Sunday, June 04, 2006

Meanwhile, not very far away: lactivism on Live Journal?

Lis Riba has been keeping abreast (bah DUMP bah) of yet another big ol' thrash on the Internets:

To put it briefly, for those of you mercifully ignorant of what's going on lately at LiveJournal, lactivists are upset that LJ policy prohibits any image showing exposed nipples or areolae for a user's default icon, even if the icon shows a breastfeeding baby, although such images may be used as non-default userpics, and one can default to a nursing photo that doesn't show nipples.

I do actually have a near-moribund LJ account, but I rarely check into the world of LJ at all; so I was one of the mercifully ignorant. I bring it up mainly because Lis ties it into the thrash(es) I am more familiar with (the revived pr0n and so on wars in feminism), with a question:

Keep in mind, we're not talking about actual nourishing of infants, but just depiction of the act.

Given the 100x100 pixel size restrictions on LiveJournal userpics, these are often little more than naked disembodied breasts with children latched. And as a default icon, this truly is intended to represent the person in a variety of circumstances, reducing the woman to a picture of bare body parts. Is this objectification? I know that many lactivists claim that nursing does not count as nudity, but how does that work in theory?

Personally, off the top, my guess would be that that's probably a non-starter, at least in terms of the nipplage per se--I could be wrong. But as I understand it, most if not all of the feminist anti-porn folks don't have a beef with represented nudity, of itself; and in fact would probably be more likely to support breasts being shown as doing what they're "supposed" to be doing, i.e. feeding yer kid as opposed to titillating (yes, yes) some Man. (Then again, I find myself wondering how many people who are inclined to think along such lines are aware that there is a thriving porn subgenre of "lactation fetishism.")

And, too, I suppose if one is also among the more vehement childfree contigent (i.e. referring to people as "breeders" and so on) then this could open up a whole new set of objections viz "objectification." Then again again, like I say, I've been happily oblivious to this particular trainwreck, so mostly I'm just thinking: weird.

Collectively, we surely do get our panties in a wad over female nipples, don't we?
I mean, seriously, what's the big damn deal? Is there any country in Western Europe (for example) that has this much of a hang-up about breastage?

Meanwhile, the bigger question about what does or doesn't constitute "objectification" is a good one, and is something I've been thinking about for a while now.

More on that later. Meanwhile: talk amongst yourselves.


Milo said...

I, personally, don't see the problem. Sure, a breast is an exciting thing, visually. But we as a culture seem to have a hard time digesting the fact that breasts are for MORE than just appealing visuals. You'd think the "women are baby-factories" crowd would actually buy into this.

As far as objectification goes, I think there's a line at work here. Is one looking at an image of a woman (clad or not) who happens to be pregnant/nursing, and finding her beautiful, or is one actively trying to sexualize her pregnancy/lactation, independent of aesthetic? One is simply appreciation of beauty, the other is fetishism, to me, and definitely falls into that objectification category.

Lis Riba said...

more likely to support breasts being shown as doing what they're "supposed" to be doing, i.e. feeding yer kid as opposed to titillating

That's one of the issues I find troubling in the debate. I get very touchy about people who try to redraw the line just so far as to protect themselves, but no further. [For example, when gay rights groups try to push BDSM & trannies into the closet to build acceptance/protection for more wholesome-looking types. Drawing lines like that can thus make it even harder for those left out, by making them more marginalized.]

And there's a huge subtext in the discussion about the exceptionality of nursing breasts, which can be reversed to say that there's something unnatural and thus inferior about breasts being exposed for any other purposes.

Quoting two comments from the lengthy Making Light thread which put it better than I could:
1. Pixxelpuss:
THIS VERY PROTEST is attempting to separate Breastfeeding Icons from Breast Icons, and that this is both absurd and ultimately harmful to women's sexuality. Breasts serve both functions, and I do not believe that I need my breasts to be sanctified by the presence of a hungry infant in order to make them acceptable enough to photograph and put on LJ.

2. jadelennox:
I object to the level of shrill some of the conversations have gotten to. When I read "there's nothing sexy about breasts!" I have to think, "well, there is about *mine*". And I 100% agree with pixxelpuss that I'd have much more sympathy if the argument had been that bare nipples should always be permissible; I don't think there's anything about the presence of a nursing baby that makes my breasts more or less special. Either they're okay, or they aren't. But then I've never been a think of the children kind of girl.


Meanwhile, the bigger question about what does or doesn't constitute "objectification" is a good one, and is something I've been thinking about for a while now.

In a comment to the LiveJournal feed of my blog post, a friend wrote:
"Just wanted to add that I don't think that the images constitute objectification, simply because the images are chosen by the women to represent themselves. For an image to objectify, it's my sense that it must be somehow imposed from an outside person or people, or arguably an overwhelming cultural force. A woman who chooses a representation of herself breastfeeding is not subject to any of these."

But if that were the case, what about a woman who chooses a representation of herself in bondage gear, or otherwise presenting herself sexually? I suppose I was thinking of antiprincess's recent post, which is why I'm asking these questions.

Lis Riba said...

Oh, one other point I wished to make about objectification.

Again, I haven't studied this academically, but I think that in general a little objectification of strangers is perfectly normal in everyday life. I don't think it's possible to fully engage with every other person we encounter. [I'm an introvert, it would certainly drive me crazy, or at least make me retreat further in my shell.]

