Body Month: Breastfeeding and the Public Square

A clergy member would say I’m watching my wife “strip.”

Breastfeeding is an important part of child development and mother-baby bonding.  The baby’s cry promotes milk letdown.  When my own daughter was born, she was placed on my wife’s belly, blindly working her way up to my wife’s breast.  In that moment, the intimate connection solidified.  Breast milk is a child’s best immune system builder, a baby’s perfect nourishment, and that which helps the best makeup of beneficial bacteria to colonize the gut.  If a mother is able to produce milk, the act of breastfeeding warrants support, encouragement, and effort.  If she cannot, she should not be vilified for that.

One wouldn’t think that breastfeeding would be controversial.  Then again, this is the United States of America, where most natural things generate contempt while synthetics and damaging products get by with nary a peep.  Witness Bisphenol A, a carcinogenic substance found in plastics that is banned for use in baby bottles in Europe and Canada.  BPA is linked to obesity, thyroid and nervous system disruption, and improper development of male and female reproductive systems.  The FDA buckled to industry, as is its wont, clearing the path for BPA to contaminate foods for years to come.  The outrage regarding the FDA’s ruling was non-existent.  Breastfeeding, though?  Aha!  Time to threaten jail if you dare feed your child in public.

The news has had an amazing amount of negative stories about nursing.  A woman was thrown out of a courtroom for breastfeeding.  Moms who pump milk at work apparently make less money over a five year span than other employees.  In this article, lost time from the desk to provide optimal nourishment to growing babies is cited as one concern.  (I couldn’t find any article that showed smokers who take frequent breaks lost wages similarly, which makes you think.)  Random folks have raised a stink about breastfeeding, threatening women with arrest on charges of indecent exposure.  These range from government security, mall security, a bus driver, flight attendants, and at some national chains.  A couple religious officials have compared breastfeeding moms to strippers and pornography.  Apparently, Jesus was bottle fed.

In nearly all those states, laws demand that nursing moms have the right to breastfeed in any public or private space, meaning the mothers in question had their rights violated by their fellow citizens.  In Michigan, site of the courtroom controversy and bus incident, the law exempts breastfeeding from any claim of indecency.  The court bailiff had a right to do what he did, but it doesn’t mean he was right for doing it.  The female bus driver (astonishing that many of those harassing nursing moms are women) made a lewd statement to the nursing mom about her “titty.”

Isn’t it time to grow up?

One preacher considers this to be pornographic.

The female breast is utilitarian, made up of fat, lymph nodes, ducts, connective tissue, and sacs that can hold milk.  Externally, the nipple allows nourishing milk to flow to a baby from the mother.  The baby requires access to the breast on demand at a young age and in intervals as she or he grows older.  Have the breastfeeding critics ever seen a hungry baby?  They know one thing – HUNGER!  The key is to get the baby food as quickly as possible.  For the nursing mom, this means exposing the breast to allow the child to eat.  To accuse a nursing mom of being a stripper or pornographic demonstrates a severe lack of understanding about what goes through a mother’s mind when the moment the hungry baby screams.

First, the mom wants to soothe the baby.  Second, the last thing the mother thinks about is being sexy.  Third, when about to feed, the mother is about to put her breast and nipple into a potentially painful vise that were the baby translucent would frighten even the most rock-ribbed human.  (Watch a breast pump in action.  Then add teeth and angst.)  Stripping?  Pornography?  Threatening arrest?  Detainment?  Ouster?  Really?

Really.

That utilitarian breast has been hyper-sexualized in our society.  Witness an indigenous Amazonian woman to see that the breast is not inherently sexual.  Those cultures have their own body taboos – one group would never deign to show up in public without a fibrous string around their waist, the only thing on them.  But in the macro sense, just looking outside our environs will show that the sexual breast is a creation of our mind, not a factual entity.  In that it can provide sexual stimulation, the breast is no different from the neck, the foot, or the ear.  No one is demanding we all use earmuffs or go to jail.

Body taboos are a bit silly, based more in fear and misinformation than in any qualification of fact.  Even if we agree to cover the regions devoted in part to sexuality, it takes an awful lot of logical contortions to have that include the breast.  Male breasts do not require coverage even when they look remarkably similar to female breasts.  That punctures a hole in the argument, because enlarged fat deposits obviously don’t change the rules for men.  All that’s different, then, is the ability to lactate.  I have not once heard lactation as the reason that female breasts must legally remain covered or be deemed obscene.  Therefore, the story we have created about the breast being sexual and sexually charged, the creation lodged in the collective imagination, is what we have left.  That’s a pretty flimsy reason.  It’s a prohibition based on a figment.

In a largely rational society, it should not survive scrutiny.  But our society isn’t particularly rational.  We base our laws, it seems, on made up definitions and on profitability.  So, the breast is banned, but BPA proceeds full steam ahead.  Adding to the silliness, the female breast is only granted a reprieve when feeding the child, but not in every state and not with the publicity that prevents the absurdity of the anti-nursing crowd.

Due to a host of policies that are decidedly family-unfriendly in the United States – from maternity leave to health care to union-busting – mother-baby bonding time is truncated, women are forced out of the home during those early nurturing months, and few families have the ability to keep a parent home and survive in the American economy.  Unlike in generations past, women are going to be out and about more with their babies when on-demand feeding will erupt at any moment.  Women and families have been forced to adapt to this anti-family atmosphere, so the rest of society had best suck it up and adapt as well.

The breast isn’t scandalous.  It isn’t sexual.  And it is the best thing a baby can see each day.  If someone is disturbed by the exposed breast during a feeding, the mother should not suffer due to the viewer’s confusion.  The offense will always be in the eye of the beholder.

If offended, avert your eyes.

Feed on, Moms!

3 thoughts on “Body Month: Breastfeeding and the Public Square

  1. Pingback: Time Revisited and Re-Covered « Live Nakedly

  2. Pingback: Body Month: Skin Deep | Live Nakedly

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