Posted by: Morgan | December 3, 2009

The Sexualization of Breastfeeding

Below is the text for the worldview paper I had to write for my Bible class final. The overarching topic was sexuality, with the freedom for me to choose what topic I wrote on specifically. Be forewarned that this is a frank discussion of the breast and sexuality, and may be rated PG for that reason.

….

In the spring of 2007 Maggie Gyllenhaal, a well-known actress, was photographed publicly breastfeeding her seven-month old daughter. As she chose not to use a nursing cover or blanket, her breast was completely visible. Although several groups that promote breastfeeding cheered their support, there was a large contingent of negative responses when the photos were posted online. To quote a celebrity gossip website, “Ok, so the kid’s gotta eat. We get it, Maggie. But you could have at least draped a towel over your shoulder”. I know many people who would agree with this website, even those who would support breastfeeding in general but have a problem with a woman exposing her breast while breastfeeding.

I do not attempt to make a case for or against breastfeeding itself, but would rather create a discussion on the sexuality of the human breast. I believe I can say, without opposition, that a woman’s breast is seen as a sexual organ in much of the western world, specifically in the United States. Many who were raised in this culture would contend that the breast is intrinsically a sexual thing, but a quick survey of other cultures shows that this is not universal. Research done by Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D. shows that in many cultures the breast does not have sexual connotations to men or women. Through extensive research on the practice of breastfeeding in various cultures, including living in Mali for a time to research, she found that the American thought of specifying the breast as a sexual object, to be used in foreplay and during intercourse, either bemused or horrified her friends in West Africa. In the cultures where a woman’s breasts are not seen as a sexual object, it is not considered immodest for a woman to show her breasts in public to breastfeed, and most women do not wear tops at all when at home.

At this point, I must take a moment to state that westernized culture does not disapprove of a mostly-revealed breast, as is evidenced by the prolific use of mostly-bared breasts in advertising, how little women cover their breasts in general (especially during the summer months), and even by the commonality of topless beaches in Europe. It is merely when the breast is being used in a non-erotic way that the general culture disapproves of a part of the breast being shown. There are those who would say that it is not culturally acceptable in the United States to show the nipple of the breast and so argue that most clothing and advertising obscure this part of the breast, but this argument only strengthens the similarity, as a breastfeeding child, by the very nature of nursing, obscures this part of the breast as well.

An Indian legend tells the story of three blind men who are asked to examine a different part of an elephant and, from that, describe the entire animal. Each man describes the elephant completely different and get into an argument over what it truly looks like. They are stopped by a wise man, who tells them that they are all correct, they are merely describing small parts of a whole. The moral of the story is all viewpoints are a smaller part of the universal whole, and that all people can truly work in harmony together once they realize this.

A pure transcendentalist would have to approach the subject of the sexuality of the human breast in much the same way as the blind men ended up thinking about the elephant. The many different worldviews about this are merely parts of a whole, all of which are beneficial and acceptable so long as they are worked into the overarching goal of true transcendence.

In much the same way that a transcendentalist would have to approach the sexuality of the breast, a naturalist must also accept many different thoughts and practices concerning breastfeeding as acceptable. If morality is defined by an individual then there can be no true right or wrong morality when it comes to how a breast is used or shown.

It makes sense that breastfeeding would be highly encouraged in a naturalist society, as the benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding have been scientifically proven, and the good effect breastfeeding has on future generations from a health standpoint is very clear. Though this does not address specifically a stance on covered verses open breastfeeding in public, the simple fact that a child must be nourished at times other than just when they are at home stipulates that breastfeeding must be allowed to occur in public in some capacity.

These two worldviews approach breastfeeding and the sexuality of a woman’s breast in very open terms, allowing for a person’s own sensibilities to lead the way. The worldview that actually has the most disagreements about this subject is the biblical one. Once again, I am not speaking of the attitude towards breastfeeding but, rather, the attitude towards the “intrinsic eroticism” of a woman’s breast.  I have had many Christians comment to me, when discussing this topic, that they support breastfeeding, even in public, “so long as it’s done modestly”. The concept of modesty in the Christian sub-culture is to conceal the aspects of the body that the other gender would find sexually and erotically appealing. Though the Bible does not address a woman‘s appearance with these words, a popular catchphrase directed towards women in the Christian culture is “Do not be a stumbling block for your brothers in Christ”. Many Christian men and women hold to the standard that women should watch what they wear so they do not invite men to lust after their bodies. My thoughts on this are immense, but do not pertain directly to the topic at hand; I bring this to attention only to explain the Christian sub-culture’s definition of modesty. This is also where I stipulate a break between the biblical worldview and the Christian culture.

