In the mid-1990s, I traveled to Oslo, Norway, to attend an international midwifery conference. At the time, I was publishing Birth Gazette, a quarterly magazine for midwives that focused on issues related to birth and breastfeeding. Always looking for advertisers, I was especially interested in teaching materials from other countries that might be good to promote back at home. As I strolled through the enormous exhibition hall, I came across a booth featuring a new Norwegian-made video about breastfeeding titled Breast is Best. What initially caught my attention was its cover: On the right, against a black background, was the profile of a nude breast, and on the left, a red rosebud just beginning to open. The idea behind this juxtaposition was that both the rosebud and the nipple are beautiful and tender. Intrigued, I sat down to view the video and found it the best I had seen, for several reasons. The information was accurate and well presented, but what I enjoyed most was the program’s message that Norwegian women are able to nurse their babies without having to carry special clothing, shawls, giant bibs, or capes to cover themselves, as if they were doing something shameful that should be hidden. There they were, nursing their babies on crowded subways, in posh restaurants, in airport lounges, in parks—there seemed to be no restrictions at all on public breastfeeding.
Prior to my trip, over a period of fifteen years or so, women from all over the United States had been sending me news items about nursing mothers being told to leave cafés, restaurants, theaters, hotel lobbies, shopping malls, museums, and hotel or private membership swimming pools and to finish their feeding in the public toilet. (Babies are the only citizens of our country who can be sometimes required to eat in the bathroom—if their mothers can be bullied into going there.) To the business proprietors, managers, security police, and official personnel across the country who triggered these incidents, it didn’t matter—and still doesn’t, to many—that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had long recommended that all U.S. babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. It also didn’t matter that in 1981, in an effort to boost rates of breastfeeding worldwide, the WHO/UNICEF Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes was overwhelmingly approved by 118 countries in Geneva, Switzerland. What did count was that the United States was the only country in the world to vote against the WHO/UNICEF Code.
The WHO/UNICEF Code was a response to the millions of infant deaths worldwide that had ensued from substitute-milk companies’ aggressive marketing campaigns. An international standard rather than a law, the code was a document that recommended that member governments restrict the advertising and sales promotions of breast-milk substitutes as a “minimum requirement” to protecting infant health. (See Appendix C for The Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, one of the provisions of the code.) Voting for the code would not have restricted the availability or sale of breast-milk substitutes anywhere in the world. By voting for it, our country would have joined a worldwide effort to stop formula corporations from manipulating maternity-care services, which were promoting manufactured infant foods by sabotaging breastfeeding immediately following birth. By voting against the code, our federal government moved decisively to put the interests of the infant-formula corporations ahead of the health interests of mothers and babies in this country and the rest of the world. It may have been mere coincidence, but it was soon after the U.S. vote against the WHO/UNICEF Code that incidents involving harassment of nursing mothers began to be reported by local television stations and newspapers across the country.
If only one way of infant feeding is permitted to be shown on television, in the movies, and on social networking sites on the Internet, that way of feeding, in effect, becomes something like a monopoly. If women are made to feel anxious about their breasts or ashamed of them, breastfeeding becomes a less likely option for them. Needed information about this way of feeding is effectively blocked in the public media on the false basis of “modesty.” The choice for many is narrowed to which brand of infant formula to buy and what kind of bottle to put it in. Consider, for instance, how the symbol of the bottle has become the metaphor for infant feeding in the public media of cartoons, magazines, children’s books, and movies; there is little federal effort to counter the impression that bottle-feeding of artificial milks is better, more reliable, and more socially acceptable than breastfeeding for a human infant.
The pattern set at the federal level in 1981 has changed very little in the years since. The Department of Health and Human Services set a national goal for 2010 for half of all U.S. mothers to be still breastfeeding when their babies are six months old. At the time of this writing, less than twenty-nine percent are still breastfeeding at six months, while eighty percent of Norwegian babies are still getting their mothers’ milk at that time. The question arises: Why have a goal if there is no national strategy to reach it? It’s a sure recipe for frustration and backlash against breastfeeding when a government states goals for breastfeeding women but provides little information or legislative support to make such goals attainable.
Some people (there is no way to quantify how many) in our society apparently think that nursing mothers should never leave their homes with their babies until they are weaned. They obviously aren’t thinking about what it would be like to be a mother or a baby under these conditions. In the nineteenth century and earlier, it was customary for U.S. women to stay home most of the time when they had young babies; in fact, this period was even called “confinement.” Today, such isolation is close to impossible for anyone who isn’t already a hermit or who has other children. Mothers in some parts of the United States were and sometimes still are treated like naughty children, being banished to a public toilet stall if they insist on continuing their feeding—some are harassed even when they have done everything possible to occupy their “own space” while out and about. I remember, for instance, the Missouri mother who was ticketed for “indecent exposure” for nursing her baby in her car in a far corner of a shopping-mall parking lot in the 1980s. In another instance, in 2007, a Madison, Wisconsin, mother was feeding her young baby in her car in a mall parking lot when she was interrupted by a security guard tapping on her window, telling her, “You can’t do that here.”
