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Breasts, Body Image, & Sexuality Features
Updated August 2015
Lisa Hassan Scott, Wales, UK
Photo: Mama Linnea & Scarlett Rose courtesy of Destiny Tillery Photography

 

The idea that others need to be protected from breastfeeding, that it is somehow an act of aggression for a mother to feed her baby says more about our society than it does about the gentleness of communication, nurturing and dependence that is at the heart of the nursing relationship.

“We must—we must—we must increase our bust!” These words rang through my head when my daughter picked up and asked to read my tattered old copy of Judy Blume’s 1970 classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Eleven-year-old Margaret Simon and her new friends form a club and chant this mantra together as they pump their arms like wings, hoping that it will help them grow breasts to fill their new training bras. Margaret, desperate to fit in, later prays, “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me to grow God. You know where …” [i]

Although it was many years ago, I can remember how I too hoped that my body would develop normally and at pace with my peers. I was a late bloomer, and the other girls, the popular girls, seemed to have such different bodies compared to my boy-like rake of a figure. I wondered when and whether my breasts would develop, whether they would be the right size, what it would be like to wear a bra.

When I came across my aunt cleaning her breast pump, I can recall asking with revulsion, “Why on earth would you want to pump your breasts?” She smiled knowingly and said, “Just wait. You’ll see.” Growing up, never once did I consider what breasts are for, that I—like other mammals—would one day nourish my babies at my breasts and that my relationship with my body would be wholly different once I became a mother.

Breasts & sexuality

I am not alone. Growing up in Western society, it would be nigh on impossible for any young girl to fail to absorb the message that breasts are first and foremost sexual objects. Commerce, the media and the soft-porn industry ensure that we get the message: breasts should be presented in a particular way (no hint of a nipple showing either visually or in silhouette, preferably in a push-up or padded bra). Half-naked women are okay in magazines and on billboards, but fully revealed breasts are only acceptable in pornography, page 3 of some British tabloids, and on African ‘tribeswomen’ featured in the pages of National Geographic. Breasts must be pert, full, and high. Sex sells, and breasts equal sex. Women’s breasts can be used to sell “newspapers, cars and peanuts.” [ii]

According to Gabrielle Palmer, “Our era is the first in recorded history where the breast has become a public fetish for male sexual stimulation, while its primary function has diminished on a vast scale.” Katherine Dettwyler says the perfect analogy is the now-defunct practice of Chinese foot-binding. [iii] Western culture has such a contradictory and often ridiculous relationship with breasts that it’s no wonder that many people are confused about breastfeeding.

The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action points out that “When feeding bottles are used in public for fear of public exposure of breasts, or when women’s reasons for choosing bottle-feeding include fears that breastfeeding will alter the shape of their breasts, then women are being treated as sex objects.

Women’s fears about exposing their breast are more than confirmed when North American women are arrested or asked to leave public places for breastfeeding openly.” [iv]

Palmer agrees that a mother may feel embarrassed about breastfeeding if others appear to disapprove, giggle or feel disgusted. Others may show disapproval of breastfeeding because they equate breasts with genitalia: breasts are for pleasuring one’s partner, personal, to be kept hidden away… unless there are peanuts to be sold, it seems. The unfortunate consequence is that mothers feel embarrassed about feeding their babies and using their breasts for their intended purpose. As one mother said to me, “I chose not to breastfeed my baby because I didn’t want to have to go upstairs every time she needed to be fed.”

In Western culture, many mothers worry that breastfeeding will give them “saggy boobs.” This old wives’ tale has now been negated by research [v], which has shown that the main factors that contribute to breast ptosis are: age, history of significant (>50 lb) weight loss, higher body mass index, larger bra cup size, number of pregnancies and smoking history.

On the other hand, factors that do NOT contribute to breast ptosis include: breastfeeding and lack of participation in regular upper body exercise. The important issue here is that many people continue to believe that breastfeeding creates saggy breasts, and because saggy breasts are not the ideal, breastfeeding is compromised. Few stop to consider that less pert breasts might be a normal bodily change in a woman’s life. Never mind that all other mammals nurse their young; never mind that it is the norm for our species. Society demands that breasts must appear young and nubile, and as in so many cases in our society it is the babies who lose out.

When a mother’s intention to breastfeed is sabotaged by a society intent on appropriating women’s breasts for marketing purposes, women lose out too. When a shop assistant stops a mother from nursing her baby in a store, that assistant is denying the mother and baby an essential human right. He or she is also contributing to the received wisdom that a mother’s breasts are somehow lewd, and that the act of feeding a baby is lascivious. The assistant might say that he is only trying to protect the mother’s privacy. But surely it is the mother’s choice to decide where and how she feeds her baby?

