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Breasts are great….unless you’re using them to feed your baby

August 4th, 2006

Dr Petra

This blog entry American Moms Freak Over Breastsucking Infants by Dawn Olsen caught my attention today.

Olsen outlines the double standards in the US around showing female breasts for entertainment (which seems to be fine) and showing a breast with baby feeding on the cover of a magazine (which hasn’t gone down well). She points out that negative attitudes towards breast feeding discourage women from feeding their babies and makes it more difficult for women who want to breastfeed to do so publicly.

I agree with many of her points, although she stresses how breastfeeding isn’t sexual and only mentally unstable mothers would find it so. This is a difficult one to address since research shows some mothers do report breastfeeding as a pleasurable and arousing experience. Not in a traditionally sexual way, but definitely in an erotic way. A tricky one to admit to or discuss.

Sadly the breastfeeding story isn’t that different this side of the pond. Whilst it’s fine for boobs to appear in our newspapers, lads magazines or on television, women still encounter difficulties finding places to breastfeed and are often disapproved of when doing so in public – or are shown to the nearest lavatory to feed their infant. And sadly it’s often women who are the most disapproving of other women breastfeeding – probably because if you grow up in a culture that teaches you the only acceptable way for you to display your boobs (if at all) is in a sexualised way – not a nurturing one.

Years ago when researching my PhD I asked women and men how they would feel about seeing a woman breastfeeding in public or a man reading a newspaper in public that contained a picture of a bare-breasted woman. I was asked to include the question by a colleague who’d encountered hostility when she’d tried to breastfeed at a local shopping centre (and had been asked to leave the premises). I included the question (although I thought it was pretty pointless since surely everyone would be fine about the breastfeeding and not fine about the guy looking at the pin-up girl).

How wrong could I be? Whilst male participants stressed breastfeeding was natural they also shared a concern that it was more ‘real’ than a man looking at a picture in a newspaper and therefore could have more of an effect on passing men. The female participants were more negative about breastfeeding itself, stating breastfeeding mothers shouldn’t feed in public, should go to the designated areas (e.g. toilets). They felt that breastfeeding should be private. Only a minority of female participants disagreed – pointing out that a woman breastfeeding reminds us what boobs are for – and suggesting this is why the public don’t like to see a woman feeding in public.

It shouldn’t amaze me but it does. Breastfeeding in public and particularly in the media is still taboo – and yet given the media’s constantly trying to show how ‘liberated’ it is about sex, you’d have thought this wouldn’t still be a topic they’re all coy about. Whilst it’s okay to run contests where you can win your girlfriend a new set of boobs, and topless images of women are a staple part of men’s magazines and late night television (not to mention some music videos), there’s still a public outcry if we show breastfeeding images.

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