In many European countries—Austria, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Iceland are examples where I’ve been recently—public spaces such as malls, department stores, airports, train stations, and museums provide attractive, comfortable places for nursing mothers and their babies to sit down for a feed. There is often a choice between a private place (where a woman might need to pump her milk) or an area that is designated for families with a nursing baby and older siblings (where breastfeeding is as acceptable as bottle-feeding). In the United States, on the other hand, it is far less likely for public places to take into account the needs of women who nurse their babies. I was recently in an airport in the nation’s capital, in which the designated “lactation room” offered only one hard bench, with no sink for washing hands and no place that would accommodate an older child. This room was separated by only a thin wall from the public toilet stalls with their constant flushing.
Although more U.S. women are nursing their babies during the first few weeks of life than a generation ago and progress has been made during that time (about half of the states have passed some sort of law meant to protect the rights of nursing mothers), harassment still does occur, most likely because states don’t yet have laws that penalize the act of harassing a nursing mother. Laws should provide for penalties when they are broken. It’s about time that our legislatures—state and federal—protect the needs of nursing mothers and their babies for a change.
One of the best-known U.S. writers on etiquette over the last quarter century, Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”), offered the opinion in one of her books that nursing mothers should never feed their babies in a room—even in their own homes—where other people are present. “The argument that it is a natural function carries no weight whatsoever,” she wrote. “Would you change the baby’s diaper on the dining-room table while people are eating? That’s also a natural function.” I would say that Miss Manners got the ends of the baby mixed up, not to mention the difference between food and feces. Despite all the information that’s available to literate people in breastfeeding books and on the Internet, she has never seen fit to retract her bent opinion that breastfeeding is in bad taste.
It’s possible that Miss Manners was helped to form her strong opinion on breastfeeding by a campaign begun in the early 1970s by a media prankster named Alan Abel. One of Abel’s earlier campaigns—his Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA)—had already gained widespread media exposure, as it lobbied for the passage of laws requiring all animals to wear clothing to cover their genitals (in order to wipe out the double standard between humans and animals regarding what was considered indecent). Abel argued his absurd case on The Tonight Show, the Today show, and even The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite before revealing that it was all a hoax. His campaign to make breastfeeding illegal by claiming that it was perverse, incestuous, and led to homosexuality and “oral fixations” such as smoking and drinking later in life was a similarly absurd attempt to spoof U.S. puritanical attitudes related to the body. It, too, received remarkable media coverage. The trouble was that, instead of laughter and disbelief, it provoked anger and indignation on the part of people who didn’t recognize it as an elaborate media hoax. Weirdly, Abel’s rhetoric, once adopted and popularized by Miss Manners, became common in the debates surrounding public breastfeeding, and things he said in jest are now put forward with all seriousness—sometimes even by women who have breastfed.
At any rate, there I was in Oslo in the mid-1990s, feeling quite fascinated with Norway’s accommodations for nursing mothers. I sat down to talk with Gudrun Stie, the producer of Breast is Best. She told me that in the early 1970s, Norway had rates of breastfeeding as low as those in the United States (about a fifth of women nursed their babies for the first few weeks, and hardly anyone continued through the first year) but now Norway led the world in rates of breastfeeding through babies’ first year of life. I wanted to understand how Norway had accomplished such a drastic social change so rapidly. It turns out that the United States had provided the initial inspiration through La Leche League’s book The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. A Norwegian woman who had read the book sometime during the late 1960s was so impressed to learn about the enormous health benefits of nursing that she contacted Norway’s health minister about what could be done to increase the number of Norwegian babies getting mother’s milk. At that time, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a family physician with a master’s degree in public health from Harvard (who had written her thesis on declining rates of breastfeeding), was working in Norway’s Directorate of Health. A little more than a decade later, Brundtland was elected Norway’s first woman prime minister and spent about a decade in that post during the 1980s and 1990s, later serving as director-general of the World Health Organization. During part of her time as prime minister, with eight women among her eighteen cabinet ministers and a sizable proportion of women in Parliament—Norway passed a law requiring that every hospital in the country be “Baby-Friendly.” That ended any marketing influence that infant-formula companies had formerly wielded in Norway’s hospitals. Rooming-in became the norm instead of the exception, and hospital staff were retrained in how to facilitate rather than sabotage (however unintentionally) the initiation of breastfeeding during mothers’ and babies’ stays in hospital.
It was impossible for me not to notice that the women’s movement in Norway during the 1960s and 1970s took a different, more inclusive course from that taken in the United States during the same period. The main goals of feminist leaders here focused on making it possible (and safer) for women to choose not to be mothers, expanding women’s access to higher education and jobs and professions that had previously been closed to them, giving women the means to combat sexual harassment and domestic violence, and creating access to political office. Norway’s feminists worked on all of these issues but on another vitally important area as well: They demanded legislation that would significantly benefit Norwegian mothers and babies. Paid maternity leave, on-site nursery care in the workplace, flexible schedules for working women, and parental benefits were all part of the legislative advances made in Norway during the 1960s and 1970s. Architects followed suit by designing shopping malls, airports, and other public areas with comfortable, attractive places for nursing women and their children to use.
