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Sparrow-Folk and Tara Moss want to Ruin Your Day

April 8, 2015

This year, as I like to do, I went to the National Folk Festival, albeit for only one day instead of my usual two. I love the music, but I also love the singer-songwriters for whom the lyrics are at least as important at the music. I came to folk through the protest songs of the Civil Rights era and so love to hear songs addressing contemporary concerns – political, social, global, local, they all have a place in the folk singer-songwriter repertoire.

For this post I’m just going to talk about one song, because it illustrates the point and it enables me to refer again to a book I read and reviewed earlier this year, Tara Moss’s The fictional woman. But first, the song. Seems like I’m late to the party, because it apparently made quite a splash early last year, not only in Australia, whence it originates, but overseas. It was even picked up by Huffington Post. The song’s title is “Ruin your day” and it satirises those who frown upon/are disgusted by/want to ban mothers breastfeeding in public. I must say, I’ve been astonished recently to realise that instead of breastfeeding in public becoming more acceptable since my time in the 1980s, it’s actually become less so. We 1980s mothers did not furtively cover ourselves with shawls or disappear into some dark nether regions of wherever we happened to be. No, we did what comes naturally, not brazenly but naturally. Well, at least my friends and I did, and while there were some demurs from some quarters, we fully expected the world to become more enlightened and tolerant as time moved on. Not so, it seems.

Anyhow, here’s the video:

As I listened to the gorgeous, locally-based “glam-rock” duo, Sparrow-Folk, perform this song over Easter, I was reminded of Tara Moss’s chapter on the topic. As you can imagine, she, a new mother in her late 30s, and a card-carrying feminist, had plenty to say on the subject. Her chapter, “The Mother”, is the longest chapter in the book, because there are many “fictions” attached to motherhood – and several have to do with breastfeeding, with the can-and-can’ts, the for-and-againsts, and of course the hide-or-go-publics. These “fictions” tend to be accompanied by a lot of either-or discussions which put women in boxes, and, worse, pit women against each other, creating what she calls “false divides”. I’m not going to go into all that now, but I will briefly discuss her section on public breastfeeding.

Moss beautifully unpacks society’s ongoing discomfort with breastfeeding, with the fact that “the very sight of breastfeeding remains inexplicably controversial”. “Images of breastfeeding”, she writes, “are still routinely flagged as offensive on Facebook and banned, accompanied by this message: ‘Shares that contain nudity, pornography, or sexual content are not permitted on Facebook … refrain from posting abusive material in future'”. Breastfeeding, pornographic? abusive? What is all this about? There has been some official relaxation of the “rule” she says, but reports still come in of photos of breastfeeding being banned on Facebook.

Confirming my 1980s memories, she writes that it wasn’t always like this. Sesame Street “once routinely showed breastfeeding, but since the 1990s it has reportedly only shown babies being fed by bottle”. These days, it is ok for magazines and advertising to feature “a sea of exposed female upper body flesh” but not ok for that breast to be seen doing what it was designed for. She argues this is “learned bias [and asks] since when did the natural way of feeding your child come to be seen as offensive or controversial?”

Moss continues:

Our choices are influenced by what we see and what society portrays as normal or aspirational. In a very real way, visibility is acceptance. Unfortunately, while we have become accustomed to seeing the fertile female body used to sell us all kinds of products, we are not longer accustomed to seeing it perform this most natural task. But though anti-discrimination laws protect women’s right to breastfeed in all public places, without normalising the sight of breastfeeding in our society we have little hope of making more mothers comfortable enough to engage in the practice of publicly feeding their children naturally.

I love that Sparrow-Folk’s you-tube went global:

I’m not going to retreat
To the comfort of a toilet seat
No, no, I’m happy to stay out here where everybody else eats

Everyone knows new mothers are exhibitionists
Taking every chance they get to ruin your day with tits.

Go Sparrow-Folk, go Tara Moss – and go all you breastfeeding women brave enough to stare down pursed-mouth looks and abuse. This regressive tide must be turned.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2015 10:57 am

    This is a great post and an interesting topic. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, I wonder exactly how ‘controversial’ breast-feeding is in Australia. Facebook’s stupid policies are based, I presume, on US cultural norms. An occasional storm in a tea-cup erupts when a breastfeeding woman is asked not to in an Australian restaurant (asked by young and experienced staff member, I suspect). I breastfed about 10 years ago and encountered zero overt hostility. If anyone tut tutted it was not within my hearing, anyway. Have things changed even in the last decade?

    • April 8, 2015 11:47 am

      Thanks MST … I think they have. Moss is writing globally, though she had her baby here and started off feeling she had to cover up, but Sparrow-Folk are Canberra-based. I don’t know how much overt tut-tutting there is here but I’ve noticed the shawl/light blanket behaviour going on for the last few years. I hate seeing mothers throw this thing over the baby’s head to hide the whole feeding thing from view. Poor baby suffocating under there! And I assume – as implied in Sparrow-Folk’s song (inspired by the recent mothering experience of one of the duo – that they are doing it because they’ve been frowned upon. They certainly seem to feel uncomfortable doing it any other way, as Moss suggests. It seems that we have increasingly sexualised the human body, particularly the female’s, to the point that any display that isn’t sexual for the male gaze seems to be not acceptable. Women can get around with deep cleavages in daytime and tiny skirts barely covering their bottoms, and it’s acceptable, but to breastfeed they clearly feel they must cover up? Weird.