Many Christians will reference the Song of Solomon as proof that a woman’s breast is intrinsically erotic and, thusly, must be concealed modestly to avoid temptation to lust for men. I read the entirety of the Song of Solomon in several different translations and in none of them is the breast singled out as the most erotic part of the beloved’s body. In fact, only in two sentences is the breast specified alone. In all the other instances the breast is spoken of in the same breath as the beloved’s waist, neck, temples, and teeth. I would like to make the argument that the breasts were not spoken of because they were “intrinsically erotic”, but because they were a defining aspect of a woman’s body; the lover wished to enjoy his beloved’s entire body because of his love for her, not only just fondle her breasts because he found them arousing. Here is a prime example of how the westernized Christian culture have allowed their own culture to shadow their understanding of what the Bible says. Because a woman’s breasts are sexualized in our culture, we sexualize them in the context of the Biblical passages that reference them.

While I do not disagree that a woman’s breasts can be enjoyed during the act of sex, I also very firmly believe that they were created as a part of the whole sexual experience, which includes childbirth and nourishing that child. Though most Christians would say they support breastfeeding, by contributing to the overall cultural stigma about breastfeeding in public and the equation that any view of the breast while breastfeeding is “immodest”, they have done a large disservice to new mothers who are now nervous and timid about using the God-designed, natural, best system for feeding and comforting their children. I believe the church should have been the main instigator in making breastfeeding a natural, normal thing, so it would have become that under the realization that this is something God made to work perfectly. Instead, the hippie movement took the concept of “free love” and freedom of their bodies to push for breastfeeding acceptance.

The concept of a woman’s breast being erotic in this culture is not going to go away. The gossip website I quoted earlier posted a photo advertising a new season for a popular reality show; on the poster the three women the show follows are shown wearing provocative lingerie, baring much more than just most of their breasts. Even though this site wished Ms. Gyllenhaal had covered herself while breastfeeding, they seemed very pleased at the state of the women in the poster. Because of this overarching view of the breast, women who breastfeed within this culture do need to be conscious of that fact. But Christians need to realize how much they are affecting the culture of family by their demands for modesty and refusal to make a breast viewed while nursing a natural and permissible thing. The immense benefits to the child, and truly to the family as a whole, that breastfeeding brings make it a nice place for Satan to quietly pull apart what God has made beautiful and perfect. The breast may be sexual, but we need to stop making it sexualized.

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Responses

  1. Good paper, Morgan. I’d like to hear your thoughts on modesty sometime as well.

    I’m just not sure if it’s practical to say that we should de-sexualize the breast when breastfeeding. I don’t know that Christian guys would handle it. I still get a little shy not using a cover but trying to be as modest as possible otherwise around male relatives (I caved for laziness’ sake), but definitely cover up when around non-relatives. The problem is that covers don’t stay in place with little wiggle babies…. And then I get complimented on my modesty in always using a cover to breastfeed by said male non-relatives, compared to women they had seen in public.

    I guess I don’t want to be an object of either sexualization or disapproval-as-immodest, and I’m afraid that’s what it would take to get nice young Christian men used to it when one is not their relative. Do you have any thoughts on that? I know I’m a lot more shy than you are. 😉 Have you yourself tried anything to change the opinions of males around you when breastfeeding?

  2. […] — flippyhippy @ 6:44 pm Tags: Breastfeeding, Christian Culture, Sexuality Having just posted my paper about the sexualization of breastfeeding, I thought I would do a follow-up post with more […]

  3. I think I’m in agreement with Alyssa. As a married woman, I’ve been somewhat bothered by photos of friends breastfeeding without coverage or women breastfeeding in public, if my husband is around/can see them. While it may be true that we should “desexualize” breastfeeding – reality is that our men (Christian and otherwise) have been raised in a culture in which it is not only overtly sexualized, but *constant*, in media, advertising, and walking down the street (as you mention). Breasts have been sexualized since long before they even started getting shown off as much as they are now. While you agree it’s not going to go away, you’re saying…we should just basically stop thinking of the breast as sexual? There are quite a few surveys that say around 50% of Christian men struggle with porn. And about 100% of men, even ones who don’t struggle with it, have to fight lust on about a daily basis. That’s severe evidence of not only a culture (and church) that has warped views of sexuality, but also should be a statement on how we (as women in the church) should try to be helpful in assisting our men in their hard work to remain pure in a jacked up world. I wouldn’t underestimate where men’s mind’s wander! The idols of sex and lust are much more prevalent in our church than any of us would like to admit, and much more prevalent than most women realize.