Another part of my conversation with Gudrun Stie concerned the visual message of Breast is Best. With an undraped breast with nipple as the main design element on the video cover, she had discovered that distributors in some countries were stipulating that they must have permission to change the cover design to one that didn’t show a nipple or areola if they were to sell her product. Despite the potential setback this might mean for marketing her video, she refused to change the cover design, because she and her production team strongly believed that the cover conveyed an essential part of the program’s message. This was their argument: “If a country is going to get serious about increasing rates of breastfeeding, people are going to have to get used to seeing nipples sometimes.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Statue of mother with children in Vigeland’s Sculpture Park
On my return trip from Oslo, I was full of ideas about how to make life easier for nursing mothers and their babies back home. I began to understand that Norway’s success in resuscitating this primal feminine art had been possible not only because of bold action at the political and legislative level but also because Norway’s culture had been more able than ours to accept the presence of babies and their needs among us. Even though Norwegians during the 1970s, like North Americans, had had little chance to see nursing mothers for some decades, people there had somehow adapted to and accepted the sight and sounds of a mother nursing her baby wherever women might want or need to be. Too many North Americans hadn’t.
I had taken this first trip to Norway anticipating that modern-day Norwegians might remind me of the repressed people in Henrik Ibsen’s plays or the somber Norwegian American farmers I knew from my childhood in Iowa (especially the one who always slept in the barn rather than in the house with his wife and whose only entertainment, according to my parents, was going to girls’ basketball games and Norwegian funerals). What I found in Oslo was quite different from my expectations. In fact, modern-day Norwegians seemed to me far less repressed than many of the people back in the United States.
Flying home, I began to wonder how much the work of the amazing sculptor Gustav Vigeland had to do with Norway’s ability to successfully promote breastfeeding in everyday culture. My mind was full of vivid memories of the afternoon I had spent wandering around Vigeland’s Sculpture Park on the outskirts of Oslo. Vigeland worked for the last two decades of his life on this mammoth project, which occupies eighty acres and includes more than two hundred bronze or granite sculptures of nude people in all stages of life. The park was opened to the public in 1947, about four years after the sculptor’s death. Collected in thirty-six different groups, the sculptures have an emotional reality that is rare in this art form. Each is so expressive that it seems to be alive. There are neither drapes nor fig leaves, and there’s nothing coy about any of the figures—no hands shielding the breasts or crotch. The nudity is more matter-of-fact than defiant and certainly adds a dimension of vulnerability. Each sculpture conveys the feeling that the figures themselves don’t realize that they are nude, any more than a bear or horse would. Instead, they all seem to be alive and feeling some emotion that is strongly evoked in facial and bodily expression or a captured moment of powerful movement.
Mother playing “horsey” with children in Vigeland’s Sculpture Park
My feeling is that Vigeland created his immense project at least in part to show people how to relate in kindly ways to one another in whatever relationships occur between people of different ages and genders. Vigeland himself felt that the meaning of his work was so clear that even a child might understand it. The several children in the park on the day I was there appeared to have been there before, and they had their favorites. They climbed on laps or backs of some of the figures (as, I am sure, they were meant to).
Late in his life, Vigeland remarked, “West Norwegian Puritanism contains a vast fund of emotion. When it is turned in another direction, when it follows another course, then it has enormous power and can accomplish great things.”
Probably more than anything, I wished that such a park existed in the United States, because I felt sure that Vigeland’s sculptures were at least part of the reason that the portion of the Norwegian public that wasn’t used to public breastfeeding was able to accept the needs of nursing babies to eat wherever their mothers might be. It is likely that most every Norwegian adult during the 1970s and thereafter has spent several hours as a child playing among the groups of figures in the park. The healthy sexuality that is evident in Vigeland’s work has been called “the strongest blow that has ever been struck against pornography in art, because it represents the rational expression of sexuality.” Although this great artist is not very well known outside of Norway and isn’t generally to be found in art-history books, I found his Sculpture Park to be one of the most profound works I have ever had the privilege to see. I kept thinking of him as one who had the unusual gift of depicting emotion and human sensuality in a very pure and healing way. Could we in the United States permit an artist to do what he did in Oslo? How about in Minnesota?
Child playing on Vigeland sculpture
On that flight home, I began to think more deeply about the set of attitudes and behaviors that gets between babies and their food as a manifestation of a severe mental disorder that has taken hold and become widespread across the North American continent. In what species besides our own would adult males or females harass a mother in the act of nourishing her young? Such behavior would not occur to any other creature. What makes this behavior seem downright crazy to me is that even people who love the baby can be uncompassionate enough to disrupt dinner by being unpleasant to both mother and baby at a time when they are vulnerable. I’m thinking now of the IBM “Milk Mom,” who wrote in the delightful book Milk Memos of her visit to her mother-in-law’s Kansas home with her three-month-old nursing baby. On the first day of vacation, she sat in the living room, having a quiet nursing moment with him. Suddenly, Grandmother appeared and threw an old brown afghan over both of them (in a room that was already heated to seventy-five degrees). The baby cried and “yanked it down as fast as I could pull it up on my shoulder. And that was just day one!” wrote the mother.