  2. April 8, 2015 11:54 am

    Yes, I love this song and applaud the sentiments! When I was younger, on Christmas Day and family gatherings, if there were men present my aunts would leave the room and take their babies to the bedrooms to feed. The bedroom would be full of breastfeeding mums, and because I was always drawn to babies, I used to go along and sit with them. I loved listening to their gurgles and wheezes and I’d let their fingers curl around mine as my aunties fed. I used to ask to ‘burp’ them, and I’d sit them on my knee, with the nappy under their chin, rubbing their backs until that loud and nasty air bubble erupted!
    Other than that, I don’t remember seeing breastfeeding in public, not until it was me and my fellow new mothers in coffee shops, etc. I breastfed for ten years in total, from 1996 onwards. Like you, I didn’t notice the discomfort of people around me. Except of my parents-in-law—whenever I went to feed, my mother-in-law would position herself between me and my father-in-law, and try to hide me. She’d stand with her back to me, looking at my father-in-law and clearing her throat until he looked up from whatever he was doing, noticed, and left the room. I tried to understand, given their ages and the era they were brought up in, but it did upset me—I felt uncomfortable and as if I should have been the one leaving the room. However, I was self-centred enough to think I’m not hiding away in my own home!
    I’m always stunned that such a natural and beautiful thing as breastfeeding can so disgust people. I’m still drawn to a baby breastfeeding, as I’ve always been. Any breast-feeding mothers reading this—Yes, I’m one of those middle-aged ladies who stare and smile at you as you breastfeed in public. I’m sorry if I look creepy—I’m just marvelling at it all.
    I find it remarkable that we form these little people inside our bodies, and still keep forming them once they’re outside of us, too. Until mine were on solids, I used to look at them and think, everything in you (except for that one tiny, albeit important, sperm) comes from me, and I used to feel as if I’d done something quite special!
    Sorry to ramble on, but you sent me on a trip back to those wonderful breast-feeding years!

    • April 8, 2015 12:28 pm

      Ramble away Louise. Laughed at your comment “Yes, I’m one of those middle-aged ladies who stare and smile at you as you breastfeed in public. I’m sorry if I look creepy—I’m just marvelling at it all.” because I’m one of those too. I want to go up and reminisce.

      I think my in-laws were a little uncertain when I started in the mid 80s but I ploughed on and they were sensitive and flexible enough to cope. I guess there’s been a long history of “genteel” women not feeding in public … And probably the open, free sixties started to turn that around? I’m talking western world here of course. And then the whole sexualisation thing ramped up and so the whole healthy natural body thing started to get perverted again. I haven’t researched this … But I suspect this is partly how it’s gone.

      • April 8, 2015 12:40 pm

        Breastfeeding hasn’t always been seen as ‘genteel’ either. I think there was a period (in the forties and fifties or thereabouts but don’t quote me) where formula was recommended and talked about as being superior to breast milk. Not to mention the cultures that considered it uncivilised and used wet nurses, leaving the breastfeeding to the lower classes.
        These days, breastfeeding rates are increasing again, and we probably just need to keep encouraging breastfeeding mothers, smiling at them no matter how creepy we look, and telling them to keep doing what is natural after all.

        • April 8, 2015 6:56 pm

          True Louise and I think you’re right about that being in the 1940s-1950s. OK, I’ll keep smiling as little creepily as possible!

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    April 8, 2015 3:28 pm

    So respectful of Tara MOSS and how she has used aspects of her own life to intelligently and reasonably point out the nonsensical and those things rendered unfair on the (mere) basis of gender! And on the naturalness of breast-feeding of which I was a fortunate recipient myself in the earliest months of my life in 1949 – no bottles for me. Must have something to do with my general good health all these many years later. Thanks WG.

    • ian darling permalink
      April 8, 2015 6:44 pm

      Ruin Your Day is relevant in the UK too, witness the leader of the UKIP party (the stop the world I want to get off vote is what they are after) Nigel Farage who said that breast feeding mothers should go and sit in a corner to avoid upsetting anyone! I think he had to back down!

      • April 8, 2015 7:03 pm

        Thanks Ian … I wondered about UK. Was hoping your country was more sensible with its national health!

    • April 8, 2015 6:59 pm

      Agree re Tara Moss Jim, and I too am a grateful recipient of breastfeeding in the 1950s.

  4. April 9, 2015 7:57 am

    Great conversation. I agree with earlier sentiments that it seems actually quite weird and creepy when people react negatively to breast feeding. How sad to learn that we are back-sliding on this issue when, by now, it should not even register as an ‘issue’.

    • April 9, 2015 8:24 am

      Yes, that’s what I’d assumed would happen, Karen Lee, ie that by the 21st century it would be a non-issue. You just never can tell can you!

  5. April 9, 2015 11:20 am

    I remember Lisa and I have one of our “aha” sparkling moments of bonding during our first day in Melbourne together upon discovering that we’d both been breastfed by our mothers until age three. I’m grateful to you for not letting social stigma get in the way of what you felt was best for me.

    And I love this duo – it was such a treat when it went around the office in Canada last year!

    • April 9, 2015 2:06 pm

      I didn’t know about that little bit of bonding but now I understand why I liked her so easily!! Of course, it would have been a great one for the Today’s Parent office.

  6. April 9, 2015 9:01 pm

    Yup. And I was never even a mother ! 🙂

  7. buriedinprint permalink
    April 21, 2015 8:38 am

    Nicely done: humour has a powerful way of inciting change, doesn’t it. I’ve not heard of the group, but am certainly intrigued now: thanks for posting!

    • April 21, 2015 9:26 am

      Thanks buried! My daughter said she heard of it last year when she was living in Toronto – it did the rounds of the Today’s Parent office where she was working. I guess that’s not surprising!

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