask our child to wait until they get home, or pump and pack a bottle in order to avoid the discomfort. Sometimes we’ll take along a shawl or a blanket to cover them. Still, people will know what we’re doing, and we’ll feel uneasy. Like we’re partaking in some sort of foul, masturbatory experience in plain sight.
Is it a coincidence that our primal embodiment is the subject of the most scrutiny?
The most censorship?
The most regulation?
Challenging us on reproduction is the foundational space to keep us in our place. If a society can craft an image of certain-genders-as-delinquent, it makes it far easier to manage us.
If we can be cast as infantile, it is then plausible to make us seek permission.
If we can be viewed as irrational, it then makes sense to regulate us.
If we can be taken down as immoral, it then follows to censor, shame, and vilify us.
When we ask for permission we give our power away.
Our asking for permission actually offers approval to those who wish to keep us confined under the thumb of an authority other than ourselves. Gender does not determine who is allowed to speak and exist with directness and confidence. Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t “bitches” when we assertively stand our ground. We are humans with integrity and enough self-love to speak and act as though we have value. Because we do.