The grandmother in this case surely loved her grandson but couldn’t stop herself from being unpleasant to him as he was eating. This wasn’t “Would you like a blanket, dear?” It was unilateral action without explanation or apology—a kind of punishment, really. I find this kind of behavior neurotic at best, but when it represents the norm for millions of people, I think we have reached the realm of near-psychosis—mass mental illness. If we humans watched adult birds diving and pecking at mother birds as they attempted to stuff worms and insects into the gaping beaks of their chicks, we would think we were watching a horror movie about birds gone mad. It is horrible to see adults behaving in an infantile way that doesn’t nurture the generations to come.
Recently, a nursing-mom blogger remarked on longtime media personality Barbara Walters’s comment on a popular women’s morning television show that she had been made uncomfortable and “very nervous” on a flight from London because a woman in a seat across the aisle had nursed her baby, and “she didn’t cover the baby with a blanket.” Mind you: This was first-class seating—Barbara Walters doesn’t fly economy. What did she expect the baby to eat and what did she expect the mother to do about her overfull breasts?
For the blogger, the real issue had less to do with the comfort of fellow passengers and more to do with the baby: “As a nursing mother, my take on the situation is fairly personal. I’m offended at the unaccountable offense. When I nurse my child, I do so for her. Her comfort and hunger are the first priority. The next priority is my comfort while carrying out the task. The last thing I worry about, or should worry about, is someone attempting to sexualize (which is where the squeamishness comes from) the tool I use to feed my child.
“Additionally, the ignorance about how important nursing on airplanes is for the child is unexpected from a woman reportedly as intelligent as Walters. When it comes to protecting my child’s eardrums from rupturing, or even discomfort, my child is always going to come first. (When she wouldn’t nurse on the plane when we visited my folks at Christmas, the result was a 102.5 temperature and a trip to the emergency room.)”
U.S. squeamishness about breasts being used for their biological purpose dates back at least to the Civil War period. People who were enthralled by what seemed to them a new scientific approach to life and the promise of technology invented ways to feed babies without having direct contact with their mothers’ breasts. Some of the contraptions were bottle-holding devices that would allow a mother to prop her hungry baby, who would then drink from a rubber nipple and tube leading to the bottle while the mother did something else. In 1910, an “anti-embarrassment device”—a leather bra with heavy metal buckles, a rubber nipple, and long tubing that was to be worn by nursing mothers when they had to be in public—was granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office. The ad for this bizarre creation showed a drawing of a woman wearing the device (which was drawn in loving detail, in contrast with the dotted lines suggesting her form and that of the baby) while holding a baby sprawled on her lap. A long tube led from the rubber or leather circle that covered her nipples to the rubber nipple that the baby was meant to suck.
Breastfeeding photo that was deemed “obscene” by Walmart
No one knows how many people actually used the “nursing attachment,” as it was called, but public-health nurses around that time found it necessary to issue warnings to mothers that feeding devices that used any kind of rubber tubes were “baby killers,” because they were impossible to keep clean. “Cut the tube open, smell it, and see!” one poster warned. The people who promoted and bought such devices accepted the belief that babies need nothing beyond the bare physical necessities of food, sleep, warmth, and protection against illness.
The same bent imagination that led an inventor to create the “anti-embarrassment device” seems to have invaded the photo-printing departments of some U.S. chain stores. Andie Wyrick, a young Texas mother, dropped off some photos for developing at a Walmart store in 2006. When she returned to pick them up, she found all but one in the envelope. In place of the missing photo, she found a piece of paper that said, “Walmart has found one or more of your photographs to be of an inappropriate and/or obscene nature.” The photo in question was of her three-month-old daughter happily gaping to receive her mother’s breast.
Andie: How could someone find a normal, natural, and beautiful photograph obscene? I wrestled with the urge to question Walmart and finally decided it was important to follow through. I talked to associates inside and outside of the photo department, both female and male. I spoke to employees and managers galore. I even talked to the ethics line but was told they could only help employees. Communication consisted of emails and phone calls. Initially, no one had answers. I got robotic apologies such as, “We’re so sorry for your frustration, but it’s our policy and it’s up to each employee.” Once they even asked, “Does it show your nipple and that colored areola thing?” They said skin is okay, but nipples are blatant. I would say, “Okay, is there any way I can get that policy in writing, so I can read it?” This is when I found out that a policy didn’t actually exist. They told me as they were getting backed into the corner that it was “just known—the same way it’s known that you can’t slap a customer in the face.” My persistence, although annoying to Walmart, ended with an understanding, at least at the location that I frequent. They had a storewide meeting about my photograph and the rules of developing “obscene” pictures. They concluded that breastfeeding photographs should not be grouped with pictures deemed obscene and inappropriate like those of a sexual nature, penetration, child pornography, and blatant nudity any longer. I couldn’t believe my nursing infant was ever classified with child pornography or sex. How could someone see that photo through those kinds of eyes? My innocent baby captured while eating caused all this commotion. It’s hard to continue what you know is right and perfect for your child when the world gives you such a battle.
