Near the Amtrak Station in Milwaukee, there used to be an encampment created by people without housing. It went by the moniker “Tent City”. My kids and I used to pass by it often; and they had a lot of questions about the space and the people who stayed there.
I remember doing my best to explain homelessness to them. I attempted to answer their curiosities by posing questions back to them, to get a feel for what they understood. The conversation quickly led me to share what I know about mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, systemic racism, morality. I glanced into the rear-view mirror to find my young children, their mouths agape, eyebrows furrowed. I realized that what I had presented them with was like turning on the hose full-force and blasting them with a spray of freezing water.
This has always been a challenge for me as a parent, trying to help my kids understand the world we live in in a developmentally appropriate, honest way. As part of the Euro-American ethnic group, our logic system/ ontology (the nature of reality) is guided by standardization, codification and uniformity; it is fundamentally binary, as laid out in Dr. Edwin Nichols’ Model for the Philosophical Aspects of Culture. [Full lecture here: https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/CAPLectures/id/216]
Of course this framework confines us to a worldview shaped by the binary. Much of what I’ve come to understand about the human experience has been through the lens of maternal child health where very little, if not nothing is ‘black and white’.
That’s what I’m here to explore this week on Our Milky Way. In a way, these nuances remind me of ambiguous images or reversible figures where one individual may see one image and another makes out something totally different. For example, the German cartoon that asks, “Which animals are most like each other?” The answer is “rabbit and duck.”
Breastfeeding itself is a “rabbit and duck”.
“Breastfeeding refutes the cultural bent that breast’s primary function is as sex objects,” Chantal Molnar writes in Breastfeeding and Feminism. “America has an uneasy relationship with breastfeeding and has a hard time facing the duality inherent in breast’s function. Sex versus nurture, or sex and nurture? We don’t seem to have any problem with the duality of our mouths, which can be for sex and for eating. We do not make people cover their heads with a blanket when they are eating in public simply because the mouth is frequently used sexually.”
Similarly, Iris Marion Young writes in Breasted Experience that breasts are “a scandal for patriarchy because they disrupt the border between motherhood and sexuality, between love and desire.”
When Dr. Ricardo Herbert Jones, an advocate for the humanization of childbirth, spoke at the International Breastfeeding Conference several years back, he told this anecdote: An email was sent out to friends and colleagues with an image of a woman, but delayed loading revealed only portions of the woman– first her head, neck and shoulders. Her expression, most would have assumed she was amidst a sexual experience, but when the remainder of the image loaded, it showed the woman was giving birth.
A month after this conference, I was pregnant with my second child. Iris was born at home in the water, and I experienced an entanglement of intensity, euphoria, and empowerment, much like what was captured on the woman’s face in Dr. Jones’s anecdote. The sacred experience of birth is impossibly described as “either or”; instead birth is “both and.”
In Euro-American culture, the leap from what we have been accustomed to accept as normal birth– feet in stirrups, supine in a hospital bed, bellowing in agony (or not because of an epidural)– to euphoric birth, is almost inconceivable.
Kajsa Brimdyr has taken on the challenge of bridging this polarization and shows what is possible is her film Happy Birth Day.
Another instance of “both and” shows up in Reply All’s Into the Depths episode which covers Oriana R. Aragón’s, et al Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli.
The term “cute aggression” refers to the urge some people feel to squeeze or bite cute things, “albeit without desire to cause harm.” It can be categorized as dimorphous expression which “refers to someone experiencing a strong emotion of one type (e.g., happy or sad) but expressing the opposite emotion.” [Stavropoulos, et al]
Here’s an excerpt from the Reply All episode [full transcript here]:
Aragón started studying cute aggression in the lab — she brought in volunteers…
ORIANA: And I hopped them up on baby photos. [laughing] And then I- I know, it was actually really fun to run.
She showed people photos of animal babies, human babies, human babies Photoshopped to make them extra cute–
ORIANA: Large foreheads, big eyes, small mouths, big cheeks.
And then she measured how people responded with brain scans, questionnaires, and even bubble wrap — like, how many bubbles does a person pop when they see a computer-manipulated super cute baby?
And she’s convinced that not only is cute aggression real, but it actually serves a useful function for people like Marie who tend to get all can’t-breathe-can’t-think-conked-out by cuteness.
ORIANA: The people who were like, “Err, you know, I want to pinch it”, those people come back down off that baby high [laughs], you know, faster than the people who didn’t.
SANYA: Just having that aggression helps you come down off the baby high.
ORIANA: Yes, yeah, exactly.
“Baby high.” People – get ripped – on baby. That is weird to me; and it gets even weirder. Oriana said that sometimes a “baby high” makes the brain produce another contradictory-seeming emotion: “cute sadness.”
ORIANA: The corners of their mouth will go completely down and they’ll go, “Oooh” [SANYA: Oh yeah!] like they’re, like, so sad. [SANYA: Right.] And even their forehead wrinkles. Like, it was just like they saw the most horrible thing, so if you snapshot that and show it to people and you say, “What are they feeling?” they’re like, “Oh they’re overwhelmingly sad right now, and it’s like, “No they saw a cute baby.”
Okay so at this point I’m lowkey spiraling, because, like duh, of course I’ve seen people do cute sadness – even done it myself – but I didn’t realize that it’s supposed to be an involuntary reflex.
I thought we were all doing it on purpose. You know, making a conscious choice to communicate, “Yes, I see and acknowledge that your baby is, in fact, cute.”
Oriana is saying no, no, no — for other people it’s happening involuntarily; their brains are trying to emotionally regulate, because they literally cannot function due to the cuteness. And even though it seems like cute aggression and cute sadness are just random levers that the brain is panic-pulling, Oriana thinks that each of them is actually signaling something distinct to whoever is observing.
So imagine you’re walking down the street with something conventionally cute, like, I don’t know, a human baby, and someone comes up and smiles.
ORIANA: I know that there’s positivity within their smile, and that they’re probably going to treat my baby well and there’s a really nice social signal.
But cute aggression and cute sadness are better signals. Let’s say someone comes up and they’re all like, “Oh my god, I just wanna pinch your baby’s chubby little cheeks!”
ORIANA: That’s giving extra information that they want to be extra sort of playful and rev that baby up, and they want to sort of roughhouse with my baby.
Which, maybe you’re like, “No thanks, it’s not rev up time, it’s actually nap time.” But if someone comes up and they’re like, “Awwww what a cute baby”, in kind of a sad way, they like your baby too but they’re calmer and they’re probably aren’t going to mess up the nap.
ORIANA: You just wanna see it and sort of marinate in the cuteness [laughs]. And that’s what our research shows. And so it might be the reason why it’s been evolutionarily preserved because it’s just a really good signal. A smile doesn’t deliver the extra information of how you’ll interact with the baby.
SANYA: The smile is actually the poker face in all these instances.
ORIANA: Yeah, exactly, yeah, it’s giving less information.
So, cute aggression, says Oriana — it’s a societal glue, a communication tool.