    I would also add it’s different in families. Obviously, I think breastfeeding is a good thing, and have every intention to when I have children. And I obviously have no issue breastfeeding in front of my husband. But I’m definitely not going to subject my (biological) brother to having to be around that, nor would I our friends or church members….not just for the sake of the men, but for the comfort level of their wives. (This is where it seemed you dropped off your argument – the “Christian subculture modesty” part – I’m assuming for space purposes. )

    As far as the Song of Solomon passage, while it never singles out the breast as *the*most erotic part of the body (which probably differs depending on who you are), but certainly seems to validate it as *an* erotic part of the body – and several commentators and pastors (CJ Mahaney and Driscoll, off the top of my head) have affirmed it’s use as a sexual part of the body. Additionally, even if your argument stands (that it isn’t “intrinsically erotic” in scripture), that argument doesn’t really support your argument as to whether or not the breast should or should not be sexualized, or speak to the context of today’s culture.

    I’m not sure what your closing argument is, either…is it that covering up while breastfeeding is harmful to the family? That it impedes bonding? Or just when in private? (I’m confused.)

    Also, I can’t say that I mind the breast as an erotic part of the body in the context of my marriage. (If I’m being honest!)

    (I hope it’s not coming across as an attack, I’m just giving you my first thoughts!)

  4. You may have answered some of my issues in your next post…I didn’t see it yet, I just followed the link! 🙂 Will go read…

  5. This paper was assigned as a general discussion. To be honest, my thoughts are still formulating, and I am hoping to use the back and forth of responses to this paper and my other posts to define what I am saying.

  6. Referring back to my post on your FB I wasn’t suggesting that mothers should have to hide their joy because of those who may be infertile, have had a recent miscarriage, etc. Nor is someone necessarily bitter because of these struggles; that is presumptuous. Neither did I mean to imply that guilt should be felt.
    Also, referencing the last paragraph of your paper where it mentions “Christians need to realize how much they are affecting the culture of family…”, I can’t help but feel that this is your ideal and not the ideals of Christians as a whole. Because of this statement you are implying that your opinion on breastfeeding and the sexualization thereof is the only stance to be taken on the subject. I don’t think the culture of family is affected just because a mother decides to cover up or leave the room while breastfeeding in public. I also don’t see how Satan can use the act of modesty while breastfeeding as a foothold. Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that the mother wouldn’t use a cover in the privacy of her home where she would indeed be promoting such a natural and permissible act? It seems to me the subject here seems to be more about modesty, or the lack thereof, where breastfeeding is concerned and not the sexualization of it.
    I know that for me specifically it comes down to what I want MY family to be subjected to; whether that be my husband or my future children. It’s the same as filtering what tv shows your children watch. I’m not by any means saying that breastfeeding is a negative influence, but I am saying that ONLY myself and my husband have the right to decide for ourselves and our family when, how, where, why, etc. those influences are made. Truthfully speaking the act of breastfeeding is no less God-designed or beautiful than sexual intercourse. But that doesn’t mean that you would want my husband and I to perform an intimate sexual act in a public place. Therefore, I believe that breastfeeding should be treated the way MOST people treat sex – with reverance for the connection between two beings but with a modesty and intimacy that no one else should be privy to.

    • In mentioning the topic to my husband, he reminded me of one of his favorite Biblical passages (at least as far as this is concerned!), Proverbs 5:18-19…

      “18 May your fountain be blessed,
      and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.

      19 A loving doe, a graceful deer—
      may her breasts satisfy you always,
      may you ever be captivated by her love.”

      It’s hard to argue that this passage is placing them alongside other “equal” body parts to the husband.

      I also cringed a little (maybe in your newer post), when you talked about God creating the body for “perfect” feeding, and your damning statements about women who might choose (at perhaps a doctors recommendation) to supplement their children’s feeding in order for them to be healthy:

      “Doctors tell women that they can’t produce enough milk for their babies and that they “must” supplement to help their babies thrive. And we let them. We let man decided science and man-made liquid tell women that they cannot provide for their children naturally, how they were created to do.”

      God IS perfect and he did create wonderful human bodies that do amazing things….but we also live in a fallen world. People get sick, and our bodies are constantly, literally, wasting away. My body malfunctions all the time! We get sick, things don’t work right, and sometimes that means science (which is also under the banner of “things in God’s control”) can and should step in to add assistance, as another means of God’s grace. Otherwise, there are literally children who would starve. (My friend’s triplets, for example. Her body in no way could feed triplet boys, ever.) Should we also say we shouldn’t go to the doctor (or a midwife) to have our babies, because our bodies are ALWAYS fine to have them naturally and perfectly? Do we let babies die who might otherwise live on simple medications because their bodies should work perfectly? Of course not. I promise you, if my (Christian, reformed Presbyterian) OB-GYN told me I needed to supplement my children’s feeding, I would do it in a heartbeat – because he simply knows my baby’s little innerworkings and some of even my own better than I do, and has a whole lot more education on it than I do. (It helps that I trust him and we share the same theology on such matters, though.

