Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog
mmo Commentary

Show Some Mommy Skin

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Who knew showing a photograph of a breast amongst the breastfeeding set could cause such controversy? Babytalk, a free magazine read almost entirely by mothers of babies, published a photograph that revealed part of a woman's breast in profile while breastfeeding on its August cover. In a poll of more than 4,000 readers, a quarter of the responses to the cover were negative. The magazine received over 700 letters about the cover, far more than it has for any article in years.

Some of the words used by readers -- a reasonable portion themselves breastfeeding mothers -- "inappropriate," "sexual," and "gross."

Various news outlets, including the Associated Press, picked up the magazine cover debate story. For that article, Babytalk's editor, Susan Kane, was interviewed. Her take: the uproar over the cover reflects the larger debate about breastfeeding in public. "'There's a huge Puritanical streak in Americans,' she said, 'and there's a squeamishness about seeing a body part -- even part of a body part. It's not like women are whipping them out with tassels on them,' she added. 'Mostly, they are trying to be discreet.'"

Given certain infamous wardrobe malfunctions over the past few years, it's hard to attribute these strong reactions to our country's Puritanical streak. Setting that comment aside, though, what's interesting about this particular fracas is that we are currently in an extremely pro-breastfeeding time. The public health consensus is that breast really is best, so much so that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently concluded a two-year breastfeeding awareness campaign. Their message wasn't simply a plea to consider breastfeeding. One television commercial equated not breastfeeding with a pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull: aggressively reckless. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin suggested putting warning labels akin to those on cigarette packages on infant formula. As recently as this past year, the state of Massachusetts banned hospitals from including free infant formula in new mother gift bags, because opponents to that practice believe it swayed some women from breastfeeding.

Over the last few years, laws have been secured to guarantee women the right to breastfeed in public places. And "lactavists" -- those who advocate for a woman's right to nurse wherever she needs to -- have staged protests when store employees deny a woman that right. For example, there have been "nurse-ins" at a Starbucks in Miami, and outside ABC headquarters in New York after Barbara Walters made disparaging comments about women breastfeeding in public on her woman's chat-fest program "The View." At the same time, as witnessed not only by reaction to the Babytalk cover, but also a 2004 report by the American Dietetic Association in which only 43 percent of 3,719 respondents said women should have the right to breast-feed in public places, there's one potential take home message: breast may be best only in private.

Many people aren't histrionic over breastfeeding in public. Many of us -- I've nursed three children for two years or more -- think breastfeeding is exactly that: feeding your child from your breast. My personal experience is that breastfeeding is not a sexual act, nor do I deliberately "flash" my breast in public for purposes of titillation whatsoever. And most of us don't see harried or tired or comforting parents as particularly provocative or sexy.

While off the cuff, I don't see this as a lightning rod issue I'm also unsurprised by the strong responses. Ours isn't a prudish time: magazine covers, little girls' bikinis, the marketing of sex in countless ways make me feel sure the discomfort of the exposed maternal breast isn't about a Puritanical citizenry. What I do believe is that in this era when so much about real sex (and its potential consequences) is being relegated to banned behavior -- from constraints on access to abortion or contraception, to the abstinence-only sex education policies placed upon schools and the US welfare department, to making gay marriage illegal -- a glimpse of breast threatens to remind us that we are sexual beings.

A commonplace part of family life like breastfeeding should not be shrouded in secrecy such that we can't feed our children or, for that matter, talk about the differences between something sexualized and a physical reality that involves a breast, called -- wow -- breastfeeding. But when people try to control sexuality as we are doing, we find that both repression -- fear of breastfeeding mothers or gay couples raising children -- and objectification -- Internet porn to MTV's programming -- are apt to be more extreme. The conversations we need to have aren't about whether a woman's exposed-by-nursing breast is gross, but about how we make real decisions about our real -- sexual and physical and social and familial -- lives.

mmo : august 2006

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a former reproductive rights organizer and turned free-lance writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is a regular contributor to the MMO.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online