I grew up on a Catholic island where there were two things to be ashamed of: Everything and Everything About Our Bodies. I was the only eight-year-old wearing a white cotton half-slip under her dress and a dab of Chanel No. 5 perfume behind the ears -- "In case the priest kisses you!" my mom said. I swam with a t-shirt over my bathing suit. The nuns in school made us kneel on the ground and if our skirts didn't touch the floor (because we rolled up the waistband), we were punished.
I was taught that my body was something to be muted — something to hide under fabric and keep out of sight. Anything that flew in the face of that tradition — short shorts, kissing in public, shirts that said, "Call Me I'm Single!" — was instantly marked as bad, especially by the older women in my family.
Although I'm almost six thousand miles away from my tropical island home, I know that some of that attitude still exists stateside. When my mother flew over to stay with us and help out after I had given birth, I knew that I would have to test these waters during the many visits we were sure to have. Pacific Islanders are like magnets especially when they hit the mainland. Whenever my mother arrives, everyone is attracted to her and immediately requests her presence. And of course, I have to come along because she doesn't drive on these scary, scary roads.
The first time I had to breastfeed my son around other family was during a visit to my great aunt. My son had started to fuss and part of me remembered how many times my body had been analyzed by these women, sometimes for being too fat, or my skin too pale, etc. And now I had to unfurl my shirt to reveal my large, heavy milking breasts in front of women who had once had very strong opinions of my fifth-grade chest and the elastic training bra I had just acquired.
Surprisingly, my great aunt was the one who heard my son's cries and insisted that I nurse or "susu," the Chamorro word for breast which also can be used to mean breastfeed. She had given birth to eight children and I'm sure susu-ed them all. Then she watched me. "Don't suffocate him!" She said, pointing to how my breast was pressing against his nose. "Make sure he can breathe!"
She continued to examine how I was nursing my son as if once her eyes moved on to other areas, I would forget and my massive boob would smother my son. This set the extreme of what I've experienced when breastfeeding my son around family. Some people are very interested and ready to tell me how to do things and others could not care how my child was being fed, as long as he didn't cry loud enough to drown out the World Series of Poker game on TV.
I have to remind myself that I'm no longer a fifth-grade child needing the approval of my elders. I'm an adult with a child who is depending on me to feed him. I am an adult and who cares what they say? I just ask that they continue in their staunch history of gossip and please, please do it behind my back and not when I'm sitting right in front of them.
Still, I haven't experienced anyone asking me to leave the room or cover up or take my breasts elsewhere. If any member of my family dares suggest such a thing, I'm ready with the retort: "I'm susu-ing here!"