Best of 2009: Breastfeeding is not obscene


'Breastfeeding' by Chris JohnstonFirst published October 2009

Breasts are everywhere these days. They saturate our media in guises both trivial and sombre. Whether grotesquely augmented, stricken with cancer or tumbling unbidden from the frocks of soccer wives, breasts guarantee rapt attention and ongoing debate.

But never are these appendages more hotly debated than when they are being used according to their very purpose and design — that is, for the nourishment of babies.

Although the west's growing technological sophistication is inversely proportionate to its tolerance for organic activities such as breastfeeding, the negative attitudes are hardly new. History is littered with wet nurses to whom this distasteful activity was outsourced and modern mothers who dispensed with the biological process altogether in favour of Nestle's magical infant formula.

Buoyed by groups like the World Health Organisation, breastfeeding is creeping back into the public square, but western newborns still enter a world riven with dissent over their right to a ready meal.

It was refreshing to see the lactating Mexican actress and UNICEF ambassador Salma Hayek instinctively suckle a malnourished Sierra Leonean baby while visiting that country earlier this year. Hayek told reporters it was a compassionate act for a dying child, and that it came naturally to her to reach out to this baby when her own milk supply was plentiful. It was also an attempt to diminish the stigma of breastfeeding.

Not since Rose of Sharon breastfed a dying man in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath had breasts been used to commit such a revolutionary act. This Hollywood sex symbol wasn't just sharing her milk with a stranger's baby; she was doing so under the full public gaze.

How could it possibly be, then, that just last month in culturally diverse and thoroughly modern Australia a mother was asked by a flight attendant to conceal her breastfeeding activity from the puritanical eyes of fellow travellers? And that as recently as 2007 the NSW state government was forced to pass legislation making it illegal to discriminate against women breastfeeding in public?

Opinions around this issue are violently split between the supporters who believe babies should be allowed to feed wherever they please and the detractors who accuse nursing mothers of indecent exposure.

Could this really be happening in the same laissez-faire society where, not long before Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister, he was praised as being 'red-blooded' for visiting a New York strip club? Where young women flaunt their cleavages on city streets and semi-naked models stare out from the covers of men's magazines in service stations and news agencies across the country? Where prostitutes advertise their ware on the classified pages of suburban family newspapers?

Or, to put it more bluntly: is female nakedness culturally acceptable only when it is aimed exclusively at the arousal and satisfaction of men?

The reaction from some quarters to the Salma Hayek story seems to reinforce this hypothesis. As a presenter on the American talk show The Young Turks remarked, 'I wanted to be turned on by her breasts, but in that context I just couldn't do it.'

Of course, the reverse is true in traditional societies, where women tend to dress conservatively and the natural function of breasts is well-respected. In the many years I breastfed my own children, it never occurred to me that I might offend anyone. The fact that I lived in Africa contributed, no doubt, to the ease with which I was able to conduct this ritual.

In Africa breasts exist primarily as vessels of nourishment rather than as sexual objects. Women breastfeed their children on trains, buses and taxis, in restaurants and on park benches, in church and at work. Mostly they do so discreetly, but it's hardly newsworthy when they don't.

Using these African mamas as role models, I fed my babies on demand, regardless of where we happened to be at the time. The only person to object was a friend's mother, who believed vehemently that breasts were for sex, not babies. As if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.

And herein, perhaps, lies the absurd conundrum facing Australian women, who live in a strangely dichotomous society which tolerates them lying topless on the beach but chokes on its collective latte when they expose their nursing bras. In its typically prurient way, Western culture has co-opted breasts and sexualised them so thoroughly that their basic function is no longer accommodated.

This primordial act, upon which every other mammal relies for survival, has been twisted from its nurturing premise into an act of awful obscenity.

Sadly, society's fixation on the 'perversion' of public breastfeeding obscures the inordinate benefits that flow from it: breast milk improves infants' health and intellectual outcomes and decreases their carbon footprints; its production results in elevated levels of oxytocin within the nursing mother's brain, contributing to her emotional equilibrium, and decreases her risk of developing ovarian and breast cancer.

Almost a decade into the new century, it's a disgrace that women are still made to feel uncomfortable while using their breasts to nourish their babies. Breastfeeding is neither primitive nor obscene; it is an act of love and generosity, a forward-thinking deposit into society's depleted bank account.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a South African journalist now living in Sydney. She works for Jesuit Communications.


