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10/12/11 On the public display of breastfeeding boobs (PG-13)

Sorry for the long radio-silence, dear readers. Life in America just doesn't seem as exciting to share as life in Morocco did.

But I've run into another culture clash / cross-cultural moment, so thought I'd share.

It's about boobs. Breasts. Mammary organs. Whatever you call them, they belong to about half of the species, so you'd think people would stop being surprised by them. As Julia Roberts pointed out in Notting Hill, "They're just breasts. Every second person has them."

And yet.

In America, they're considered sexual objects, and have remained one of the last bastions of public decency laws. Bikinis have continued to shrink, revealing more and more flesh on beaches and pool chairs, but if you want to be completely topless, you need to be on one of a very small number of private beaches.

Facebook ran into a problem a couple years back when it announced that it wouldn't allow visible breasts in posted pictures, whether the photo showed a breastfeeding mother or was designed to "appeal to the prurient interest," as the Supreme Court would say.

Some women considered the conflation of sex with motherhood offensive, and responded by making their profile picture one that showed them nursing a baby.

Now, in 2011, as more and more of my friends become mothers, I see breastfeeding more often -- and that creates moments of culture clash inside my head.

First, some Moroccan background.

In Morocco, most women cover their bodies from neck to wrist to ankle. Many also wear veils over their hair and necks, though some urban women choose not to. Given this cultural expectation of extreme modesty, it surprises many westerners to see the casual attitude towards public breastfeeding.

Most young mothers wear V-necked dresses that allow them to reach in, pull out a boob, and present it to their hungry baby. In colder areas, they'll wear a turtleneck under the dress, which they'll pull up and out of the way to get the boob out. This allows them to remain fully covered -- except for the fully exposed breast.

Once the baby latches on, the breast is somewhat covered, by the child's head, but it's still plenty visible.

Even more surprising to me, when I first arrived in Morocco, is that the young mothers don't expect you to look away.

I figured that some sort of principle of "averted gaze" must exist, to allow for at least the illusion of modesty -- something like the principle operating in gym showers in America, where women all bathe together, quickly, without making eye contact, and without any acknowledgement that they might actually see each other's bodies.

On the contrary, Moroccan mothers would ask my opinion of the babies latched onto their breasts.

Eventually I figured out that infants spend the vast majority of their tiny lives completely swaddled, wrapped from head to toe and tied onto their mothers' backs. Meal times -- that is, while nursing -- is the only chance you'll ever have to see the baby.

So young mothers *expect* you to gather around, coo at the baby, exclaim over its cuteness / handsomeness / resemblance to (insert family member here) / etc. All the things that mothers everywhere expect you to do with their babies, but in Morocco, it could only happen while the infants in question were attached to the organ that I'd been raised to consider private, sexual, and inappropriate-in-public.

Moroccan women have limited (but growing, alhumdulillah) access to birth control, which means that babies are everywhere. And nursing mothers are everywhere.

In my first, temporary host family, my sister-in-law had a nursing baby that she wanted me to admire. In my second, permanent host family, I attended the birth of my nephew and then my little brother, plus I saw dozens -- hundreds? -- of other babies and mothers around town.

I saw mothers breastfeeding on the tranzit, both to feed a hungry baby and to quiet a fussy child on the long ride. I saw mothers breastfeeding at community events like weddings and other celebrations.

And eventually I learned to get over my Western attitude of embarrassment, and celebrate the tiny new life as I was expected to. I found a mental trick: I created a mental equivalence between the boob and a bottle. After all, if I saw a mom bottle-feeding a baby, I wouldn't get weird and evasive and try to look away. Similarly, in Morocco, if I saw a mom breastfeeding a baby, I shouldn't have any reaction other than smiling at the child. When a boob appeared, I treated it exactly as I would have if a bottle had appeared.

