January 6, 2009

Your breasts are never your own

In light of the recent facebook controversy regarding photographs of breast feeding, I wanted to post an article from 2006.

NEW YORK – “I was SHOCKED to see a giant breast on the cover of your magazine,” one person wrote. “I immediately turned the magazine face down,” wrote another. “Gross,” said a third.

These readers weren’t complaining about a sexually explicit cover, but rather one of a baby nursing, on a wholesome parenting magazine — yet another sign that Americans are squeamish over the sight of a nursing breast, even as breast-feeding itself gains greater support from the government and medical community.

Babytalk is a free magazine whose readership is overwhelmingly mothers of babies. Yet in a poll of more than 4,000 readers, a quarter of responses to the cover were negative, calling the photo — a baby and part of a woman’s breast, in profile — inappropriate.

One mother who didn’t like the cover explains she was concerned about her 13-year-old son seeing it.

“I shredded it,” said Gayle Ash, of Belton, Texas, in a telephone interview. “A breast is a breast — it’s a sexual thing. He didn’t need to see that.”

It’s the same reason that Ash, 41, who nursed all three of her children, is cautious about breast-feeding in public — a subject of enormous debate among women, which has even spawned a new term: “lactivists,” meaning those who advocate for a woman’s right to nurse wherever she needs to.

“I’m totally supportive of it — I just don’t like the flashing,” she says. “I don’t want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn’t want to see.”

Another mother, Kelly Wheatley, wrote Babytalk to applaud the cover, precisely because, she says, it helps educate people that breasts are more than sex objects. And yet Wheatley, 40, who’s still nursing her 3-year-old daughter, rarely breast-feeds in public, partly because it’s more comfortable in the car, and partly because her husband is uncomfortable with other men seeing her breast.

“Men are very visual,” says Wheatley, 40, of Amarillo, Texas. “When they see a woman’s breast, they see a breast — regardless of what it’s being used for.”

Babytalk editor Susan Kane says the mixed response to the cover clearly echoes the larger debate over breast-feeding in public. “There’s a huge Puritanical streak in Americans,” she says, “and there’s a squeamishness about seeing a body part — even part of a body part.”

The facebook ban isn’t as surprising as the controversy ignited by this 2006 cover of a parenting magazine.

It’s always amusing to hear people cite the “protection” of children and teenagers as a defense for banning images and actual breastfeeding.  I see more breast walking down the street, at a club, at the beach or in the media than I ever see on nursing mothers.

Lisa Latham, in Bitchfest, writes a great article (Double Life: Everyone Wants to See Your Breasts-Until Your Baby Needs Them) on the disjuncture and conflict between the sexual and “working” breast, the public and private breast.

In the end, whether the breast is feeding a baby, as nature intended, or pushed up in a bra, the female body has been and is concerned public domain.

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