Let me explain what I mean.
My husband used to study speech and rhetoric and has become very good at explaining the purposes and reasons for small talk to geeks (and an autistic friend of ours). Here's how he put it:

People evolved as tribal-level hunter-gatherers who lived in family groups of perhaps a couple dozen individuals. What this means is that most people have the ability to really *know* only a few people. One can learn the interaction patterns of, perhaps, a dozen people or so. Some people can learn more -- some *many* more -- some fewer.
In other words, there is a limit to how many very close friends you can really know. That limit is different for different people: some people may be able to maintain close friendships with a hundred people, some people may be able to maintain two or three. But, probably most people can learn to interact with about dozen people.
This is fine if you're only going to interact with a dozen people regularly. Unfortunately, as civilizations developed and people started living in larger groups, this became insufficient. But people are nothing if not creative and resourceful.
Today, we have to interact with dozens of people a day. Clearly, we don't have the energy to really understand everyone that we encounter. Yet we still have to be able to interact with them somehow. We need to be able to buy things in stores, take cab rides, get directions from subway information booth people.
So we developed masks. Each culture creates an artifical personality -- or perhaps a few artifical personalities -- which everyone can learn to interact with. So, people are taught how to pretend to be this artifical personality, and they can just have their mask interact with someone else's mask, and you can get stuff done, but you don't have to really *know* people.

'Small talk' is how masks interact with masks. It's very important, for a number of reasons. For one thing, even if we're using masks, we still need social interaction to keep a society bound together. For another, it's the first step in getting to know someone.
'Small talk' follows certain conversational paths, is usually limited to certain, more-or-less inoffensive topics, and is limited in what it can express. But two people following the same conversational script forms a social bonding: you've created something together, even if all it is is a kit-built conversation.
And, for some interactions, that's really the entire purpose of small talk. If I say, 'Have a good one,' to the cashier at the grocery store, and zie says 'Take care' in response, we've created a very small conversation together, and have demonstrated to each other that we are part of the same society, and have spun one very tenuous strand of connection between the two of us. But if everyone spins very tenuous strands of connection with everyone -- then you have a society that holds together, at least somewhat. All those individual tenuous strands add up to something significant.

He goes on, but that's enough to make my point. [Generally speaking, the semantic content of small-talk is "Ping" -- acknowledging the other person's humanity without going beyond the masks.]

Just because I "objectify" the kid behind the counter at McDonalds as nothing more than someone who will take my order and money and give me the food I've requested, that doesn't inhibit my ability to relate in a more meaningful way to other people in similar roles. Such as the people who work at the local diner; I see them more often and we know each other better.

Likewise, when I was employed doing telephone technical support. People phoning in for help with their software had no interest nor need to deal with the whole me -- they only wanted my ears, voice, and the portions of my brain that could help resolve their technical issues. I was the tool they were using to resolve their own problems. And I was glad of that. I didn't necessarily want every customer trying to pry into my personality, nor was I particularly interested in them.

I'm sure my view of objectification differs from the definition among academic circles, but to me it seems like a continuum and not universally bad. Inappropriate objectification can be harmful, but under many circumstances, I see objectification as not only acceptable, but necessary.

belledame222 said...

Lis: hold that thought, and more in that vein, 'cause I'm the middle of writing a series of posts on objectification from multiple frameworks.

but briefly: the notion that *some* "objectification" on a casual, daily basis is not only inevitable but just fine is sort of, I think, what Martin Buber was getting at when he said that "I-It" relationships aren't bad, of themselves; rather the problem comes when there's a general absence of the deeper "I-Thou" relationships. Which, you can approach from a social perspective or a "micro" relationship perspective or both.

right now I'm mostly dealing with how "objectification" got conflated in the popular view with *sexual* objectification, as per feminist definitions, and specifically the sexual objectification *of* women *by* men.

there's rather a lot to cover, actually.

and i haven't even gotten to "object relations theory," which is sort of interesting me in light of the whole breast icon thrash (the original "object" in object-relations theory is--the breast. o well more on that later).

and now i'm totally intrigued by your husband's work with autistic folks, because one of the *other* themes I'm grappling with wrt "objectification" here is the notion of empathy. I was starting to think in terms of how the personality-disordered don't have empathy and how that translates into widespread and gross "objectification" in all sorts of ways; but I hadn't even been thinking about autism.

which bugs me, I guess, because, this:

I know that autism is completely different from, say, antisocial/narcissistic personality disorder. That narcissistic/antisocial people can learn to be skilled "mirrors" of other people (small talk and so on) but be absolutely rapacious killers (of body and/or soul) who never truly "get" that other people exist as such at all. So, no *real* empathy.

Whereas autistic people, as I understand it, have great difficulty "getting" social norms, and, more important, a "theory of mind" of another person, on an intuitive level. Which, I had always *thought* was at least somewhat bound up with empathy; at any rate the "theory of mind" business. And yet I know that autistic people can be intensely loving and kind, certainly nothing like a psychopath.

But, I guess my question is: if the difference between autism and the narcissistic spectrum of personality disorder isn't about empathy, per se, then what is it?

(of course, I think there are also people who are both somewhere on the autistic spectrum and have had the psychological baggage that would tend to lead one toward narcissistic abuse; anyway I have a couple of people in mind here who are/were extremely sad, albeit also dangerous).

Lis Riba said...

Calling it work with autistic folks is a bit more formal than what I was trying to describe.

An individual whose LiveJournal we read is autistic, and he often processes things by blogging about them, where neurotypicals like us can explain. In the process of trying to articulate unspoken assumptions, we actually learn alot ourselves.
I'd point you to some of his posts, but they're mostly friendslocked.

On the other hand, my husband does also teach Sunday school to kids under ten. He has some fascinating observations about kids' sense of fairness and things like that which you might find relevant.

belledame222 said...


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