The Impact on Breastfeeding
By Neilia Sherman
Why do some women feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public? In my city, there was public outcry when a young woman challenged a law against female toplessness … and won. It has been enough to make any nursing mother uneasy.
Breast “appreciation” has become a North American pastime.
Breasts are sexualized in our collective psyche but, realistically, any part of the body can by sexual. Many cultures force women to cover their hair, as this attribute is seen as enticing to men. We have been making decisions about women’s bodies based on concerns that men cannot practice self-control. This mentality relieves men of any responsibility for their behavior. Do breasts cause ogling? Does nudity cause sexual assault? No. These unfortunate situations occur regardless of women’s state of dress.
Bathing suits and under things have grown skimpier by the decade, leaving little to the imagination. In fact, I saw a woman wearing a thong, face down in a park the other day; that struck me as just as—if not more—sexual than a naked breast. Strip-clubs, porn magazines, X-rated movies and wet T-shirt contests are examples of legal practices dedicated to the sexualizing of breasts.
The concern about children seeing nude breasts seems to be rampant, that is, if you believe what you hear on talk radio. How quickly our young ones go from seeing Mommy’s breast as a milk bar to seeing them as taboo sexual objects. Flat-chested girls are wearing tiny bikini tops. I remember riding my bike as a child, shirt undone, enjoying the feel of the wind. I looked no different than my brother. It didn’t take long until I was exhorted to “Cover up!” I learned that day that girls weren’t allowed to do what boys did. It didn’t make sense, but I learned to be ashamed.
Breast “appreciation” has become a North American pastime. Getting to second base is a rite of manhood. Yet, if breasts weren’t forced into unnatural positions and shapes, if they weren’t surgically implanted, uplifted and re-done, would they be as exciting as fantasy breasts? One would think that once the novelty wore off, they would be accepted as normal.
There seems to be a fear that real, “imperfect” breasts will ruin the carefully preserved illusion that breasts are sex objects. Yet, male toplessness is not viewed as sexual. Even though their chests and nipples can be erogenous and exciting to some women. And here’s the “rub”: If a man with a nice chest walks around uncovered, he puffs it out with pride. No one worries about women gazing at men. Topless females are seen as sleazy, whereas topless males exude machismo.
Men with imperfect bodies are easily forgiven. Flabby or skinny, hairy or hairless, it’s all taken in stride. But think about the comments made about women! Our natural bodies seem to be repugnant. We know what men want to see: airbrushed photos, push-up bras, see-through negligees, flattering bathing suits—toplessness on their terms.
Bare breasts are of grave concern to the officials at our recreational facilities. Every time I open a newspaper, another new plan attempts to handle the impending “breast crisis.” First they toyed with dividing beaches into “family areas” and “adult areas.” Thus, a bare-breasted mother feeding her child could be banished to the “adult area.” Well, breastfeeding seems like a family activity to me. Nothing feels more maternal then feeding your child from your own body. (I breastfeed my 17-month-old, and when my 8-year-old boy has friends over, I do it very casually and not one has ever commented or stared.) Other ideas bandied about at my city’s pools include a topless hour or allowing women to remove their tops outside but not inside, as if breasts are less offensive outdoors than they are indoors.
It is also strange that cleavage is admired but nipples are seen as indecent. Male nipples are not seen as offensive. Why is it that those who have an actual use for their nipples aren’t supposed to show them, whereas the half of the human race for whom these protuberances have become vestigial organs are allowed to do so at will?
Bras, bathing suits and even plastic surgery tend to hide the reality of breasts, which come in all sizes, shapes that are not always symmetrical, and have a perkiness quotient that is inversely proportionate to the age of the owner and the number of children she has borne. We tend to forget the indisputable truth: that they are merely mammary glands – fatty tissue with milk ducts designed to feed babies.
The current policy here is to have staff pass on complaints to women as they arise. If the woman in question refuses to cover up, then the person who complained will be told that toplessness is not against the law in this country, although it will be pointed out that the option of calling the police remains. Finally an “incident report” will be filled out.
We can no longer have it both ways. Men and women’s chests are now fundamentally equal. We’ve all seen flat-chested women, and men whose chests look like bosoms. We allow our sons to read National Geographic instead of Playboy precisely because other cultures show breasts naturally. Our culture seems afraid to lose that objectification. Those who like to stare will continue to do so regardless of the degree of undress. But if we challenge these preconceived notions as one brave women in Ontario did, hopefully, there will come a day when baring breasts in public will be a non-issue, and the sight of breastfeeding mothers everywhere will become the norm.