Public Breastfeeding Should Not Be a Big Deal

Something’s wrong with our culture if this is appropriate in public, but breastfeeding is not.

Breastfeeding has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. On one hand, mothers’ decision to breastfeed or not has been subject to intense moralizing and even actual regulation, which is creepy.

On the other hand, public breastfeeding has been under attack, too. Facebook disables/deletes accounts of people who post photos of themselves breastfeeding. Mothers lose their jobs and get kicked out of public places because of it. This spring, people were actually debating whether or not mothers in the military should breastfeed while in uniform.

Every time, the justification is that breastfeeding constitutes “indecent exposure” (or even pedophilia, depending on who’s doing the breastfeeding). The protest “There are children here!” gets thrown around a lot, which is ironic given that what’s at stake is the fact that infants need to be fed, and pretty often at that. But no, what matters more is that women’s breasts are presumed to be sexual, whether women themselves see them that way or not.

This cartoon summarizes my thoughts on the issue:

The reality is that breasts are everywhere in our public spaces. They’re used to advertise not just bras, but vegetable oil, men’s cologne, french fries, and TV shows. Beaches and swimming pools, which are always full of children, are also full of women in bikinis. And no matter where you go in the U.S., aside from perhaps certain parts of Brooklyn, you’re going to see women in low-cut shirts.

And yet, breastfeeding in public remains controversial. Why?

First of all, it seems that our culture has decided–somewhat arbitrarily–that the only “indecent” parts of the breast are the areola and nipple. Although those are the most sensitive parts, this nevertheless seems strange to me. People who find breasts attractive and arousing aren’t just attracted to their areolas and nipples. To say that those are the only “indecent” parts would be like saying that women should be free to walk around with their labia showing, but not their clitoris or vagina. What?! (But of course, vaginas and clitorises are much easier to hide.)

Besides, when a mother nurses an infant, you can’t see anything that you don’t see in all those ads and at the beach, except for that brief moment when she’s first taking her breast out (or “whipping” it out, as the hand-wringers love to say, in total defiance of human anatomy). All this fuss for a few seconds during which someone might possibly see a nipple?

What’s perhaps more to the point is that our culture has decided that breasts are always inherently sexual, no matter what they’re being used for. They are always sexual, and in a different way than, say, a man’s beautifully toned pectoral muscles–which can be displayed in virtually any public setting even without cries of “There are children here!”–even though there’s no infant depending upon them for survival.

The reason I say that “our culture” has decided that breasts are sexual is because there are other cultures that haven’t. Even a cursory glance through a National Geographic magazine will show you that many people around the world think that naked breasts are no big deal. Women walk around topless and life goes on. Even in Europe, topless sunbathing is normal, and the children there grow up just fine, without being traumatized by the sight of boobs.

(And, on the flip side, some cultures sexualize things that we would never think of sexually, such as hair.)

But regardless, we’ve created a culture in which breasts are sexual. Now what?

Well, now we ask ourselves what’s more important–mothers’ need to feed their infants quickly and easily, or children growing up without ever seeing naked breasts. Since I’ve yet to see any evidence for the latter being harmful, I think we should prioritize the former.

What’s ironic is that when breasts are on display for the purpose of advertising or enhancing women’s sex appeal, that’s okay. But when they’re on display for a clearly nonsexual purpose, such as providing sustenance for an infant, then it’s suddenly “inappropriate,” and won’t anybody think of the children.

Right now, we have ourselves a dilemma. Women are being commanded by doctors and politicians to breastfeed rather than use formula. And yet, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that provides no guaranteed maternity leave. There’s no government-sponsored daycare, either, and funding for childcare subsidies is being cut left and right. This leaves many mothers with few options other than breastfeeding their babies, often in public.

But we wring our hands over how “indecent” and “sexual” this basic human act is.

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16 thoughts on “Public Breastfeeding Should Not Be a Big Deal

  1. I have talked to more than one of my guy friends attempting to get to the bottom of why breasts are so amusing to them, and never get a straight answer. This may be because I’m a girl, or maybe its because there really is no good reason. Breasts aren’t meant for guys to gawk over, they’re to nurse children like you said. You present a great argument here, and I wish more people thought like you!

  2. I think part of the problem is that for a long time American women, even if they could breastfeed, were not encouraged to do so. In that time, the knowledge that human breasts are more than sexual objects faded from public memory. Neither boys nor girls of a certain generation saw their mothers breastfeed. Now, it’s like making a conscious choice rather than just following on a natural instinct. Doctors have to give evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial to encourage women to breastfeed their children. There’s something so wrong in that…

    • Yeah, I agree. As I hinted at the beginning, I do think it’s a bit creepy and intrusive to try to force women to breastfeed or shame them for not doing so, since there are many legitimate reasons why someone might choose to use formula–especially if they’re not in a financial situation where they can take off of work or whatever. But at the same time, what you said about breastfeeding no longer seeming like a “natural” thing to do also rings true…I would say that the fact that formula is something that can be marketed and advertised (whereas breastfeeding can’t really) might have something to do with that.

      • And also, a woman’s choice NOT to breastfeed. Some women don’t want to, and some women can’t for various reasons (medications they must be on, etc.)

  3. There are however, many women who have become fanatical in their public protests of breastfeeding. That’s not helping the case at all. They make it difficult for all women to be taken seriously when they act like lunatics instead of presenting their case maturely.

  4. Pingback: Public Breastfeeding Should Not Be a Big Deal « In Our Words

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  6. I feel the exact same way. And really, the sexualization of breasts makes me extremely uncomfortable about even thinking about breastfeeding. That said, I feel strongly that I will breastfeed when I have a child. I just won’t be doing it with certain people around (like my father-in-law who regularly posts pictures on Facebook sexualizing breasfeeding.)

  7. I am a breastfeeding mom and all I have to say to people who have issues with me feeding my child outside is this “want to talk about it!” or “guess how much I care?” My number one is my son and feeding him when he needs food. Breastfeeding has so many amazing benefits like lowering the chance of my child becoming obese! Which is obviously a huge issue in our country. My husband told me when I first got pregnant that he wanted me to breast feed, but yet he feels uncomfortable with me doing it in public. He would rather me run all the way to the car and then come back. I told him he needs to get over it or he can feed our child. Hasn’t been an issue since. It’s frustrating because it’s always men that have the issue. They have no idea what it takes to be pregnant and take care of a child 24/7 yet they are always the ones complaining about it! Men, shut up! Women who are “awkward about it” get a freaking life.

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  10. i love boobs and i manage to keep my head on my shoulders when people breastfeed around me. there’s a sign in my workplace that says we’re breastfeeding-friendly, so people stop in while running errands specifically to sit down in the comfy chair and feed their kids. and i haven’t turned into a ravening boob-monster yet.

    good post.

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