Topic tags: catherine marshall, breastfeeding, nourishment, obsene, salma hayek, sierra leone



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article - I am an oldie, mother of 8 who were breastfed in the 50 - 60s in the open, at footie matches, at concerts, my milk bottles were there for the little one whenever. It works - the baby knows when it wants a suck - I breastfed until the baby was 12 - 15 months - the human body is not dirty, obscene - a child's body is beautiful as a picture, a photo. Pornography is something very different - let us be free to enjoy our humanness.

margaret o'reilly | 11 January 2010  

Well written, Catherine Marshall! I find the notion that females are "only" for suckling babies or "only" for sexual arousal utterly offensive -- the sad legacy of cultural prudery and prurience (combined with economic and ideological dogmatism). The nutritional value of breast milk is very clearly known; and the conspicuous appearance of female breasts in human beings is a reliable sign of their other function, sexual attraction. There is nothing wrong in finding breasts alluring; and certainly nothing wrong with breast feeding.

Nigel Sinnott | 11 January 2010  

Hi Catherine - great article.

anna Orchard | 11 January 2010  

'But never are these appendages more hotly debated than when they are being used according to their very purpose and design — that is, for the nourishment of babies.'

Hi Catherine

Maybe some dairy companies were behind all these craps!

Or maybe those people got trouble when they watch porn films!

Whatever behind that culture of not-to-breast-feed-baby-in-public, I think the mindset has been changed and would be difficult to go back to the old norm. Porn-culture is everywhere, and that might make people see breast-feeding sort of emotional action.

So breast-feeding should get along with modern view.

Actually, you don't have to breast-feed in public. Or if that is necessary, then there should be some flexible ideas, design, lifestyle etc for this. If some councils come up with ideas for public areas for breast-feeding - then vote for them.

AZURE | 11 January 2010  

I agree entirely with everything you've said. When I had my own children in the seventies I breast fed my first one in private as I was not made to feel confortable in public, but when I had my second one I decided that the child was more important than anyone and breastfed in public when necessary discretly placing a hankerchief above the breast to avoid stares. Rather sad when this act should be the most beautiful in the world.

Maria Prestinenzi | 12 January 2010  

Thanks Catherine for this terrific article. Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding all demonstrate true beauty and power of women's bodies. I am in awe of Selma's heroism and compassion.

Jenny Redwood | 15 January 2010  

Hi Catherine,

I fully agree and wholeheartedly support the principle argument in your article that women should not be made feel uncomfortable breast feeding in public. I also fully agree with your arguments both in favour of breast feeding as a wonderful way (the best if a mother is able) to feed a baby, and against the sexualisation of breasts to the exclusion of their basic function.

But could I please ask for a more nuanced argument than simply connecting opposition to public breast feeding with the attitude that female nakedness must be aimed exclusively at the arousal and satisfaction of men.

There are many reasons given by opponents of public breast feeding. I don’t think that any of the arguments of those opponents are sound, but their arguments need to be deconstructed and destroyed one by one.

Implying that “the arousal and satisfaction of men” is at the heart of the opposition to public breast feeding, simply lets many opponents of public breast feeding (including some women) off the hook. It jumbles important but only partially related arguments together and thereby confuses the issue. Even if it does make for a punchy article.

The notion that female nakedness must be aimed exclusively at the arousal and satisfaction of men is so abhorrent and warped that it deserves its own separate condemnation. But the key assertion is contained in the words “must be aimed exclusively at the arousal and satisfaction of men”. I’m not sure that this statement describes a widely held attitude in our society.

On the other hand I’m sure that the sexualisation of everything in our society has damaged our ability to deal with natural things in an easy and unaffected way. It’s made it so much harder to distinguish between the sexual and the sensual. It has made it harder us to enjoy the natural beauty of the naked body and to appreciate the natural beauty of a mother suckling her child.

This issue of the sexualisation of everything in our society is highly problematic for us, but I don’t think that you can reduce it to an argument that the cause of opposition to public breast feeding is the attitude that female nakedness must be aimed exclusively at the arousal and satisfaction of men.

Vince Bain | 15 January 2010  

This is such a wonderful piece of writing - what a wonderful woman and mother Catherine must be. As a Breastfeeding Counsellor with the Breastfeeding Association I see first hand the social guilt that plagues new mothers and erodes their confidence to nurture their babies.

Mchelle McCarthy | 15 January 2010  

Someone will always be outraged, but the key I believe is discretion, tact & modesty [out of fashion virtues!]...of late we have seen some women publicly put on a breast feeding display where it may offend..and the same goes for cleavages down to the ankles! Sense is not common anymore.

Penny | 30 January 2010  

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