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Letter From Starbucks

Do Me a Favor, Keep a Lid on Your Double Latte

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page C01

I admit it: I'm lactose intolerant.

The latest assault on the right to a peaceful cup of Joe comes courtesy of Lorig Charkoudian, a Silver Spring woman who not only wants to breast-feed her daughter at Starbucks whenever she likes but expects me to avert my eyes or leave if I don't share her enthusiasm for double breast milk latte. It's not enough that a new Maryland law supports her right to lactate in public -- no, she wants Starbucks to issue a nationwide corporate policy supporting her position.

Speaking for the school of not letting it all hang out, let me say: Don't. Please, please please. Just don't.

Local mothers stage a nurse-in at a Starbucks in Silver Spring to promote greater acceptance of public nursing. (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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Charkoudian's goal is to liberate women and advance the cause of nursing as a public health issue, which is why she staged a nurse-in at her local Starbucks on Sunday. She doesn't condemn those who disagree with her view -- unlike the Breast Nazis, who are undoubtedly already composing screeds denouncing my upbringing, intellect and nurturing instincts. As a former baby snack bar, let me say upfront: I've been there, done that. But not at my neighborhood coffee bar.

The objection is not with the babies, God bless their mewling little souls. Nor is it with the medical benefits of nursing, or even the legal right to do so. It's about the fragile balance of liberty and taste, questions of appropriateness and venue. It's about the slippery and ever-changing slope of social standards.

Charkoudian, 31, began her coffeehouse crusade last month while nursing her 15-month-old daughter, Aline. A store clerk who had received complaints about other nursing mothers in the past asked her to go in the bathroom or cover her breast with a blanket -- suggestions Charkoudian rejected. Feeding her daughter in the bathroom was disgusting, she said, and covering her would be uncomfortable.

She had Maryland law on her side: An act passed last year prohibits restrictions on public nursing, and a Starbucks spokeswoman has instructed employees to inform any complaining customers of the new law and suggest they move to a different seat.

But Charkoudian, a conflict resolution trainer, is pressuring Starbucks to enact a national corporate policy stating that mothers will "never be asked to leave, cover, move, or hide" when breast-feeding, that it will train employees that nursing is different from offensive behavior such as loud music or obscene language, and that offended customers should avert their eyes or move.

"It's about public acceptance of breast-feeding," said Charkoudian yesterday, espousing the health benefits of breast-feeding to babies. She believes mothers should be encouraged to nurse as long as possible, without restrictions.

But overt public breast-feeding makes lots of people uncomfortable, so this is less about nursing than about imposing a belief system on those who do not share her views. It's about who offends whom, for what reasons, in what settings. It's not about rights, per se. It's about taste and prevailing social norms.

Consider: A large, rather hairy man walks into your corner of Starbucks. He's wearing a gold lamé Speedo and Prada loafers. That's it. He buys a Grande Mocha Frappuccino and settles into a cafe table by the window, where he proceeds to scream into his cell phone.

No question he's got the right to wear his bikini bottoms in public. No question that his attire is entirely inappropriate for Starbucks (don't get me started on the cell phone) and may prove offensive to those with delicate sensibilities, like me.

We are an uptight, prudish lot and in general believe large expanses of flesh, personal grooming and breast-feeding are not spectator sports. "In America, breast feeding is done only among intimates," writes Judith Martin in "Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium."

The "it's natural, it's beautiful" lobby says nursing is nothing to be ashamed of and the rest of us just need to get over it. Let's talk natural. Scratching in inappropriate places is natural. Clipping toenails is natural. Passing gas is natural, as is picking one's nose. None poses a health threat to those around us, and we probably all have a legal right to do so in public. But we don't because we have decided, in our arbitrary, old-fashioned way, that some things are not done in polite society. My 12-year-old son can belch impressively, and correctly states that in some societies it is considered a compliment to the chef. Not in my household, buster.

Then there's the argument that mothers must accommodate nursing babies wherever they happen to be. "Sometimes [my mother] goes to Starbucks. When she does, I don't want to have to starve," reads part of a letter to Starbucks ostensibly written by an infant.

For the record, we do not believe babies should starve. We think it's possible for a mother to nurse, strap the kid in the car seat and have an unattached hour or so. There are also fathers, babysitters and breast pumps.

A little discretion goes a long way. Inventive designers hawk a variety of clever little shirts to hide nursing. There are blankets and ponchos that can be draped oh so carefully. Pretend you're not nursing in public and I'll pretend not to notice.

"If I do put a blanket on her head, she'll just take it off," Charkoudian responds. Besides, she says, people don't ask non-nursing women to cover up their cleavage, and they shouldn't. "I don't think anyone should tell women how to dress."

In most states, private businesses have the right to say "No" -- as in "No shirt, no shoes, no service." No bare chests. No bare breasts. Customers who don't like it can take their business elsewhere.

Charkoudian says she's not trying to make anyone uncomfortable.

I understand. I still want my latte fully clothed. And that goes for you too, Mr. Speedo.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company