A popular parenting magazine, BabyTalk, ran a cover in the summer of 2006 featuring a photo of a nursing baby. This particular issue focused especially on breastfeeding. All that was visible was a smiling baby’s face and the side view of her mother’s breast (with no nipple showing). A flood of letters poured in—more than had come in response to any other article in the magazine’s history. The editors polled their readers, and more than a quarter of them called the photo “inappropriate.” A sampling of their comments included the following, which tellingly reveal the angst and confusion that surrounds many women’s attitudes toward women’s bodies:
· “I was SHOCKED to see a giant breast on the cover of your magazine.”
· “I immediately turned the magazine facedown.”
· “I shredded it,” said a Texas woman. “A breast is a breast—it’s a sexual thing. My thirteen-year-old son didn’t need to see that.”
· “I don’t want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn’t want to see.”
According to BabyTalk’s editor, Susan Kane, “There’s a huge puritanical streak in Americans, 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! Mostly, they are trying to be discreet.”
Facebook, the popular social-networking site, came down on the side of extreme puritanism in 2008 when it banned its members from putting breastfeeding photos into their profiles. Within a few days, more than 100,000 members had signed a petition titled “Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!”
People who are uncomfortable with breastfeeding don’t realize that when breasts can’t be seen performing their intended function, people reach the absurd condition of not knowing what the intended function is. Could any species other than the human have an external organ and not know what it was for?
Truly, we are talking about a kind of cultural madness. Here we are taught to think of the British as the most puritanical culture possible regarding female nudity, but our standards are far more restrictive than the Brits’. It’s possible, for instance, for a British book cover to feature a visual joke like that featured on Alison Blenkinsop’s book Fit to Bust, published in 2008 in the U.K.
Fit to Bust cover
When she asked me if it would be possible to publish a U.S. edition of her book, I had to tell her that it probably wouldn’t—at least, not with that cover. Having seen for myself that it is possible for adult humans to behave rationally and kindly to mothers and babies (my community and Norway are just two examples of many that can be found around the world), I’m urging us to find a cure for what ails U.S. society in this regard. The title of Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s short novel seems apropos: Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.
There is a long, rich history in Christian art of depicting the madonna as a lactating mother. The genre is called “Maria Lactans” by art historians (Latin for “Mary lactating”). The first known work in this genre was finished in approximately 250 A.D., and artists continued to reimagine this theme over the next fifteen centuries. I have never seen a painting of baby Jesus being bottle-fed, although I wouldn’t be surprised if one has been created by this time. If someone did fashion such a work, many in my country might find nothing historically wrong with it. What I suspect would surprise most people in my country is that in the many paintings and sculptures of Mary nursing
“Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph and the Infant Baptist” by Federico Barocci required no drapes over the Madonna’s breast to qualify as a sacred painting.
Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio’s “The Virgin and Child” depicts the sacred relationship for an altarpiece. Many paintings of this kind feature the Child as a large toddler.
Jesus, the artists never considered it disrespectful to Jesus or Mary to show her breast and nipple. Sometimes these paintings depict a baby Jesus who is temporarily distracted by the sight of another child, so Mary’s breast is left exposed as she tries to entice him to finish the feeding.
Is there a copy of a Maria Lactans in any church in the United States? Apart from one such work of art venerated at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida, and perhaps some old churches in New Mexico (my husband remembers seeing one in Santa Fe), I know of no other.
I found an interesting discussion on the subject of whether or not a breastfeeding mother should attend a worship service on the website of Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems, an African American preacher-theologian who has a popular and well-written blog (www.somethingwithin.com). A woman who clearly prides herself on her willingness to buck church authority and poke holes in religious orthodoxy, she found herself questioning her own iconoclasm in November 2007, when this subject came up. It seems that during Rev. Weems’s sermon, an usher went over and told a young mother with a baby at her breast that such behavior wasn’t allowed in a church with this particular congregation, which was largely African American. The embarrassed mother gathered up her things and her squalling baby as they were ushered out of the “sanctuary.” By the time the baby was done nursing, the sermon was over and it was offering time. Rev. Weems went on to lead a discussion of how to reconcile strong women’s views on gender equality, gender discrimination, sexually degrading images of black women in the media, and violence against women with the message to this young mother that she wasn’t welcome in church. One woman wrote: “The idea of a child learning from infancy to associate the comfort of Mom with the comfort of God (being fed during the sermon) seems ideal to me. Would not The Breasted One want such an association?” (The Breasted One is a translation of the divine name El Shaddai, Rev. Weems instructed her readers.) Another woman, a preacher herself, responded this way: “Prior to having a child I would have been much more conscious of where, when and in front of whom I would whip out my breast. However, in light of the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn (at least from my perspective), I have become more lax and when my baby girl cries, I don’t care who’s around to see. My brother-in-law has even become more familiar with me than he ever thought he would. As one who still gets a little nervous because of the embarrassment that might occur at the sound of my wailing baby, I find no harm in tending to her needs in public, including church. I must admit, I am a bit clumsy with those nursing covers that don’t quite cover when you’re a healthy well-endowed woman, if you know what I mean. They always seem to get in the way and make my baby sweat something awful. Recently, when I was preaching, a friend of mine whipped out her breast and began to feed her son. Yes, she was covered. I thought it was phenomenal that she was able to do such so unassumingly. Indeed, I think the church has some learning to do in this area. Indeed, we have become too westernized with many of our preferences. I agree that much of this is centered around our thoughts about the black female body. Will we never escape the gaze even from our own sisters? When our fore-mothers nursed entire communities, do you think they did so in shame? In some ways, asking women to cover perpetuates the shame that often accompanies black women’s feelings about their bodies.”