When my replacement (Hassan) showed up in my village, I warned Ama that he might be embarrassed when she fed our little brother. ("Our" because he lived with the same family I did, so he became my brother and adopted all my brothers and sisters.) I explained that in America, women don't commonly breastfeed in public -- I skipped discussion of the controversy, for simplicity's sake -- and so he might react in ways she would find odd if she pulled out a boob in front of him.

I mostly wanted Ama to understand that if Hassan suddenly began staring at his shoes, or refusing to make eye contact with her, or in any other way acted like she was doing something odd, it was really because he was just having an American reaction to a Moroccan scene.

I also warned him that she would breastfeed in front of him, and that he should not react, if he could help it.

They both agreed to make allowances for the culture of the other, which I thought was very gracious on both sides, and I prepared for my return to America.

Where I spent more than a year without seeing any breasts in public.

And then, a few weeks ago, I saw a mom comforting her fussy infant by bringing the tiny head to the edge of her sweater. She was wearing loose clothes and had turned away from the bulk of the people in the room, but made no move to drape a cloth over herself or the baby.

And I found myself having a classic Moroccan reaction: wanting to coo at the baby and smile down at the breastfeeding scene.

I caught myself in time, alhumdulillah. While many moms -- apparently including this one -- have been asserting their right to breastfeed in public, I'm pretty sure it's still not acceptable in America for people to act like they're watching.

And in America, we have lots of other chances to coo at babies. They don't spend most of their time swaddled away, out of sight.

On the other hand, since many Americans still feel a fair amount of disapprobation for public breastfeeding, maybe the moms would appreciate it if someone showed cheerful approval.

Or maybe I've just been brainwashed by Morocco, and have lost all sense of American propriety.

So, breastfeeding moms, I ask you: How do you want me to respond? Should I engage my powers of averted vision and pretend nothing is happening? Should I smile down at the baby and boob, as I would in Morocco? Something inbetween? Something else entirely?

Comments welcome (and helpful!).


  1. Show us support! The averted eyes are everywhere. Say, 'way to go kid!' or something similar while smiling. My vote anyway.

    :) (your former us roomie, who yes, breastfed in public, and got a variety of responses.)

  2. I have really struggled with this as a breastfeeding mom - trying to get over my own culturally-induced embarrassment/shyness about doing something that SHOULD be totally normal. That said, I'd follow the lead of the breastfeeding mom. If she's looking up and around and making eye contact with others, I'd feel free to engage her in conversation and not feel the need to avert my eyes. But if she is turned away from the room and looking mostly at her baby, I'd leave her alone. From my experience, I needed to just feel like I could feed my baby in public and not have anyone make a comment one way or the other. Like you say, there is plenty of time to interact with an American baby when they're not at the breast.

  3. I totally agree with Robin. Some breastfeeding mothers are open to conversation/interaction while nursing, others are not (especially those who are still struggling to get the hang of it, or those whose babies are easily distracted). My son Tyler was a grazer. He'd nurse for a minute and then SHINY OBJECTS! I'd have to re-direct his attention. Sometimes it was easier to take him somewhere private - not because I was embarassed, but because it meant he could eat in a reasonable amount of time.

  4. I have no opinions, but this is ridiculously interesting. Never in a million years would I have expected public breastfeeding to be OK in a sexuall conservative country like Morocco. (Of course, you wouldn't expect the combination of hypersexuality and Puritanism that you find in the US either, unless you'd grown up with it.) There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...

  5. I totally agree with Lydia :) Especially here in Greece, where very few women breastfeed, and even fewer in public. I overcame (Robin phrased it perfectly) "my own culturally-induced embarrassment/shyness about doing something that SHOULD be totally normal" and became almost militant about educating people if they should say something off-color about bf-ing in public. I would have LOVED to have had some verbal encouragement. I go out of my way to say something if I happen to see someone bf-ing in public (maybe twice in the last year?), and my comments were well received both times.

    I'm so pleased you're blogging again - I need to send you a picture that I took in Morocco this summer that made me think of you :)

    take care,


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