Monday, April 6, 2009

The Mirror Test

I often think the mirror test is a great way to gauge how equitable a social practice or attitude is. For instance, all my life, complete strangers (usually men) have always exhorted me to smile. Once I told a friend that this was sexist. He disagreed. I asked him how often he gets told to smile, and asked what he thought the reaction of most men would be to having complete strangers shout "smile!" at them on the street. He agreed that it's pretty sexist. In this case the mirror test brings something that you already know to your attention: that women are expected to smile more than men and to be open to the commands/suggestions of complete strangers.

But recently I thought about a new application of the mirror test that illustrates something about the constellation of attitudes surrounding breastfeeding and mothering in general. Imagine if a mother was observed in a public place with a small infant (we'll say it's a boy), and when the baby got hungry and demanded to be fed, she pulled a bottle of formula out of her diaper bag and took him to the bathroom to feed him. I think people would be shocked and appalled at the thought of a mother sitting in the bathroom stall feeding her child. They would say things that suggested she was a bad parent for exposing her child to such an unsanitary environment. Especially for the purposes of eating.

Contrast this with the many, many people in our culture who think that breastfeeding shouldn't be allowed in public, and suggest that the mother take the child to the bathroom to "do that." Why would it be acceptable for a breastfed child to eat in the bathroom? Do we really view breastmilk as being so closely akin to pee and shit? Because if that's the general idea, then I think I'm starting to get a sense of why it's such a repulsive idea to so many people...


  1. Lizzay4/07/2009

    I love this example and intend to use it in the future whenever anyone expresses disgust at public breastfeeding or expects a mother to nurse her child in the bathroom.

  2. I think the offense taken at breastfeeding has more to do with breasts being seen in public than it has to do with breast milk being viewed as a vile substance. Obscenity is subjective, and while some people are comfortable with an exposed breast being used to feed a child, others may not be. It's a difficult line to straddle.

  3. The kicker is that while pee and blood are treated by biologists and chemists as biohazards, breast milk decidedly ISN'T. Breastmilk is absolutely safe to handle with your bare hands. Yeah, even if it comes from an HIV positive mom. So there.

  4. @ Tori

    Yeah, I think it's true that people are often objecting to the idea of seeing a (partially) exposed breast that's being used for some purpose other than for the viewing pleasure of hetero males. But I always find it so strange when people suggest that the mother go do it in the bathroom. And the fact that the same people would probably be so horrified and judgmental if you bottle-fed a baby in the bathroom is telling, I think.

  5. momofthree8/04/2010

    Oh, I'm totally going to use this next time someone objects to breastfeeding in a public place!

  6. @ Tangoing with Evita
    Actually, I'm pretty sure HIV *can* be transferred through breast milk. Perhaps not as easily as through, say, semen, but still.