As Palmer so concisely states, “Breasts are sexually stimulating, but so are legs, lips and the nape of the neck… In societies where there is no shame about breastfeeding, the ordinary man is not driven into a frenzy by the sight of a female breast, but he may be embarrassed or aroused by a woman wearing shorts….” [vi] Would the same shop assistant ask the mother to wear long trousers to “protect her privacy”? The shop assistant might then claim that he is protecting other customers from having to observe the mother feeding her baby. Those customers have probably walked past numerous newspapers and magazines with women on the front exposing their breasts for marketing or entertainment; they may have stopped briefly in front of a row of television sets featuring bikini-clad gyrating women in a music video; perhaps they just finished having a lunch at a restaurant where their waitress exposes her breasts. It doesn’t take long to realize that breasts are everywhere, and most people simply accept this fact—except when a baby is hungry.

The idea that others need to be protected from breastfeeding, that it is somehow an act of aggression for a mother to feed her baby says more about our society than it does about the gentleness of communication, nurturing and dependence that is at the heart of the nursing relationship.

As a pre-teen, like Margaret Simon in Are you there God?, I worried about having a body that would be acceptable to others. But as a mother, my relationship with my own breasts and my body has changed. Directly following her birth, my first child nursed at my breast and I felt surprised and overwhelmed by how right it seemed. Until then I had thought that my breasts were more about looking ‘right’ and giving sensual pleasure to my husband. I hadn’t considered that they might also give wholesome pleasure to my baby, and that I too would enjoy the soft feeling of my baby’s cheek on my skin, the relaxing rush of oxytocin as it coursed through me and the closeness of this small and dependent person.

Over time, I considered my own deeply held views about the purpose of my breasts: were they to please others? Are they here to nourish my babies? Do they have many purposes? I realized that my breasts are perfect just the way they are, that my baby doesn’t mind how they look. I began to identify myself as a mammalian mother, a woman with instincts, and an unbelievable power to satiate an infant. I saw that in this beautiful, tender act of mothering my baby at the breast I am saying that I refuse to allow society to appropriate my body to sell its wares.

As my aunt, bent over her breast pump all those years ago rightly predicted, I have waited, and I have seen.


References
[i] Blume, J. (1970) Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Dell, New York, New York.

[ii] Palmer, G. (2009) The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business. Pinter & Martin, London.

[iii] Ibid.

Stuart-Macadam, P. and Dettwyler, K. (1995) Breastfeeding. Biocultural Perspectives. Beauty and The Breast: The Cultural Context of Breastfeeding in the United States. Aldine De Gruyter, New York ;177.

[iv] Van Esterik, P. Activity Sheet 4: Breastfeeding: A Feminist Issue, WABA.

[v] B Rinker, Veneracion, M. & Walsh, P. Breast ptosis causes and cure, Annals of Plastic Surgery, 2012 May; 64(5): 579-484.

[vi] Palmer, op. cit.

Resource

Body Image of Mothers

Lisa Hassan Scott is an LLL Leader living in South Wales with her husband Keith, two daughters, and their son. She is a frequent contributor to Breastfeeding Today and writes a parenting blog.

 


Comments

  1. Susan Burger Says: August 6, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    I heard Kathrine Dettwyler talk about the parallel between Chinese foot binding and Wester attitudes towards the breast at an International Lactation Consultation Association meeting prior to the 2009 publication you site. Did the author cite Kathrine Dettwyler? In which case you should cite the original source, not the author who cited her? Or did the author claim this as her own idea?

  2. I don’t mind if Gabrielle Palmer did or did not cite my 1995 chapter “Beauty and the Breast” in which I first drew the parallel between breast augmentation surgery and Chinese foot-binding (available on my web site). It’s nice to be cited, but Gabrielle Palmer and Lisa Hassan Scott, like me, are all working for the betterment of women and children’s health, and few people today are going to be reading either my 1995 book chapter or Palmer’s 2009 book, alas. More power to Scott for reminding people what breasts are for. Lisa — do you know my daughter Miranda, who lives in Cardiff??

  3. Barbara Higham Says: August 6, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    I have a copy of “Biocultural Perspectives,” on my shelf right here, Kathy! We can amend the citation.

  4. Barbara Higham Says: August 6, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Done!

  5. Thank you to Susan and Kathy for commenting. Unfortunately I am travelling away from home and am unable to check Palmer’s book. As I writer I know how important correct citation is, so Kathy I apologise for my oversight. Thank you Barbara for amending the citation.

    As you say Kathy, we are all batting for the same side, so thank you for your generosity of spirit and your understanding. And yes, Miranda is a great friend 🙂

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