Thursday, September 30, 2010

Watch Your Language: Should "intimate" be used to describe breastfeeding?

Yesterday one of my friends on Facebook posted this gorgeous photo of a mom breastfeeding her toddler.

The mom is an artist by the name of Catherine Opie. I love this photo because, like it or not, it’s subversive. So many of the images we see of a nursing mother and child are of a thin, conventionally pretty white woman who reads heterosexual nursing an infant. So to see a photo of a woman who is not only fat and has lots of tattoos, but is also openly homosexual and nursing an older baby was wonderful. I love this photo! And most of my Facebook friends loved it too. But then I got this comment:

“OK…breastfeeding is a very beautiful thing, but why do people expose themselves and publish pictures like that! It is a very private and intimate thing between you and your child. Gosh…this picture just makes me sick!”

My response, after checking my anger, was that breastfeeding isn’t intimate. This is a woman feeding her child, not having sex. Why should this photograph of breastfeeding, like breastfeeding itself, be relegated to the sphere of “private”? Then another friend chimed in to say that she does think breastfeeding is intimate. That intimacy is not the same thing as having sex, that it only means a strong emotional connection. I wholeheartedly disagree.

The word intimate has several meanings, including a close, emotional connection. It can also mean having sex. “My husband and I were intimate last night.” And, in my opinion, the way we most typically use the word intimate is with a sexual connotation. If you and your partner have been arguing a lot and not spending a lot of time together, you might say to him or her, “I miss the intimacy in our relationship.” But if you hadn’t spoken to your best friend in a while, would you say the same thing to her? My guess is no. You can definitely be intimate with someone without having sex. Of course, gazing into someone’s eyes, hugging, holding hands can all be intimate acts. But still, I argue that, if you are using the word “intimate” to describe them, you’re probably talking about a romantic relationship rather than a platonic one.

And isn't breastfeeding, at its core, about feeding your child? Yes, I know that breastfeeding creates an incredible bond between mother and baby. And yes, I believe that breast milk is more than just food, it's antibodies and comfort, it is liquid love. I have lived these platitudes for almost three years now. But sometimes, isn't breastfeeding just a meal? Although I did stare into my son's eyes and kiss his fingers and yes, cry, while he nursed, I also read books and magazines, fooled around on Facebook, watched TV and was downright bored. Sometimes ain't breastfeeding just a meal?

So I took to Twitter to ask my followers what they thought. A few seemed to agree with me.

And others thought that, although the word can have a sexual meaning, it is still fine to use to describe breastfeeding.

So what do you think? Should we be using the word intimate to describe breastfeeding? Or is this another case, as in Diane Wiessinger's famous article, where we need to watch our language?

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