Is it really about sexualizing breasts? Or is it about rape culture?
A guy friend once informed me that breastfeeding breasts aren’t sexy. Sure, there might be the odd dreamboat (thank you, Brad Pitt) who will publicly announce his preference for the breeding female form, but my friend explains: “Breastfeeding breasts aren’t sexy. No one thinks they are sexy! They are generally overfirm, or oblong, with a giant nipple and a BABY attached to the end!” (He also has lots of very warm and supportive opinions of breastfeeding women) Let’s repeat that: “A baby is attached to it;” and that baby probably just pooped itself.
This struck me as essentially true, so it got me thinking: what’s the deal with the worry that this cultural myth of “breasts are for sex, not feeding” undermines women’s ability to feel comfortable with breastfeeding in public? What’s up with the leagues of women telling us they feel over-sexualized while breastfeeding? Or, at least, the leagues of lactation consultants and breastfeeding advocates worrying about it? In fact, it seems important to point out that breastfeeding women aren’t walking around complaining that they feel too sexy. In fact, one of the main reasons teen moms will give for not breastfeeding is that it isn’t sexy. Not to mention the common misconception that breastfeeding causes one’s breasts to become prematurely saggy. Saggy…real sexy. So, if we, as breastfeeding advocates, are not getting this directly from moms, where does it come from?
I would propose that what we are actually talking about is NOT that breasts are over-sexualized, but rather that women are worried about something else. Women seem to be worried about their uncovered breasts being interpreted as sexual, or even, quite possibly, inviting. Why? Is this shame left over from a pre-industrial society? Maybe…but then women would also feel ashamed in many of our current skirts, bikinis and frankly, even tops (have you seen our college students this year?)!
Rather, I wonder if the concern for a sexualized representation of the breastfeeding breast comes from a more vulnerable place. One in which sexuality is not about consensual sex, and certainly not about love-making. Instead, might it come from a place in which women are worried about exposure and vulnerability? A place that might reflect psychologic scars of a past history of abuse, or a fear of sexual violence or even of rape, in a culture which women are searingly exposed from childhood to graphic images of their exploitation? Perhaps particularly so for women of color, who face the added stressors of structural racism, socioeconomic and education inequalities and decreased access to healthcare. Not to mention the memory of black women’s historical exploitation as wet-nurses for white families and the cultural genocide inflicted by centuries of slavery. Add to this the negative reactions that women get for breastfeeding in public, which range from being asked to cover up or use a bathroom, to being threatened with police calls and even facing arrest.
In a recent pilot study of an inner-city population in Rochester, I asked some questions about safety. Though still in preliminary data analysis, it has been striking to find that over 40% of the interviewed population would feel vulnerable, or unsafe, while breastfeeding in public, while fewer than 30% of women knew of a safe place to breastfeed or pump while at work. We’re talking feeling safe, here, not supported. Also, if a mom came into the hospital with the decision already made to formula feed, she was much more likely to answer that she would feel vulnerable or unsafe while breastfeeding. It is well known that women with a past history of abuse have lower rates of breastfeeding. Moms in our group who were white and suburban generally felt safer, but not as much as one would imagine.
So, we’ve all caught up with the fact that if a woman is wearing revealing clothing, she is not “asking” to be raped, though this myth continues to circulate in many places. If a woman is breastfeeding in public, are we worried that she will be interpreted similarly? There seems to be something in our culture that continues to prevent women from feeling safe while exposed in this way. Instead of being about sexuality, could we really be worrying about safety? Public health campaigns have often focused on how to make people more comfortable with images of breastfeeding moms, through poster campaigns, commercials, etc – as if the real issue is under-exposure to images of nutritive, maternal breasts. Instead, perhaps we need to be looking at deeper issues of how women’s bodies can be (or feel) protected. Considering it in this light, maybe “latch-ins” get closer to the ethos of “taking back the night” marches than they do to normalization or desexualization.
After all, even men put on underwear before they grab the baseball bat under the bed in order to investigate a sound in the night, a strategy of little worth considering the possible demon downstairs. Maybe we are barking up the wrong tree.
Casey Rosen-Carole, MD, MPH is an Academic General Pediatrics Fellow and Breastfeeding Medicine Fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center
Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.