Google+ Authentic Parenting: The Shameful Breast (rerun)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Shameful Breast (rerun)

I have been thinking long and hard about how people can be offended by breastfeeding. It is often said that it is a direct result of sexualization, that it generated out of everything becoming sexual, which leaves no room for a baby to feed on the oh so sexual breast.

But I fear we might have it wrong.

I got to thinking about Cameroon. Cameroonian women might just be the most sexual human beings on this planet. Seriously. But that is a topic for another post, because that might get long winded and completely beside the point.
In general, Africans are very much in tune with their sexuality. To us prude Europeans, they might even seem a little obsessed (but that is just us trying to impose our religiously inspired worldview on them). They have a lot of sex, with a multitude of partners, from a young age and they don't stick to close to marital or relational fidelity.
Yet, in these countries, where women at age 13 have sexual relationships - where this is tolerated and they might even get pregnant and have a baby and nobody bats an eye - you cannot drive a mile without seeing at least one women breastfeed her child - up to the age of two -  alongside the road. Nobody stops and stares. Nobody feels the need to yell at her, or tell her to go and hide somewhere.

These offended reactions Westerners - Americans - have about breastfeeding, they are not a result of everything being sexual. They are a result of suppressed sexuality. Of parents telling their teens to keep it for a special occasion, of people attaching so much importance to sex that it is placed on a pedestal. Sex is something so secretive, so exclusive, so coveted, that anything that bares any relation to it must be too.
Since the entire human body is involved in the sexual (and then I won't even start about the mind in this equation), this poses a problem however (burqa anyone?).  You must bare in mind that we are in fact recovering from a culture where the female body was covered in a way that is not so dissimilar to the burqa. Not 100 years ago, the ankle was quite the sexy body part.
People obsess about what is hidden, what is secret, what is outside of the eye's reach.

That's why sex sells. That's why so many magazine covers are borderline Hustler. But that is all surreel, they are mere images. They are enhanced and airbrushed. They are the fringe and the borderline accepted gateway to the hidden sexuality of the human body in our culture.
But a live, real, breathing woman with an exposed breast and - oh my - a baby attached to it, that's not imaginary any more.

In a culture where some people have never ever seen a naked breast apart from their own, or their wives' (hidden under the covers with the lights dimmed), or plastic/paper enhanced versions, being confronted with a live sample might be shocking indeed.

Image: WinterWolf



  1. That is a very interesting thought... I've also been thinking about why, exactly, people around me are so uncomfortable with using breasts for their functional-- not decorative-- purpose. I would propose that it's more a result of America's Puritanical history colliding with the power of the almighty dollar. Our society has evolved from one where ankles were sexy, but now, thanks to the fact that sex sells everything from bras to beer, I cannot imagine any American child who hasn't seen a sexualized breast before puberty. There is a confusing dichotomy of messages, so I feel it's up to us, the lactivist, best-for-babies, nursing mothers, to educate gently and by example.

  2. I completely agree that religion, or religious traditions, are a huge influence, yet I cannot judge this since I am unfamiliar with America's religious culture
    And you are right, we must put us out there, try to be visible so it does not become something obscure and secretive, to the further detriment of breastfeeding

  3. I am so moving to Africa!!! OK not anytime soon but I know I would be comfortable there!!

  4. i see what you mean about the religion thing, though i dont think it is necessarily a bad thing, just different... but (well, in christianity and the Bible anyway) breasts arent specifically connected with sex. so im thinking that breasts being viewed sexually stems from elsewhere, outside of the boundaries of religion, and now im intrigued to find out where!

  5. Now, strangely, I find my religious friends the most open about breastfeeding. I breastfeed in the pew at my church which is a Southern Baptist Christian church. After all - Jesus was breastfed.

    I think a big part is formula. I was breastfed and I am totally comfortable breastfeeding because I was taught it was normal. I have friends who were formula fed and view breastfeeding as something strange.

