Thursday, November 18, 2010


I've been thinking a great deal about the politics of the body lately. In particular I've been thinking about the politics of the maternal body. From recent attacks by Erica Jong on attachment parenting to the outcry over Facebook removing pictures of women nursing, there has been plenty to occupy my mind. During a class, I'm been lucky enough to be sitting in on, we've been talking about agency through a reading of a book called The Excessive Subject by Molly Ann Rothenberg. I haven't read enough to offer much of a critique but the book is provocative enough already to set exciting new ideas about research into play. While Rothenberg does not deal with bodies as much as say Judith Butler (whom she critiques in the book), I am starting to flesh out this idea about excessive bodies. I have a long way to go in thinking and writing about the full possibilities of such a term but I can say a bit about where I want to head with this idea (I'd worry about someone stealing but since my reader is so dismally small and I'm not likely to be linked anywhere big, I'll not fall prey to paranoia). And what I am thinking is that the maternal body as shown above is shaping my beginnings sketching of this theoretical idea.

The excessive body would be a body that has a surplus of meanings. These meanings would inhibit this one body often, and maybe necessarily, not noticed by that body. The meanings I am thinking that get attached to our bodies are not within our grasp. And when they are I"m not sure we are always able to juggle or even comprehend ways of reconciling the various meanings with each other.

Breastfeeding fits into this model. Breasts are a complicated organ in our society. They are sexy, not sexy, modified to be sexier or less sexy. They are the fuel of many young men's fantasies (and no doubt some women's as well). They are Pamela Anderson running across the beach in her tight red bathing suit. They are the shiny covers of magazines. They are the alluring lobes protruding from the tops of movie star's evening gowns.

Breasts are also the markers of age, ugliness, and disease. Some breasts are clearly defined as marginal. The ones that sag. The ones that had to be removed. The ones that are lopsided. Too small. Too big. Not perky enough.

They mark us as women. In my world, I feel like I am frequently not taking seriously because my breast are too big. I YEARN for small breasts that might not warrant so much notice. My breast feel loud, boisterous, distinctly working class. I am convinced that there is a perception in the academy that the bigger a woman's breasts, the smaller her brain. I carry these meanings inside my body. They inflect the way I dress, the way I hold myself even though I do not think about these things the majority of time. This excess is already imprinted on my boobs. 

But breasts are also the feeders of human young. The "normative" biological function of breasts is to nurse our offspring. Like cows. Or any other mammal. These breasts are made to nourish my babies. They have done that job well. I am currently nursing baby number four (even as I type this as a matter of fact). I have nursed for a total of seven years and will likely nurse for another three years. My breasts define me as mother. For someone like Jong this means they have defined me as being in bondage. Because my baby refuses to take a bottle, I am almost her entire source of nutrition. My tits bound me to her in ways that I can not escape. I do not get to go out often, and when I do I am acutely aware of time. How long before this is too much milk, and I soak my shirts? How long will be she okay without nursing?

How does one reconcile these roles? Are there even ways to do so? Is there simply too much meaning to shape into these appendages of my body? Is it possible to be both sex symbol and nourisher? Am I sex kitten or mother? What does it mean to be both? Can these meanings be contained in my body?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I know that my relationship with my breasts is a complicated one as I suspect it is for most women. When I am nursing my children, I do not really like my husband to touch my breasts. I joke that they are no longer his. They belong to whatever beastie is nursing at the time. If pushed as to why, I used to say that it was because I was touched out. I am tired of having someone always touching them, sucking at them, etc. But now I wonder if is really deeper. Am I uncomfortable the plurality of meanings, symbolization, representation that goes along with my breasts? 

One of the Facebook protest pages states: " Breasts are for babies, not for men to gawk at! Breastfeeding is natural, normal, and NOT offensive!" And I have to question this. Breasts are for both are they not? Perhaps the ideal world does not wish to have men "gawking" but in our society breasts are sexual. If we reworded this to say "Breast are for babies, not for sex" would this be different? Breasts are both feeders of baby and sex symbols. If this is good or bad is another blog post but the point is that this sentence is not acknowledge the excess of meaning in breasts. I would argue that the uncomfortableness people feel surrounding breastfeeding as to do with this duality of use and meaning. And if breastfeeding is natural and normal why is there a problem? The excess here involves the line drawn between biological and normal. If it's true that most women in the United States don't breastfeed then how normal is breastfeeding? Yes, perhaps it is the biological norm but it certainly is not the cultural norm. Again we run into this excess of meaning.

This issue fascinates me on both a personal and an academic level. I am strong supporter of breastfeeding and I do believe is the best nutrition for human children even as I acknowledge that no all women are able to breastfeed. But I am also interested in who we give our maternal bodies meaning, and the things we acknowledge and don't acknowledge as we do these things. One day, I was nursing Piper who was one at the time. She was a big one but as of that moment no one had really seemed to pay much attention to my nursing a bigger baby. However that, in the children's section at Barnes and Noble, an boy who appeared to be about ten was pretty interested. His mother who was sitting at a nearby table with her friend was visibly upset. Not at her son but at me. She said to her friend, quite loudly "That is so disgusting." It was clear she referring to me. I said to her, "Are you referring to my nursing as disgusting?" She turned beet red, and stammered, having not expected me to answer back. "Well," she said, "My son is right here." I politely pointed out her son was the one who was making a choice to stare. I was not shoving my boob into his face. Then I asked her why it was okay for her son to see a book cover with Pamela Anderson lying down with most of her breast showing. This book was prominently displayed at the front of the store. The woman didn't answer. She just left. She was unable to deal with the excess of my nursing breasts.

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