Feelings of shame and revulsion are foreign in many cultures, if not in our own. An old gentleman who lived at The Farm until his death a few years ago told me a great story about an incident he remembered from his life in Belgium before World War II.
“When I lived in Antwerp, I used to follow crowds to the zoo. In my opinion, these people knew how to relax and enjoy themselves. After you had viewed all the animals and marveled at all the beautiful flowers, you would go to the beer garden and order sandwiches and beer. All day long, there would be bands. It was the perfect way to spend a day. One day while I was listening to the music, a baby started to cry, cry, cry. It was disturbing the music, until quite a bunch of people started to clap their hands in time with the music. They all started to yell, ‘Titah! Titah! Titah!’ The young mother started to laugh and began to nurse her child. Then she got a big hand for quieting the baby. I noticed that in Europe, no one gets excited when a woman nurses her child.” Quite possibly, the lack of excitement about public nursing in Europe, compared with North America, has much to do with the tradition of Maria Lactans.
Here’s my question: Is it possible that a major art gallery in New York City or Washington, D.C., could have a show of the many works showing baby Jesus breastfeeding? Maybe there should be a traveling show. Would this help cure North Americans of their breast fetish disorder? I suspect that it might help.
Naming the Disease
Since I hardly hold the power or position to arrange for portraits of baby Jesus nursing to be viewed by people of all ages in this vast country, I have to think of other ways to approach the problem of helping the people of my country to outgrow their madness. It occurs to me that the first step is to convince them that they do suffer from a mental disorder.
How can we discuss this public-health problem intelligently, let alone treat it, if it isn’t named? I suggest that we call this mental disorder a phobia. Since this particular phobia focuses on nipples, we should probably just call it “nipplephobia.” Somehow, that makes me feel better already.
Definition: irrational fear, fascination, attraction, repulsion, guilt, and confusion provoked by seeing an adult female nipple (or even the illusion that one is seeing one). Janet Jackson’s famous “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004 caused a major television network to be fined a half million dollars by the Federal Communications Commission because, during a song-and-dance number, her male partner grabbed a flap on her leather jacket, supposedly exposing her nipple. Curious about the incident, which I hadn’t witnessed live, I went to the Internet and found out that it wasn’t really her nipple that was exposed but rather an elaborate piece of jewelry—a kind of sunburst—that was fixed to her pierced nipple. The incident dominated the news in this country for several days, while people in the rest of the world wondered what was wrong with us.
Most people in the United States have been taught by direct advertising campaigns to believe that the only ways to treat illnesses are with pharmaceutical drugs or with surgery. Happily, nipplephobia can be successfully treated without such drastic, expensive, and potentially risky means. All that is needed is visual-stimulus overload. Translation: Sufferers need to see more adult female nipples in a context that is not specifically sexual. When they reach overload, the symptoms of discomfort subside and normal life continues. Nipplephobes suffer from not having seen enough nipples during infancy and childhood. The frustration that results from this causes the reconceptualization of the breast as purely an organ of sexual attraction. In order to maintain this concept in full force, babies must not be seen near breasts, no matter how much they need them. The people who buy into this notion, whether male or female, tend to be upset and confused by the idea that the primary function of the breasts is for nurturing the young. At the same time, they tend to be unaware of the cost of this attitude to the babies who are denied the breast. For them, breasts are sexual organs and nothing else. As a counterpoint to this formulation, it is interesting to note that there are other cultures in which the view of breasts as sexual equipment would be seen as bizarre.
A male friend of mine, who had a chance to live in the Sinai Desert with a group of Bedouins during the 1960s, described the following experience.
“The Bedouins are a proud people who show a lot of love and respect for one another. They have a strong set of values and traditions. One tradition says that women must keep their faces veiled. This was different from anything I had ever lived around before, but what really had an effect on me was the time when one of these Bedouin women raised her robes, exposing her breasts to me as she fed her baby. She acted as if everything was perfectly all right. It was only I who was taken by surprise. I realized that in cultures in which women breastfeed their babies, everyone in that culture grows up seeing breasts being used as they are meant to be. They have a natural attitude toward them. It’s only in cultures like ours, where you almost never see a woman breastfeeding, that breasts become the object for something else, usually something to lust after.”