    How do we get society to start accepting breastfeeding breasts as the norm? By breastfeeding our children, promoting others to breastfeed, etc. We have to get rid of the other "option" of formula except in emergency situations.

  6. Whitney, I totally agree that formula is a huge part as it has given an option to do anything else - that shouldn't exist in situations other than emergencies.

    I do think that religion does play a part in how breastfeeding and specifically sexuality is viewed. Catholics tend to have more liberal perceptions than Protestants. And for Muslims breastfeeding is even more accepted than in countries with a Catholic tradition.

    But indeed it is not just one factor, it is numerous factors and we can only overcome this by as you say trying to get bf in the public eye, as a normal thing to do.

    I hope I am correct by thinking this whole religion discussion sprung out of the frst comment by anonymous

  7. Susan, do you want to move here because of the extramarital activities ;)

  8. I don't believe that religion is the cause of the repression. It is more complex than blaming the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. It has everything to do with controlling female bodies, particularly our sexuality. I agree that the advent and marketing of formula is a major cause of people's problems with breastfeeding. People think "why would you do THAT?!" if you could just mix up some formula and feed your baby a bottle. We have been socialized to think that what we can buy has to be better than what we can make. That science is better than nature.

  9. Kind of funny how you are all focusing on the religious thing. I am actually not saying in this post that the negative reactions towards breastfeeding are a result of christianism or judeo christian religion.
    I do say that our vision of African sexuality is highly determined by our religious views.

    I say that a supressed sexuality in industrialized countries is to blame, but I didn't specify where that supression came from.

    After re-reading this a couple of times (the article) I do get the confusion. And indirectly, yes I think this sexual repression comes partly from the Judeo-Christian tradition

  10. Oh, my, I DO love blogs that makes you think! In response to Nicole's point, I do believe that the Judeo-Christian religious view plays a large part in the suppression of sexuality. The Catholic Church, and most of it's Protestant off-shoots, are patriarchies. But despite one of the hallmarks of a patriarchy is female suppression, it is a testament to modern thinking and the women's right movement that we CAN breastfeed in church. However, along with liberation movements, we have Science and Progress. Science and Progress are demi-gods in their own right, dictating that the natural is backwards or less desirable. That's what formula companies do best. Companies like Nestle, that market formula to women in counties where it could be a crippling expense as well as a biological non-necessity, should be ashamed. The view Westerners have of Africans' sexuality is a result of media marketing and philandering to a patriarchy of the neo-religious, who may or may not have a suppressed sexuality, but who live in a culture that does... despite being bombarded with sexualized images of women.

    I'm sorry if this post seems like a series of ill-thought-out theses, but I did my best to be coherent while nursing twins and typing at the same time!

  11. your take makes sense! I've also been wondering about possible jealousy, too, as most of americans have not been breastfed, so no-one else should have a better treatment! It's like with hitting, I survived, so will you.

  12. Great post! I loved breast feeding my second son. What a gift a mother can give. I hope you all will check out my open minded parenting blog! Not your typical parenting blog.

  13. I haven't read all your comments, but consider this development without our cultural fear of the breast: It is a a representation of female power. We have the power to create life, then the power to nourish it. I may be a nut, but I think maybe the puritanical and any other of the strange needs to hide, suppress, and repress female sexuality ( after all, I agree, nursing our little one's is part of out sexual function) comes from a fear of the power of women. (at least in American culture- see "witch trials"- many of whom were midwives). We have special powers that some men in history were afraid of. We must hide our power and be shamed for it in order to be sure it's kept under control. I once heard that bottle feeding liberated women, but I disagree, it was one more way for the matriarchy to separate us from out power. :)

  14. Mama Maureen - I do believe that the Judeo-Christian religious view plays a large part in the suppression of sexuality. The Catholic Church, and most of it's Protestant off-shoots, are patriarchies. But despite one of the hallmarks of a patriarchy is female suppression, it is a testament to modern thinking and the women's right movement that we CAN breastfeed in church.

