Sheila reviewed a
Modesty in Breastfeeding
in the September 2000 issue of the MIDIRS Digest.
Here are extracts from her article:
There is evidence that women breastfeed longer when they feel comfortable about doing it in front of other people. One obstacle they encounter is that breastfeeding openly is often perceived as a form of exhibitionism. So if breastfeeding is to take place outside the home many women feel relaxed only when the act is disguised. The mother wears a loose jacket or covers herself with a shawl and tries not to draw attention to herself, or in the USA she buys special clothing with frills, plackets, pleats or a cape to cover the breast. Breastfeeding is made invisible.
This may be why in the publicity campaign for breastfeeding that took place in Britain in May of his year the Department of Health issued photographs of fully clothed women with babies who were clearly not breastfeeding and for all we know may have been bottlefed. It was all done with great modesty. The exception was the photograph of a father and a baby in which the man's hairy chest was exposed. He was the only person in skin contact with a baby. The implicit message is that it is not immodest for a man holding a baby to reveal his breasts. But it is for a woman.
Looking at the concept of `modesty' as a social anthropologist, it seems to me that being immodest always involves an audience. Neither modesty nor immodesty exist in social isolation. When a woman is immodest she displays to an audience. The concepts of modesty and embarrassment are closely linked. Modesty is a
personal attribute. Embarrassment is the expression of the social interchange between the observed and the observer in an act considered shameful or immodest. This may be unilateral: a woman who is confident that she is doing the right thing may breastfeed openly without embarrassment ( though she will probably need pluck and determination). Equally, an observer may actually approve of open breastfeeding, though the mother, aware of being noticed, still feels embarrassment.
A woman who is modest feels embarrassed when she accidentally draws attention to herself. This happens if, for example, she has expressed her milk and is presenting it to the baby in a bottle, but the baby snuggles up to her breast and roots for the nipple. Observers may also feel embarrassment on seeing this.
But it is not only exhibition of the breasts that is immodest. Awareness that the baby is actually suckling, and enjoying it, may also threaten the woman's modesty and embarrass both her and those watching. Some babies are quiet feeders. Others display their pleasure with gusto, reaching out to touch and hold the breast, guzzling, slurping, lip-smacking, and coming off the breast for a bit, only to return like a salmon capturing a fly. This pleasure may be perceived as lascivious on the part of the baby, and the mother as colluding in it. They are an out of control couple who fail to conform to normal standards of decency. When either mother or child clearly enjoy breastfeeding it attracts critical attention. A woman is expected to fill a baby up with the same kind of detachment that she might have while pouring a cup of coffee. Any emotional element in breastfeeding is taboo. Equally, if she has difficulty in getting a baby latched on and the baby seems to fight the breast, this also causes her acute embarrassment. It is not just that she is anxious that she is exhibiting a failure of mothering. The conflict becomes a display of passion. To keep breastfeeding disguised not only must the breast be hidden, but the baby's behaviour must also be kept muted, so that no one is aware of the act.
Moreover, a woman may be exonerated of exhibitionism, and retain her modesty, if she is breastfeeding a young baby, but attract a great deal of critical attention and distaste if she breastfeeds an older child. In the first three or four months a baby is perceived as passive and receptive, not active and seeking. The indication is that it is all right to pour milk into an inert bundle wrapped in a shawl, but that there is something unhealthy about satisfying an older child's hunger for the breast.
Certainly Americans are more up-tight about this than Europeans. I have encountered it at first hand when negotiating with publishers over the photographs on the jackets of my books on breastfeeding. Publishers in Britain, Germany and Italy expect to have a photograph of a breastfeeding mother and baby on the book jacket. But one New York publisher presented me with a cover photograph in which the nipples had been air-brushed out. When I objected, they substituted one of a baby with a frilled bonnet and lacy dress that hid the mother's breast entirely. The editor protested that she would love to show a baby really breastfeeding, but it wasn't possible in the United States. For many Americans nursing a baby so that it is can be witnessed by other people is an act of sexual exhibitionism.
Traditionally in Mediterranean cultures a woman's virtue is defended aggressively by the male members of the family. In Italy and Greece, for example, they perceive other men as marauders who destroy modesty and thereby dishonour the whole family. Today bottle-feeding, because it eliminates display of the breasts, helps to protect women, and their male owners, against such attack. This may be one reason why breastfeeding is declining even in Mediterranean cultures. Women's breasts are considered husbands' possessions. The man decides what is done with them and to whom they can be shown. The kind of female modesty that finds expression in embarrassment about breastfeeding openly is essentially about a woman's body as male property. It is a concept that can only be really understood in the context of a social analysis of gender relations.