Breasts, skulls and babies
I came home from work recently and encountered my wife, ashen-faced and seemingly in shock. ``What’s wrong?” I asked urgently, thinking that something might have happened to our 7-month-old son.
``Nothing,” she replied and tried to look away before confessing, ``But I did hear a horrible story from my friend.”
My wife has a friend in Singapore who had twins about a year ago. Since we are now raising a 7-month-old baby boy, my wife is keenly interested in anything that her friend has to say when it comes to raising children. Well, what she heard that day was that her friend in Singapore had left the twins alone while doing housework and found them a short time later happily gorging on their own… ah, can I say No. 2? I hope you understand what I mean.
Aside from a disgusted, puckered mouth and a deeper appreciation of the fact that babies will put everything and anything they can pick up or get into their mouths, I also suddenly realized that babies do not automatically reject their own bodily waste. By that I mean that a baby does not instinctively associate bodily waste with the ``it’s disgusting, smells bad, stay away, and do not touch” reaction that adults have.
So, if it’s not a natural trigger reaction, then it’s a learned reaction, which means that it’s a reaction that has been taught to babies. But it’s something that’s taught at such an early age and reinforced so insistently by parents and social norms that it feels as if it’s a part of the natural human condition when it’s not.
This dawning realization led me to recall a famous story about the Venerable Wonhyo, one of the most influential Buddhist monks in the development of Buddhism in East Asia. When Wonhyo was on his way to study in China, he and his traveling companion were forced to seek shelter in a deep cave from a sudden squall. Wonhyo was thirsty, so he fumbled about blindly in the darkness to find something to drink. His hand happened on a bowl-like vessel with cool, refreshing water that he gulped down gratefully.
The next morning, he woke up to realize that the cave was actually an ancient burial site littered with skulls and bones. He further realized that he had drunk from a skull filled with brackish water the night before, instead of a bowl filled with refreshing water. In knowledge of what he had done, he threw up in disgust.
However, this actually led to his enlightenment because he then recognized that his reaction of disgust was driven by his preconception that old skulls and bones were dirty objects to be avoided. You see, the water was just water; it was his learned preconceptions that caused his reaction, altering his appreciation of blissful refreshment the night before into disgust the morning after.
This leads me back to my baby. More specifically, to my wife who is nurturing our baby. You see, my wife breastfeeds our baby, which is no small feat. One interesting thing that I noticed when she began to breastfeed, however, was that she no longer exhibited the same level of modesty when breastfeeding than before she had to.
In other words, she was no longer shy of exposing her breasts to other family members when feeding our baby. Related to this is an interesting dichotomy. You see, female breasts are natural, functional parts of the female body ― necessary for feeding newborn children.
The fact that female breasts are increasingly sexually objectified in modern society is a consequence of our culture, not intrinsic to their primary function. What I am saying is that the sight of breasts is not naturally sexual or embarrassing.
We find it so because our culture teaches us to react to them in such a way. We’ve all seen National Geographic documentaries of Amazon tribes in which women don’t think twice about exposing their breasts because, in their culture, that’s the social norm.
So, when my wife was using her breasts for their natural purpose, she wasn’t as affected by social norms as she would have been if on a beach and her swimming suit accidentally slips. It’s like Wonhyo’s water: breasts are just breasts. Sexual excitement or social embarrassment at the sight of breasts is a learned reaction that we are so conditioned to that we mistakenly think it’s a natural instinct.
The point I am trying to make with these examples is that we have to be careful when we levy value judgments on the social norms and habits of other societies, cultures, or peoples because many of our judgments are not based on some ``natural law” but rather learned preconceptions about what is dirty, embarrassing, and, most dangerously, what is right or wrong.
The author lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. His email address is Jason@jasonlim.net.