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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Baby's Gotta Eat; You Needn't Peek

March 26, 1997|ROBIN ABCARIAN | Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KTZN-AM (710). Her column appears on Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is rabcarian@aol.com

What is it that separates women such as Pamela Lee, Demi Moore and Anna Nicole Smith from the rest of the acting pack? I mean, besides their tremendous abilities as thespians? Would it be rude to suggest that it could be the care and expense that each has lavished on her breasts? And would we think of asking them to cover up as they cavort across our television and movie screens?

Of course we wouldn't. This is America--well, Hollywood, anyway--where attention is often paid to women in direct relation to their cup size. Their breasts made them famous.

Am I right, Raquel?

You see this everywhere: Beaches. Night clubs. Amusement parks. Gyms. Women willing to unveil themselves draw approving stares. Yet, try as I might, I cannot recall a single instance of a woman being banished from a public place for the crime of displaying her cleavage.

So why is it that someone like Sue F. was asked to leave a store three years ago for partly unveiling hers? It should be noted that Sue was nursing her baby, Melissa, in a store called the Right Start, which caters to . . . babies. The manager, she said, asked her to leave, suggesting she try the mall's bathroom. Sue left, in tears.

I'd give you Sue's full name, but after she testified at a hearing in Sacramento last week about her experience, she received a piece of anonymous hate mail so vicious that her local police took possession of it.

*

California women currently have the legal right to breast-feed their infants without fear of arrest. But because nursing mothers in this state are sometimes asked to remove themselves from a variety of public premises (restaurants, malls, stores, etc.), Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill last week underscoring a woman's right to nurse her child wherever she chooses.

While the bill would extend an explicit civil right, there are no proposed penalties.

This is not the first time Villaraigosa, father of four breast-fed children, has introduced such a measure. It is, however, the first time it has cleared the Judiciary Committee. Two years ago, he attempted the same feat in a Republican-dominated Assembly and saw the bill go down in flames. Some of our alarmist legislators felt a law spelling out a woman's right to nurse (or, more properly, a baby's right to receive nourishment at the breast) was a tacit encouragement of public nudity. (To which one can only respond: Should we therefore outlaw the entire Oscars show?)

The law costs nothing, Villaraigosa said, and might even save taxpayer money if women on welfare are encouraged to take up nursing instead of formula feeding. The Assembly is expected to take up the bill in the next two weeks.

There have been, I regret to say, a few rational voices raised in opposition. Assemblywoman Barbara Alby (R-Fair Oaks), for instance, abstained from last week's committee vote not because she opposes breast-feeding, but because she doesn't see the need for such a law.

"It's one of those feel-good measures," said Alby, mother of five formula-fed children, grandmother of two breast-fed children. Except for public education campaigns, she said, "I just don't know that there is a big place for government in breast-feeding."

She is sympathetic to the women such as Sue F. who told their horror stories to the committee, but, she adds, "the sensitivity belongs on both sides."

Perhaps. But the real problem is not, I think, the insensitivity of women wanting to feed their babies, but the repressed sensibilities of those who confuse nursing a baby with what amounts to a sexual crime.

*

As a nursing mother myself, I was always slightly reluctant to breast-feed in public. I was not concerned with offending the considerable numbers of people who are put off by the connection between breasts and the bodily fluid they produce.

I was, instead, concerned about protecting myself from what often felt like the intrusive stares of men after a free glimpse of skin. For my comfort, I nursed my baby in private.

A friend tells the story of plopping down on a curb a few blocks from her house to nurse her screaming infant. Though baby and breast were obscured by a baggy shirt, a man who stood in his picture window across the street stared so salaciously that she stopped mid-feed and hurried self-consciously home.

Maybe we can't expect people raised to view the sight of a breast as sexually thrilling to put that attitude in check merely because the breast has a baby attached. But if a woman is willing to put up with the stares, I say more power to her. By the same token, if the sight of a nursing mom puts you ill at ease, there's a simple solution. It's the same one I recommend for people who don't appreciate the "charms" of Pamela Lee, Demi Moore or Anna Nicole Smith: Don't watch.

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