On Thursday (July 27, 2006) CNN.com published an article titled “Lactivists: Where is it OK to breastfeed?”
that covered public reactions to the recent Babytalk magazine cover featuring a close-up of a breastfeeding
baby. The photograph consists primarily of the latched-on child’s face while the mother’s breast is partially visible (side-view, no nipple).
Though the title asks the question ‘Where is it OK to breastfeed?’ it really focuses on the perceived social acceptance of public breastfeeding within mainstream America. From the article one would get the impression that, celebrity breastfeeding bra-watching aside, there is a general lack of support for women to breastfeed in public. Yet a closer look seems to suggest that this may be the result of how the issue is being presented.
For example, the article emphasizes the fact that this particular issue of Babytalk received over 700 letters in response, and goes on to quote some of the negative comments they included. It does not say, however, how many of those 700+ responses were negative, and how many may have actually expressed delight or support for the image. In the same vein, CNN reports that the majority of the free magazine’s audience is mothers, and that “in a poll of more than 4,000 readers, a quarter of responses to the cover were negative”. Notice how a simple switch of that statement creates a different impression: “in a poll of more than 4,000 readers, 75% of the responses to the cover were positive or neutral”. Sounds like a different audience, doesn’t it?
The article contains the usual comments of ‘breasts are sexual’, and of women wanting their husbands and sons to be shielded from these inappropriate sightings of breasts. Even though one woman is quoted as supporting the cover because “it helps educate people that breasts are more than sex objects”, her support is quickly neutralized by her admission that she does not breastfeed in public and her statement that “Men are very visual...when they see a woman's breast, they see a breast -- regardless of what it's being used for."
This last statement is problematic on many levels. One, it assumes that men’s reactions to breasts are somehow biological and not cultural, an idea that can be quickly discarded by noting that there are many cultures where breasts are not strictly defined as sexual (a fact that can be ascertained by a quick stroll through any European beach). It is also demeaning to men, as it reduces them to visual creatures that are unable to control their sexual reactions to women. And not least, it assumes that breasts are
just sex objects, and that by education we mean only that people should refrain from publicly reacting to them. Why insist on such limited perspectives and expectations?
In fact, there’s no discussion of the problematic way in which our culture unnecessarily sexualizes young girls and teaches them to feel shame before they have even reached sexual maturity. Do infants and small children really need two-piece bathing suits? Why cover the chest of a baby or little girl who has nothing yet to cover? By doing so, we highlight a future sexuality that has not even manifested itself, and we teach both girls and boys that our bodies are, primarily, sexual and consequently subject to public shame.
One final aspect of this article, and of the breastfeeding debate in general, is that it doesn’t consider what types of positive messages public breastfeeding may send to girls. In a country where distorted media images of female beauty have succeeded in creating countless health and self-esteem issues for women and particularly girls, it seems that an acceptance of public breastfeeding would provide a good antidote –to both boys and girls- to the notion that women’s bodies are mainly sexualized objects to be gazed at by others. A woman breastfeeding her child is a reminder of the multiple capacities of a woman’s body, and of the fact that all bodies are vehicles for many experiences, of which sex is just one. As the last quote in the article states, breastfeeding is
a moment between a mother and her child, and precisely because of that it should be an intrinsic, normal part of our social fabric, and not one to be relegated to bathrooms or kept behind closed doors.