Muslim cultures value breastfeeding too highly to restrict babies’ access to mothers’ breasts.
What my friend realized from this experience was the degree to which his own culture had created a concept of the female breast as fetish—in the psychiatric sense that a body part (or piece of clothing) sometimes becomes imbued with the power to arouse erotic feelings. Among the Bedouin, every part of a woman has this significance except for her breasts and, possibly, her hands! No wonder my friend was confused at first.
My friend’s observation is corroborated by a Canadian woman of French Algerian ancestry, who wrote the following:
Farah: This is the account of my grandmother’s culture shock the first time she visited Algeria. She is a French woman who married an Arab man, my grandpa.
What most struck her on that first visit to a Muslim country was the dress of the women. In Algeria, they robe themselves in long veils to guard their modesty, leaving only their eyes, hands, and feet exposed.
On a train ride between two cities, she saw such a woman wrapped in white drapes, except that one of those drapes was pulled up, thus allowing her breasts to be exposed, to the great satisfaction of a baby suckling from them.
In my grandmother’s homeland, France, the opposite was true: Women showed their hair, their faces, their arms, and their legs without any embarrassments, but they never exposed their breasts—especially not their nipples—not even for the sake of a baby.
Though modesty of wear is compulsory in Islam, breastfeeding is also a religious obligation. It is even stated in the Holy Koran: Mothers shall suckle their children for two whole years; (that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling term (Chapter 2, Verse 233).
I know that visual-stimulus overload is the single most effective way to deal with nipplephobia, since that is how we dealt with this situation within The Farm community. It would have been unthinkable for anyone to tell a nursing mother to get out of their sight in our community, no matter how much nipple she showed before her baby latched on. If we nursing mothers made anyone uncomfortable, theywere the ones who had to get over it. The best part was that they did. What men learned when they visited or joined our community (many had obviously never been around nursing mothers before) was that while it was okay to look, it was not all right to stare. At the same time, though, honesty requires me to report that just before I mailed this manuscript to my publisher, I learned that for the first time in the history of The Farm, a nursing mother was told (in this case, by a young lifeguard who, ironically, had himself been nursed at this swimming hole as an infant) that she would need to cover her baby with a towel if she was going to continue to nurse. She refused, and the young man quickly learned that the women in our community weren’t willing to change to a more restrictive standard than that which had prevailed for decades. Nevertheless, this incident illustrates how contagious nipplephobia can be, since it can even affect those who weren’t deprived of nursing as infants.
People who are nipplephobic need to realize that the burden is upon them to deal with their disease. They are just going to have to look at babies nursing and deal with whatever sexual images or feelings of jealousy or disgust come to mind when they see this happening. Buddhists know how to do this. Record the phenomena, but don’t get hung up over whatever weird thoughts may come up. These will pass, like the thoughts that went before them. Gradually one gets better, and these weird thoughts will fade away. Laughter, of course, helps.
Dealing with Nipplephobia as a Nursing Mother
Those who intend to feed their babies nature’s prescribed food will naturally want to know how they can navigate in a society whose medical experts extol the virtues of breastfeeding but whose social mores make little or no room for the act that accomplishes it. First, don’t assume that you will meet with criticism if you choose to feed your baby the way nature intended wherever you happen to be. Even though you may have encountered several news stories of women who were asked to leave public places because they were feeding their babies, it’s important to remember that most people will not harass you when you go out in public with your nursing baby. Yes, you may notice that people look at you longer than usual when they notice your baby is at your breast, but at least half of these people will probably approve of what you are doing. Some of them may even tell you so.
When you are going out into public for the first time with your nursing baby and feel nervous about it, consider taking a friend along with you. You might just have a positive experience something like the women whose stories are told below.
Faith: I was very modest and concerned about reaction to public breastfeeding with my first child—so much so that I would routinely pump breast milk and bring bottles to any outings in public so as not to be put in the position of having to breastfeed her in public. I had carefully learned all the “comfortable” bathrooms (ones with couches and lounges) and the stores that had lactation rooms or nursing rooms.
When my daughter was six months old, we were having dinner at a chain restaurant near my home with extended family in for a visit. I had already fed my daughter (who was not on solids yet) the entiresupply of bottled breast milk I had with me, and she was still looking to nurse. I knew the bathrooms were single-stall not-very-clean toilets and therefore not an option. After trying to settle her down for a few minutes, I finally reconciled myself to the fact I would need to somehow discreetly nurse her in public, in the middle of a busy Friday-night dinner rush in a suburban restaurant. I opened my blouse and nursing bra and placed a napkin over my breast and child (who was now fussing and starting to cry). She was having trouble latching on and fussing even more, when all of a sudden, in one swift move, she grabbed the napkin, threw it off both of us, pulled off my breast, and let out this loud, angry scream.