      Carrie had great things to add. Upon further reflection, I think we should also be careful not to speak where the Bible is silent. In the end, the Bible doesn’t speak to whether or not to cover up while feeding in public, or to what ends it may or may not negatively affect the family. It does, however speak to lust, the (proper, good) sexualization of the breast and other body parts, and how to love each other well. Once we move further than that, we start to tiptoe into legalism.

  7. Hi Morgan.. since I’m a mother of 7 and have breastfed them all I thought I would put my .02 in also. Correct me if I am wrong, but I understand your point to be that in Western Cultures vs some 3rd world cultures, the breast has been labeled a sexual object and thus needs to be hidden. Whereas in many tribal cultures it is not viewed as anything but part of the body that nourishes the babies. Neither world-view is right or wrong, good or bad.. they just are facts of different cultures. Perhaps the Western view was built on the fact that Christianity has its foundation there and the 3rd world cultures do not.

    I also am understanding your stance on the desire for more women to feel comfortable nursing but due to the taboo on any skin on the breast showing in public, some refrain from nursing at all.. am I correct?

    An interesting question would be “Do the 3rd world women, when introduced to Jesus and Christianity, continue to dress the same way or do they automatically begin to dress more modest.. .not necessarily Western wise?” Just a thought.

    For myself, because of the way I was raised, I have a certain comfort line of how much skin I feel ok about showing… whether it is with at home or at the beach. I feel far more comfortable wearing a 2 piece at the beach than I would at the store because it’s acceptable at the beach. In the same thought . concerning nursing- I feel its more acceptable to show skin while doing that than I would at the same situation if I wasn’t nursing. But I wouldn’t show more skin than I would feel comfortable showing at the beach. I don’t mind being sensitive to people around me, but I would not go so far as to not nurse my baby just because someone was uncomfortable around me. I’m loving my baby for goodness sake! I just do not totally understand the concept of ‘keep it behind closed doors’ as if it were a taboo thing in and of itself. Seeing that I am not showing more skin than I would at a beach– in fact I show extremely far less skin– and I do not believe I offend anyone at a beach with the type of bathing suits I would wear, I don’t see how nursing should offend anyone either. Granted, wiggly babies don’t like covers, after practicing a few times, I could nurse in the most crowded places without a cover and I would challenge that most people still would have no clue I was nursing rather than just snuggling with my baby. I was good! 😉

    My question for those who are insisting that they are concerned with modesty during nursing and are concerned with how it might affect men– do you also avoid going to beaches or public swim areas or anywhere for that matter during the summer months.. for the concern that the men might see more skin than what is modest and will have problems? I would guess the answer is ‘no’.. they would just avert their eyes or you would move to another area that the ‘view’ wasn’t a problem. You would not take a stance up against going to the beach at all, or avoiding public areas during warm season- you and the men in the situation would just learn how to ‘deal’ with the situation. How much more grace should be given to those who breastfeed and so need to nurse while out and about because it is dealing with a good action?

    Modesty is the key.. yes. Because that is what we are taught is important. And it is and I am very modest. But to embrace modesty to the point that a woman chooses to not breastfeed /solely/ on the basis that it might not be acceptable is sad at best.

  8. Julie….

    I don’t know if you were counting me in the “modesty” group, but my husband (both of us, if together) does actually avoid beaches and public swimming areas, simply because he knows that’s a temptation that he doesn’t need, and isn’t helpful for him. I think that’s a “wisdom” issue for individual guys – there are some, I’m sure, who can go to beaches and not have eyes drawn to the “wrong” places, or is good at avoiding them, but probably not that many, from what I’ve been told. It’s not too different from avoiding bars with my friends who struggle with alcohol. I don’t have that issue, but I’m happy to be helpful. By the same token I try to not wear clothing that would be unhelpful to men as well. There is responsibility to be held by both men and women there.

    I pretty much agree with everything else you said, generally speaking. I’m pretty modest, and I’m certainly not going to use that as an excuse to not breastfeed, and would also find it sad (and unacceptable) to use that as an excuse, largely because I think it’s possible to be both modest and breastfeed your child.


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