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Healthy discretion? Breastfeeding and the mutual maintenance of motherhood and public space

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Although idealizations of motherhood are ever in flux, specific historical moments can be said to produce distinctive tropes of ‘good’ motherhood that have very real impacts on how women act and conceptualize themselves as mothers. This article examines good motherhood in its current iteration, and how now-common beliefs about breastfeeding are implicated in its construction. Furthermore, it looks at the ways in which idealizations of motherhood discipline the breastfeeding body so that it will fit into public space without disruption. I discuss the contradictory impacts of characterizations of the good mother as they appeared in the pro-breastfeeding dialogs that arose following a 2007 incident in which a mother was asked to cover herself up while nursing in a Kentucky restaurant. I posit that while these characterizations helped to make breastfeeding a more widely accepted public activity, they also had the effect of reifying a very narrow conception of what it means to be a good mother. I make this claim through an analysis of two common refrains heard in pro-public-breastfeeding arguments: breast milk is exceedingly healthy and mothers should not be persecuted if they nurse discreetly. Although these assertions together are compelling to the general public in that they provide a scientific justification for breastfeeding while at once assuaging fears of discomfort presented by a reproductive act being performed in a public space, I suggest that they also work to discipline women and maintain public-space-as-usual.
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Keywords: amamantamiento; breastfeeding; espacio público; maternidad; motherhood; performatividad; performativity; public space; sexualidad; sexuality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Kentucky, 817 Patterson Office Tower, Lexington, KY,40502-0027, USA

Publication date: February 7, 2014

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