Here I was, in the middle of this restaurant, breast fully exposed and everyone turning to look at me. And somehow, no one gawked or pointed or said anything negative—or anything at all. They just turned back to their conversations, my daughter latched on and nursed comfortably, and I never was uncomfortable again.
Melinda: As I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the mall, alone, breastfeeding my infant daughter, two young men (probably sixteen to eighteen years old) strutted toward me in their loose, baggy jeans and T-shirts. I was very afraid of what they were going to say to me. I almost felt as if I wanted to get up and leave as they approached, being pretty sure they were going to harass me. As they came closer, one of them smiled and said to the other, as he pointed, “Hey, man, she’s breastfeeding. That’s so cool!”
I could sense that he really meant it, and a sense of relief washed over me. I also felt a release of a stereotype I had held about teenage males. What a positive experience for both of us!
Colleen: When Trudy, my first baby, was about six weeks old, my husband’s grandfather came to visit. He is a history professor in his early nineties and had made the trip halfway across the country to visit. I was a new mom and didn’t know much about what I was doing, but I held Trudy in my arms or a sling most of the time (except when she was being passed around the relatives) and nursed her whenever and wherever she wanted. At one point, toward the end of his stay, I got a little nervous when I saw Christopher turn toward me as I was feeding Trudy. He said, “You know, I have to tell you, it is so beautiful to see you hold her and feed her like that.” Such a lovely and welcome surprise!
This also happened a few times in public with strangers—usually older women would be looking at us nursing. I’d start to feel nervous, but eventually they would come over and commend me for doing the right thing for my child. I am grateful to those people.
When you do face criticism, know that you don’t need to take it. You are not doing anything wrong, so you should not let anyone make you feel otherwise. Here are stories from two mothers who came up with different ways of dealing with criticism they received for nursing in public:
Natasha: I always feel like I’m doing people a favor when I nurse in public, because that’s better than everyone having to listen to my baby crying. Crying is a very distressing sound for most people.
Our recent Florida vacation was cut short, so we decided to pamper ourselves the last two days by staying at the Hilton in Orlando. I was at the pool with my five-month-old daughter, Penny, and my five-year-old son. I had hired a babysitter to hold Penny while she was sleeping. When she woke up after a long nap, of course she wanted to nurse, so I sat down and started nursing her, as I continued to watch my son swim. After a few minutes had passed, a bartender approached me and said that it was hotel policy that I should cover Penny up with a towel. Now, this was a really hot day, and we were already in the shade. There was no way that we could be comfortable doing that.
I said that I absolutely would not do that. I had intended to bring my copy of Mothering magazine that contained an article about the legal status of nursing in public, in each of the states, but in my haste I had brought the wrong copy. However, I was pretty sure that there must be some federal legal protection covering such a situation, so I told her that I had the federally protected right to breastfeed wherever I happened to be. I said that it would be fine with me if she would like her manager to come out to talk to me. I continued feeding Penny, but I felt upset at being harassed, as we had come there to be pampered and I had already nursed in various parts of this hotel several times during our stay.
When I finished nursing, I found that I was still bothered about having been harassed, especially since the manager apparently hadn’t had the nerve to come and talk to me. I went to talk to the concierge and told her about my experience. She apologized profusely and then gave me her email address so that I could send her the law that I had mentioned.
I went up to my room and started getting upset about this again. I realized that I didn’t have any confidence that the concierge would relay the problem I had to a level where something would be done about it. I realized that she had tried to appease me and, furthermore, that she had given me a task to do. I picked up Penny (who wanted to nurse again) and went down once more, and said, “I think the only way I am going to feel better about this situation is if I have an apology from the bartender who spoke with me and from her manager who sent her to do this.”
“Okay, I’ll go get them,” she said. “Please wait.”
Penny and I waited in the lobby for another ten minutes or so, with her nursing all the while. The manager then approached and apologized, and I shared with them how difficult it is for women to nurse their babies because of harassment like that and that this kind of rudeness keeps many women from nursing at all. She defended the action by saying that some woman had complained, saying she hadn’t wanted her children to see anyone nursing.
“That’s the stupidest reason that can possibly be given,” I said. “Children need to see babies nursing. Next time, you should inform the complainer that the nursing mother is doing the best thing possible for her baby and that if you don’t want your children to see it, you can move to another place.”
This second incident happened to my friend Lisa Goldstein. Her first baby, Moses, was a few weeks old when Lisa and her husband stopped at a small North Carolina café for breakfast. An older couple sat in a nearby booth, each having a cup of coffee. When Moses woke and got ready to start crying, Lisa unbuttoned her shirt to bring him to her left breast. Just then, she heard the man in the booth begin grumbling to his wife how disgusting this was. Almost without thinking, Lisa freed her right breast and turned slightly, just as her milk was letting down. A stream of milk arched from her breast through the air, landing dead center in the man’s coffee cup. He immediately rose and stormed out of the café, followed by his wife, who turned to Lisa and her husband and gave them a triumphant thumbs-up. There is probably no nursing mother who has been harassed who wouldn’t have loved to do that.