On Monday, protesters gathered outside Facebook's European headquarters in Dublin. Similar demonstrations happened at over 30 locations across the world. Those who gathered weren't angry about privacy settings, or about the introduction of the timeline, but because photographs of users breastfeeding had been removed from the site.
Of all the debates the social networking company has stumbled into, this is one of the more unexpected. Facebook say that photos in which the baby isn't "actively" feeding break their rules on nudity.
While I have sympathy with the need to monitor what is put on the site, the fact that the company also emphasises that most pictures which are taken down have been reported by other users shows that this is part of a wider, ongoing squeamishness about breastfeeding.
Despite the fact that it has been illegal in the UK to ask a woman to leave a public place because she is breast feeding since 2010, its appropriateness is still discussed. Worse, people still actively make women feel uncomfortable about it. Less than a year ago a mother was asked to leave a pub on Hampstead High Street in London because she was breastfeeding her seven-month-old baby and it was putting other customers off their food.
A male friend once told me that breastfeeding in public was "the equivalent of putting porn on the bottom shelf of a newsagent." That puts the debate in the same category as the one over whether pop videos are over sexualised and about what can be shown before the watershed, a moralistic stance that suggests children will be corrupted by seeing a baby breastfeeding or that adults will be offended.
Facebook's action also puts photographs of breastfeeding in the same category as pornographic pictures. But breastfeeding is not a sexy thing to do. I have also never seen a woman try to sexualise it. No one (at least in my experience) is expressing milk, baby engaged while blatantly flashing both their boobs, shaking them around, licking their lips and making eye contact with every man in the room. They are discreetly feeding their child. And while they may have lovely additional uses, that is the purpose of breasts. It should hardly raise an eyebrow. Nor should it be compared with lining up porn next to Grazia and Disney Princess magazine.
Perhaps the problem is not that breastfeeding is misconstrued as sexy, but that people know it is not. But our perceptions of women's bodies are so skewed that we don't understand breasts in a non sexual context. The same male friend told me that it made him uncomfortable, that he didn't know where to look when women breastfed. Maybe the Facebook users who reported the photographs which sparked the protests felt the same. But here an old cliché provides useful advice. Why don't you just look at their face?
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