Feeding a baby involves nipples. Either artificial ones made from I-hope-they-are-not-toxic chemicals, or the real thing. As in a woman’s nipples.
Sadly, it’s the real thing that makes many people uncomfortable. Facebook has dubbed “obscene” and removed unknown numbers of breastfeeding images. And while over 234,000 have protested these actions, even companies focused on healthy, nontoxic living showcase 100% of a latex nipple attached to a bottle, while nowhere show even 1% of a real, living nipple feeding a baby the way humans are meant to.
As a culture with a breastfeeding deficit, perhaps the majority does not understand that when a baby latches onto a breast, some fraction of the areola is almost certainly going to show. This could be why publishers unknowingly hinder the normalization of breastfeeding with rules specifying how much of a nursing breast can appear in an image, excluding, “any part of the nipple.” Yet, rules like this effectively prevent people from passing on the healthy knowledge of what a normal latched infant looks like. In addition, they keep breastfeeding on the periphery of acceptable social behaviors: “Breast is best, BUT don’t let me see your nipples!”
As a breastfeeding mom, I try to be discreet feeding my babies (as do all the mothers I know). Yet, if someone is looking directly at my baby latched to my breast, he/she will see some part of the areola, classified as “part of the nipple.” And while nature designed the nipple to look like a bullseye so babies could catch it, for most of our culture it marks a very different spot.
This is a spot that makes the new mother, perhaps not a particularly outgoing mother, perhaps one that feels a bit self-conscious anyway, feel very nervous feeding her baby where others can see. How many times has society’s refusal to celebrate and normalize images of healthfully latched babies contributed to a mother giving up, uncomfortable feeding her baby anywhere but her home?
To alleviate this discomfort, now for sale are the increasingly common boob burkas designed to hide the nursing baby and breast from public. Perhaps they help some mothers feel safer nursing in public, but these “aids” also help seal the secret, increase the mystery of the nursing babe. Is it possible that one day, nursing will only be allowed in private breastfeeding rooms unless you don the Hooter Hider? Maybe we should ask the women in Afghanistan – I wonder if they foresaw the current requisite attire for women in their country.
One might argue, “but things are getting so much better.” “Everyone is stressing the importance of Breast is Best.” And even, “The breastfeeding militia is forcing the breast on everyone!” But look European paintings from the 1200’s-1800’s that include women breastfeeding – you can even see Virgin Mary’s nipple! These were times when women were clad from head to toe in clothing, yet they popped out their breast to feed their babies. And the painters sharing this history had no qualms about what fraction of the nipple was exposed.
It had to start somewhere, this forced covering of a woman’s body. Women in Afghanistan wear burkas to hide their entire body. Conversely, but equally sexually, Americans highlight the flat chests of 4-year-olds with pink triangle bikinis. We feature cleavage in woman’s worksuit attire. So hail the plastic nursing nipple, for it allows us to claim the woman’s body for one exclusive purpose: sexual arousal. We can almost forget that Mother Nature intended her breast to nourish. Almost, but not quite because the plastic nipple still holds that pesky shape, which looks remarkably…nipple-like.
When a woman’s body becomes more about sex than anything else, it limits what a woman can do. It becomes something she uses to attract and please others, something others want to control. I grew up on the Southern California coast, playing my socially acceptable role as a bikini-clad teen shrieking down the beach on episodes of Baywatch. After years of encouraging my own objectification, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the empowerment I’ve experienced using my body for nourishment as a mother. And while this might not be everyone’s experience, why do we allow society to dictate but one singular purpose for all of our female bodies? When a woman is empowered to use her own body to nourish her children, it puts her in charge. Does this scare people?
Each of us can do our part to make the nursing mother feel safe and confident feeding her baby by normalizing images of breastfeeding. Or, we can hide the nursing mother, heightening the mystery and even shame associated with her nursing breasts. It strikes me that we as a culture might need to address our obsession with breasts as purely sexual “objects” to make reasonable progress. What do you think?
Hilary Stamper has spent the last nine years focused on environmental advocacy. With the birth of her first child, she also began advocacating for birthing and breastfeeding mothers, attempting to help them feel empowered by their birth experiences and build confidence as new parents. Now living in Half Moon Bay, CA with her husband and two homebirthed children ages 2 and 5, Hilary spends the majority of her time focused on green parenting and connecting children with nature.
by Hilary Stamper