Breastfeeding is not obscene


'Breastfeeding' by Chris JohnstonBreasts 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

Beautiful! I agree with Catherine on this issue. I spent 12 years in Papua New Guinea, and in the early years of my mission stay, I was in a remote village. At the Sunday Mass, a young mother was doing the readings while her dutiful husband was looking after their many children, including a very young infant. The child grew restless and irritable. He was hungry. Being aware of the cause of the child's distress, James merely walked up to where his wife was sitting (having finished the first reading and now waiting for the psalm to be sung) and gently handed over the squirming little bundle. Whereupon, Suzie discretely lifted her blouse and snuggled the hungry child to her breast. Within a few minutes, she returned to the lecturn, as the child continued to suckle, to continue with the second reading. No-one thought anything of it - in fact I suspect myself and the New Zealand priest were the only two who even observed and smiled in approval.

Shame on the airline staff who reprimanded the nursing mother in flight.

Murray | 19 October 2009  

Well said.
As a person who takes great delight in the female form, I agree wholeheartedly with your assertions and exposure of our society's hypocrisy in this regard.Breasts, which are the most notable distinguishing characteristic of 'femaleness', are there to nourish the newborn which gives rise to their aesthetic appeal.

Noel Will | 19 October 2009  

Keep in mind that it was a Singapore Airlines plane, and in Singapore they're more prudish about nakedness generally than we are, so for them it's not a matter of double standards - sexualisation on the one hand and prudishness on the other.

Michael Grounds | 19 October 2009  

Well done Catherine, this is an excellent article. It's not breasts people are offended by, it's breasts that are not sexually objectified.

Recently, I've been disappointed to become aware that women of my daughter's generation (she's 28) are far less likely to breastfeed unashamedly in public than women of my own generation were (I'm 57).

Anna McCormack | 19 October 2009  

Bravo Catherine!
Every weekend we are assaulted with images in the 'society pages' of breasts falling out of evening dresses; no-one bats an eye,the dresses leave nothing to the imagination yet rarely are they attractive. A mother breastfeeding a child is one of the most beautiful images in the world; we need to encourage and celebrate breastfeeding and motherhood,a strong and cohesive society can be built from the loving bonds established in the earliest year of life. If we are loved and accepted, we will love and accept others and hopefully not feel the need to make ourselves acceptable by cosmetically augmenting our bodies or slavishly following media/fashion trends.Breastfeeding three children was a beautiful and empowering experience, I was sad when it finished.

Dada | 19 October 2009  

I work with in public health in southwest USA. We are using breastfeeding to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, which is epidemic among many population groups. In one of our communities, 80% (eighty) have diabetes by age 55. Amputations and renal dialysis are common. But there is new hope. Breastfeeding for 2 months or longer (Pettitt et al, 1997) has been shown to reduce risk by 40% or more (Young et al 2002).

Returning to the tradition of breastfeeding may be the single most realistic way that a mother and father can reduce their child's risk.

Thank you for this article. Those who read it will better understand the need to support and congratulate families who choose to nurse. A little "awesome mom (and dad)" will go a long way. Thank you again.

Sue Murphy | 19 October 2009  

Our church organist regularly breastfed her babies during the homily with the approval of the elderly parishioners sitting beside her. We can be sure that Mary breastfed her baby Jesus.

Rob Brian | 19 October 2009  

My lead soprano had to breastfeed whilst singing the top line of the Allegri "Miserere" at our old rite Tenebrae service a few years back. Mother and baby did fine. No-one batted an eyelid.

Hugh | 19 October 2009  

I have also breastfed my babies everywhere from church, school classrooms, trains, planes, parks etc... and I have never been made to feel that I am doing the wrong thing. I have always done it discreetly but never put a cloth or anything over my baby. The only person who ever offered a negative comment was more directed at the age of the baby rather than the fact that I was breastfeeding. Sometimes being confident about what you are doing makes those who would perhaps offer a comment back off. I would meet the gaze of anyone who I caught watching me and generally smile. If they were embarrassed they would look away, if they were approving they would smile back.

And to Michael, the recent incident was on a Tiger Airlines plane, domestic Australian. The mother asked the male next to her if he objected and he said not in the least.

Philipa Core | 19 October 2009  

Well said.

When I go to the large shopping centres I am amazed at the nearly complete revelation of young women's breasts.

I am afraid I find myself staring to see if all will be revealed as they bend and stretch, and bounce along.The girls are oblivious to my stares, and if the did see me would probably be quite insulted.

Then I see a young mother trying to feed her baby in a coffee shop, nearly suffocating the infant so as not to offend.

I have said to them..''don't be ashamed of feeding your baby.It is a very beautiful,just give the baby some air.''How ridiculous is this situation.

Perhaps those who find breast feeding in public, offensive, may need to ask the question...Why?

Bernie Introna | 20 October 2009  

What a great article! Pity it won't get wider press coverage.

Pauline Coll | 20 October 2009  

Nodding furiously! As a society it is incredible to me that we do not wake up to how ridiculous this situation is. Well done Catherine and the Jesuits for taking up the issue.

Katrina | 20 October 2009  

Thank you for your article, Catherine.

In Zambia, apparently, childbirth is also obscene (rather than poverty):

Olivia | 20 October 2009  

keeping 'abreast' of catherine's trenchant writing is becoming a ritual.

jennerator | 21 October 2009  

As a promoter of breastfeeding back in the 1970's I concur with all you have said and thank you for encouraging our sisters of today.

I will never forget my mixed emotions when as a young mum, feeding my first baby in front of my Dad. Never before had I exposed myself to him and felt uncomfortable. However his lovely smile and 'You're doing a great job there, Sweetheart' calmed me.

I went on to feed all of my nine babes for months, the longest was my twins until they were three. Discretion feeding twins simultaneously in public was a little more difficult, loose shirts helped out. Two small heads nestled in close drew compliments rather than scorn.

Since then I've been so proud of daughters carrying on the tradition and sons encouraging and supporting the mothers of my grandchildren, and I adoringly experience a secret joy in the God-given gift of breasts and their dual purpose. Their role in the foreplay which leads to conception is so good too.

Lynne | 23 October 2009  

Well stated article as well as the comments that follow. I was a donor at the Mother's milk bank of Ohio when breastfeeding both my children. I have also shared my breastmilk with a friend of mine...(pumped and frozen) when she was struggling herself with breastfeeding. I feel just as Salma felt with the natural instinct to "share". Its' not obscene, it's giving that infant/child the gift of a healthy life!

Lora | 24 October 2009  

Well said Catherine. As a man who is, undoubtedly, a "boob man" I have no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between my sexual attraction to a woman's breasts and my pure joy and delight to see an infant being breast fed - the most natural thing on earth and I am mystified why others (especially women) seem to confuse the two?

PS. I read the passage you mention from the Grapes of Wrath when I was about 14 and 40 years later the altruism and clear image from Steinbeck's description remains crystal clear in my mind.

Mike Harding | 28 October 2009  

I breastfed all three children on demand wherever I happened to be - on trains, in cafes, at board meetings, and regularly in Church. At my sister's wedding I was in the front row feeding the baby when she fell asleep at the breast. I was conscious that I could not discretely get up to receive communion, so at the end of the distribution of the eucharist the priest approached me in the pew!

I never apologised for breastfeeding and I am convinced that is why I was rarely challenged.

Thank you Catherine.

Cassie | 28 October 2009  

Some good points in your article Catherine however going the other extreme and not acknowledging the sexuality of the breasts (like in Africa) will ultimately diservice women and the emphasis will go elsewhere.
Its the overall sexual objectification of women's bodies that is the problem.
Breasts are vessels of nourishing and nurturing and THAT is a huge part of their erotic appeal and potential. To deny this is to deny woman her rightful sexuality just as in Africa the sexual focus goes to a woman's backside- and women are not encouraged to enjoy their sacred sexuality.

Its great to be 100% supported in breastfeeding but our sexuality should not be denied. Breastfeeding and the erotic breast can live quite happily together. The problem arises when people have the attitude of one or the other. The biggest problem is lack of respect for women as nurturer of life.

Angela | 30 October 2009  

Excellent article - you've hit the nail right on the head! Christine (Registered Nurse with Child and Family Health post-graduate qualification)

Christine Long | 22 December 2009  

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