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Stop! Don't feed that child!

Picture the loveliest thing you know. Now picture it with a beautiful baby nuzzling at it, those soft, translucent little eyelids closed in ecstasy, and a doting mother's face smiling down on the whole scene.

Picture the loveliest thing you know. Now picture it with a beautiful baby nuzzling at it, those soft, translucent little eyelids closed in ecstasy, and a doting mother’s face smiling down on the whole scene. OK, if you started out picturing sailboats and sunsets the whole thing falls apart, but if you did, reconsider; they’re only boats and clouds after all.

The online community birthday-sharing thingy Facebook was in the news this week - when is it not? - this time because the company that operates it doesn’t allow members to post photographs of breastfeeding. That’s right, peek-a-boo-embarrassing-pictures-of-drunks-in-their-underpants-Facebook does not permit depictions of the fully naked female breast. They don’t insist on a great deal of clothing, but a certain amount is considered de rigueur, and the feeding breast, most commonly seen nude, is unacceptable.

Vancouver mother Emma Kwasnica has had her Facebook account embargoed four times for the sin of posting pictures of herself nursing her babies. A breastfeeding activist and mother of three, Ms. Kwasnicka has been trying for six years to share her pictures with the world, or at least with the 500,000,000 or so who use Facebook to, er, do whatever Facebook is for. Thwarted at each attempt she recently coaxed an apology out of the company, though other women report that the harassment continues.

In Canada, the right to breastfeed in public is entrenched in law, as indeed is the equal right to toplessness. Once in a while, someone ignorant of this fact tries to interfere with a breastfeeding mother, and lives to regret it. For example, in 2008 a clerk at an H&M clothing store in Vancouver asked Manuela Valle to step into a change room to feed her baby. A few days later, hundreds of breastfeeding moms and babies packed the store during lunch hour.

Store employees probably learned at least three things that day. One: breastfeeding is nice. It’s kind of cozy and sweet and makes everybody happy. Two: you can’t really ogle with the baby’s head in the way. The average baby’s hungry lips and chubby cheeks, never mind its big bald head, obscure more of the breast from view than many popular clothing options. Three: it’s embarrassing and bad for business to be on the wrong end of a public protest.

Joining a social Internet site like Facebook is a bit like hanging out at the mall. You feel like you’re in a publicly-owned space, but you’re not. Just like the mall, that website is private property. Unlike the mall, that property exists in the legal wasteland that is Cyberspace, so your right to be protected against discrimination is a lot less clear. If Facebook decides that a breastfeeding mother is obscene while saucy hen-night pictures are not, it’s difficult to get the Canadian Human Rights Commission after them, and you can’t fill their business space with breastfeeding mothers on a busy lunch hour.

Facebook is not unique in its bipolar attitude toward breasts. It’s reflecting the whole culture’s peek-but-don’t-look fixation. Used to sell everything from cars to whiskey, the female breast as sex object is ever present. We even have the means to surgically mutilate breasts to look bigger, or younger, or whatever you desire and can afford. Breasts are popular. They’re hip. Much hipper than hips. But the breast itself is to be kept covered in public. Or partly covered. At least a tiny bit.

The sheer volume of traffic on Facebook makes it influential, regardless of how trivial the whole business is. By the time your “friends”- many of whom you don’t know from Adam - have posted 100 or so pictures of themselves doing silly, embarrassing things, they don’t seem so silly any more, and you might be persuaded to post similar pictures of yourself. Bad things can result. Teachers lose their jobs for appearing in pole-dancing pictures. Students get suspended for those very arty shots of themselves using drugs. Rioters post pictures of each other rioting and end up in jail.

If, in addition to legitimizing self-destructive behaviour, Facebook was shining the light of its approval on breastfeeding, this too would become a totally normalized activity, just as acceptable to society as beer-bonging and birthday spankings. And once normalized on Facebook, how much longer before it became normal on the street? Oh, it’s just another breastfeeding mum, Mum. No reason to gawk, or to complain to the management.

By encouraging rather than banning breastfeeding, Facebook would be contributing to a more equal and sensible society, where the rights of mothers and babies are respected, and where public spaces would be enhanced by lots of examples of the loveliest thing you know. Unless, that is, you’re a die-hard admirer of sailboats and sunsets. There’s no accounting for tastes.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.