Last fall, I saw the only man in the world that had never seen a boob.
I was sitting the last row of the giant auditorium in the Valley Life Science Building for my Transnational Feminisms class when I first saw him. The auditorium was filled with at least 100 women, some of whom even had their cleavage showing or their nipples slightly protruding through their shirts. (Collective gasp!) At first, he seemed to camouflage himself in the classroom as someone who had, in fact, seen boobs before. He sat perfectly still; not paying mind to the Victoria’s Secret Bombshell push-up bras around him that boasted the racks of their owners surrounding him.
Beside him was a woman who had her newborn baby sitting on a carrier on the floor next to her seat. It was not until 30 minutes into lecture, between the yawns of students and the sounds of fingers feverishly typing on keyboards that the newborn began to cry, attracting the attention of the mother, the male student, and myself. I watched as she swiftfully removed her baby from the carrier, lifted up her shirt, and attached the baby to her boob, almost all in one motion.
As a mother who breastfed her son when he was a baby, I looked at this woman with admiration; both at how easily she had gotten her baby to latch and at how confident she was in her duty as a mother to feed her child. So confident, in fact, that she did not notice in the slightest the male student beside her, who at this point, needed a crane to help lift his jaw up from the floor. He looked around to see if other people were also taking notice of this catastrophic event — a woman exposing her breast in public to feed her child. It was then that a few other students in the back rows of the lecture hall, women included, interlocked eyes with one another, their pupils all screaming “Oh my god, that’s a boob!”
Could it be that all these students had never seen breasts before? Had none of the men jerked off underneath their covers in middle school to fake breasts on PornHub? Had none of the women observed their own breasts in the mirrors of a retail-store fitting rooms? Had none of them been babies themselves, relying on their mothers breasts as their only form of nutrition? Had none of their mothers ever told them about breastfeeding at all?
Students, and society as a whole unfortunately are only comfortable with breasts in certain contexts; like under the string-bikini of a woman lying out by the pool, or on the front-cover of a Playboy magazine displayed at a 7/11 register. This is largely due to the fact that breasts in America have been increasingly sexualized in the media since the 19th century. Breastfeeding mothers are the collateral damage to this cultural-shift, and have been shamed in public for breast-feeding ever since.
Like the mother breastfeeding in lecture, I too, have faced my fair share of disparaging looks when I would feed my son in public. Even though I would do so with a nursing cover on, it still felt so taboo no matter where I was. When I saw the mother in my class so unashamed and so assured in her right to feed her child, regardless of the context, I could not help but think of how brave she was in the face of judgement.
Initially, I felt secondhand offended at how offended some of my classmates were at her nursing her baby. When she returned to lecture two days later, however, with her baby and began nursing again, I noticed the stares had turned to glances. I became hopeful that more exposure to breastfeeding would be the first stepping-stone in destigmatizing breastfeeding for them, though I still know that there is more work outside of that that needs to be done in order to lift the perverse cloud that shrouds a beautiful act of nature..
Thankfully, UC Berkeley is one of few campuses that offers breastfeeding support programs at the Tang Center and various lactation rooms around campus. Even when a lactation room isn’t accessible, state laws as well as the Department of Education’s Title IX protects women from being discriminated in classrooms or really anywhere for nursing. In other words, mama bears, no matter where you are, feel free to free the nipple.
Mia Villanueva writes the Thursday column on her experience as a student-parent at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected].