No Boobs Please

A furor has erupted in recent weeks over a decision by Facebook to reject photos depicting women breastfeeding their children. The social networking site claims that these pictures have been rejected because they villate the site’s policy against photos depicting nudity, a claim that has been rejected by Stephanie Knapp Muir. Ms. Muir, and over a hundred thousand other pro-breastfeeding users who have formed a group call “Hey Facebook, Breastfeeding Is Not Obscene!”, are protesting what they claim is clear and outright discrimination. The site maintains that it is simply enforcing its community standards policy, and refuses to back down.

It’s perfectly legal for women to breastfeed in public. In fact, refusing to allow a woman to breastfeed in a public place is a violation of the law, and in Canada it is legal for a woman to walk down the street shirtless, so long as she isn’t doing so for commercial reasons. Some would argue, however, that having a legal right to do something doesn’t mean that it is always that right thing to do, and that discretion is always the best policy. Given that we don’t see women en masse walking the streets topless, I would guess that most women agree. But, is breastfeeding in public indiscrete? Is posting a picture of a child attached to your boob improper? Where does legal right, natural behaviour and discretion find a happy compromise here?

I like boobs.

I’m not what could be called a “boob man.” That is to say, I can appreciate the aesthetics of breasts, but I couldn’t really give a damn what a woman’s cup size is. As such, I see no real point to breast augmentation surgery, unless it somehow makes the person getting it feel more comfortable and happy with themselves. Big or small, they’re nice, but they just aren’t something I really find myself drawn to more than other attractive features on a woman. None of this admission is actually important except for it to be clear that I am not offended by the sight of breasts in any way shape or form, be they on a boat, bus, bedroom or busy street.

I also don’t think it’s really necessary for them to be rampantly on display.

Let’s be honest, no matter what there is to be said for the life sustaining function of the female mammaries, there will always be a certain amount of eroticism associated with them. You simply can’t say the same thing for a guy’s chest, although I would also say it isn’t really appropriate for a dude to be walking around shirtless in the street either. A big part of why breasts are considered differently than a man’s chest is simply because of the fact that for am incredibly long time, and to a large extent currently, breasts were considered something to be hidden away and only shared with those that you were intimate with, or in intimate situations. We can argue against the paradigm, but there it is. I can put my hand on a guy friend’s chest to stop him from walking into something, but if I were to put my hand on a female friend’s boob in the same situation it would be looked at as inappropriate. And, I would feel inappropriate for having done it.

And, let’s be clear, we’re not talking about discrete photos of women suckling a child under a blanket or something here, we’re talking about the nudity aspect of the situation. Facebook is, in my mind, rightly declarding that nudity is nudity, and that they aren’t going to start choosing carefully between one instance of nudity and another.

Muir, and maybe some of you, would argue that they should ban all photos of shirtless men too. Again, I would say that it’s tasteless for a guy to indiscriminately post photos of himself shirtless. Most guys don’t look as good shirtless as they would like to think, anyways, so they should spare everyone the horror. And, I get where that argument would come from, but I still can’t get round the fact that the paradigm that still has not shifted far enough is that the breast is an erogenous zone and is associated with sex and eroticism. It may not be a fair differentiation between men and women, and I am sensitive to the feminist implications here, but let’s be practical too. Until men can grow up, and times can change, certain concessions are likely to be required.

Muir has argued that Facebook needs to define their community standards better and that they should conform to other community standards in North America. I agree that they should be better spelled out, but, frankly, whatever standard Facebook elects to follow is their right. Obscenity laws are amusing because they are wholly dependant on the community you are in. The courts have deemed that what is obscene is what is considered obscene in your community. A bit of a circular argument, in a sense, but it means that in Ottawa obscenity can be defined one way, while in Gatineau it can be defined in another. It’s haphazard and confusing, and bound to result in a mess, but it’s also the courts’ way of carefully avoiding having to make a declaration. We’re all so damn squeamish about skin and sex and human interaction that we can’t have a clear conversation on the topic and decide as humans what we think is right and wrong without all sorts of other peripheral interests, like religion, getting involved.

But, the question remains whether the battle is to defend a woman’s right to feed her child in public and show photos of such, or a battle to defend a woman’s right to show her bare chest. It doesn’t sound to me as though the argument here is that a woman was feeding her child, the problem was that her naked breast was clearly on display. Take the child out of the equation, and the controversy changes entirely. Still, it’s a worthy debate, but one with a whole different connotation. And, in the absence of clear community guidance as to what is proper, even if legal, decisions such as that made by Facebook are the closest thing we have to a compass. Let’s leave the kids out of it and get to the heart of the matter.

You thought I’d say “breast of the matter,” didn’t you?

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