    Did you know that the La Leche League was actually founded by Reverend Sisters (who don’t exactly have stake in whether women are allowed to NIP or not)? Or that one of Mary’s titles is Our Lady of Perpetual Lactation? Catholic Church has always been a staunch supporter of a child’s right to mother’s milk, anytime, anywhere. The ‘shameful breast’ issue is more of a Protestant off-shot – Martin Luther declared that our bodies are made of mud – than the traditional Church’s perspective.

    Why are you making such broad sweeping statements about Africans based on an experience you shared with a part of the Cameroon people? The average sub-Saharan African country has at least a hundred different ethnicities with different cultures which have been influenced to different degrees by both European and Islamic religions. As a Yoruba woman from Togo who has travelled extensively, I find your lump generalization of African society as ‘open’ and ‘sexually liberated’ too uncomfortably close to the American perception of the Black Woman as a brass whore – a stereotype that encouraged and justified the mass kidnapping and raping of women from sub-Sahara Africa during the time of slavery.

    I’m not attacking you and I understand that this is your way of praising the African societies you’ve lived in but I want you to reflect a little bit before you post because like it or not, you are perpetuating some very hurtful and harmful stereotypes.

  15. @ Moonspinner: Did you direct the comment at me or at the commenter Mama Maureen?

    I have lived in two subsaharian african countries so far. I can only speak of these countries and I thought I made that clear in the article. Apparently not. Indeed these free attitudes towards sexuality occur mostly in previously hunter-gatherer tribes in the tropical regions, who are not muslim. You are right, I should have defined this closer.
    However, I do not see how this would be perpetuating hurtful stereotypes. I think the way Cameroonian women embrace their sexuality is great and they could teach us a great deal. This has nothing to do with prostitution. More so, I distinctly warn against these attitudes
    "that is just us trying to impose our religiously inspired worldview on them"
    I do see your point though, but I hope that this blogpost did not communicate these negative stereotypes.
    I am sorry you feel offended.

    PS My cook is Yoruba

  16. I do not agree with Mama Maureen. I totally saw the point here. I find it thought provoking and something to certainly consider..:)

    I was brought up catholic and there is no point in denying that our sexuality is suppressed from the very begining. We are made to feel dirty if we ever embraced this part of ourselves.

  17. Awesome post. Nothing to add. I just wanted to tell you i will be taking part in the Sunday surf today.

  18. It's not just about sexuality, because American kids get the message these days that even though sleeping around is naughty, everyone else is doing it.

    But if somehow a woman does become pregnant, well, that's just the most shameful thing in the world, isn't it. Not to mention inconvenient and oh my goodness it ruins her life.

    It's not just a matter of how we see breasts or sexual relationships--the fundamental problem is our hatred of motherhood. I guess it's a vicious cycle; we don't want to empower women to think that having a baby before she is settled down and married and finished with whatever education she was planning to get. We don't have any sort of accommodations for women to do so, and if someone does have an unplanned baby, it really can put a major damper on any prospects for herself or her child because things that she might want to do in order to make her life better are not open to her because children aren't welcome.

    Wouldn't it be different if more universities and places of work, and even high schools, had a combination of child-friendly policies and child care? That's something that I liked about many African cultures, perpetuating a positive stereotype, is that children are welcome and babies are just worn around, needs tended to with little effort and Mother goes about her business.

    We Americans/Westerners think that our work is SO important...

  19. Logical Mommy, that's a very goo dpoint. But why has motherhood become such a vile thing?

    INdeed in AFrican culture motherhood is a valued thing, and children were long welcomed in the workplace, sadly that too is changing with the wonderful western influence...

    anyway food for thought

  20. I get your point and it does make sense. I just had to add a side note, maybe Cameroon might not be the best example of sexual freedom in terms of views of the breast. There is a practice known as "breast ironing" that goes on there. It is exactly what it sounds like. Mothers and Aunts of young girls whose breasts are just beginning to develop take burning hot stones to iron the breasts. The goal is to prevent their development and deter men from ogling them. Here is an article that goes in to greater detail on the topic:


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