Seagull Monument at Temple Square
I have always wanted to expand on my previous post “Breastfeeding and Modesty” so this post has been forming in my head for quite a while. If you have not yet read that post, this one will make a lot more sense if you read it first. To be honest, I don’t consider myself a “lactivist.” I’m just a mommy who wants to quietly nurse her baby when needed without attracting a lot of attention. Please keep in mind that by expanding on the importance of breastfeeding I am not trying to degrade anyone for bottle-feeding. This is not a post about bottle vs. breastfeeding.
In the Lost Language of Symbolism by Alonzo Gaskill, there is a chapter on “Body Parts as Symbols” in which it includes the symbolism of the bosom/breasts, “In antiquity the bosom, or breast, was a standard symbol for an intimate, nonsexual relationship” (31). In fact the people of Enoch are an example of this. We read, “And thou has taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all creations” (Moses 7:31). Gaskill points out, “Through their consistent obedience and love for things of God, they attained to that favored status and intimacy with the divine that all people on earth have been sent to seek” (32). So to be held near the breast is reflective of being near God. What a beautiful symbol it is to hold our babies at the breast and nourish them, a reminder that we are to bring them back to God by teaching them the gospel.
The breast was also considered a place of security and protection (Gaskill, 32). This is pointed out in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “For the child there is safety (“safe on my mother’s breast”) [Psalm 22:9], security (“Can a woman forget her sucking child?”) [Isaiah 49:15]) and consolation at the mother’s breast. It may be for an adult, the hug provides similar comfort. Perhaps it is not stretching the imagination too much to see John’s reclining on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper in those terms (John 13:25, 21:20)” (Ryken, Wilhoit, Longman, 119). In one way or another we each yearn for the security and comfort that the Savior provides. Our babies yearn for this safety in Christ too. As mothers we can provide this security and protection that symbolizes our Savior as we snuggle or nurse our little ones.
Cardsten, Alberta Temple artwork (three nursing mothers)
So with this in mind why have we allowed breasts to have taken on a singular sexual identity in our culture when God intended that their primary purpose be that of providing comfort, nourishment and safety and symbolizing a nearness to God?
“The scriptures often refer respectfully but plainly to the body and its parts… It is the world that makes the divinely created body an object of carnal lust. For example, it makes the female breasts primarily into sexual enticements, while the truth is that they were intended to nourish and comfort children… Teach your children that they will find joy in their bodies when they use them virtuously after the manner taught by Christ” (A Parent’s Guide, 37, 1985).
Our culture teaches us that breasts are only sexual. On the other hand, God intended that their primary purpose be to nourish and comfort children. Notice that I did not say that breasts are not sexual at all, but their intended primary purpose is that of nurturing. Unfortunately, the most common way we see breasts represented is in a sexual manner.
“Though any part of a woman’s body can be a focus of eroticism, our era is the first in recorded history where the breast has become a public fetish for male sexual stimulation, while its primary function has diminished on a vast scale.” (The Politics of Breastfeeding, 2)
Only rarely do we see breasts used virtuously for nurturing and comforting. And even when breastfeeding is portrayed in the media it is often done in a sexual manner, the brunt of a sarcastic sexual joke, “I’ll have some of what that baby is having, ha ha.” This kind of representation perpetuates breastfeeding as a sexual act instead of a nurturing act. I have also been disappointed by some of the pro-breastfeeding campaigns showing women nursing in lingerie in an effort to make the act sexy and savvy with the new generation. So it does make sense that there would be a disconnect concerning breastfeeding and what it represents.
“In the 20th century, women were presented with an illusion of liberation through the artificial feeding of their babies, only to find their breasts appropriated by men and popular culture. This continues in the 21st century. This has been expressed both privately, when men pressure their sexual partners not to breastfeed, and publicly through pornography and the mass marketing of products and information. . . Just a few hundred years ago, most human societies found breast exposure in everyday life unremarkable. What has happened to us? ” (The Politics of Breastfeeding, 3)
And I must apologize for the next image. It does make an important point.
At the crux of the debate over public breastfeeding is the argument that breasts are sexual and therefore, breastfeeding is sexual and should not be a public act or at least it should be “covered.” But is that true? Are breasts only sexual? Well, it depends on who you ask (many cultures scoff at the idea of breasts having a sexual function). Unfortunately because public breastfeeding became a fairly lost art form for a time, we lost the physiologic purpose of breasts in favor of the more worldly attitude for them.
I am very grateful for how the Church is organized. The purpose behind the organization and programs of the church are set up to strengthen the family. In order to have families we get pregnant (therefore displaying our sexuality with the rounding of our abdomens), give birth to our babies (another expression of our sexuality when our abdomens become flatter once again), and nurse our babies (again, displaying sexuality by using our breasts to nourish and comfort). In using the word sexuality it is different from being “sexual.” Sexuality is defined as, “sexual character; possession of the structural and functional traits of sex.” It also refers to the “possession of sexual potency.” When we carry our babies, birth them, and nurse them we display the functionality of our traits of sex as women. For men, this sexuality is not as visual. This type of sexuality is expressed through their female mates.
I have a great love for the Proclamation to the Family. We are reminded, “The family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. . . All human beings are created in the image of God . . . each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
The characteristics that define women are divinely ordained, meaning, use our bodies to give life through pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, nurturing, and other activities. Because the strengthening of families requires the blessings of church attendance, it is inevitable that the expression of female sexuality be witnessed. Mothers are left confused about how to function when asked to serve faithfully but not put on display their sexuality (that is divine characteristics of their sex like breastfeeding). It would be impractical to require a mother to never display her sexuality (pregnancy, breastfeeding) when striving to serve faithfully in the gospel. It is my hope that the breastfeeding mother be welcomed into meetings as she is fulfilling the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth.
About a year ago I attended a lecture titled, “Infant Feeding as Transgressive Behavior.” In it the speaker pointed out how regardless of how we feed our babies, it has become almost a no-win situation for mothers:
If I do Breastfeed:
- I follow medical advice
- I am immodest and indecent
- I am doing something that needs to be shielded from public view
If I do not Breastfeed:
- I follow norms about modesty, independence and purchasing
- I am harming my baby
- I value my independence and work more than my children.
No mother should be left feeling like this no matter how she feeds her baby.
Father Lehi blesses his children by C.C.A Christensen, breastfeeding mother in the center of painting
Of course there are times and places when discretion is required. It is important to use the Spirit as our guide. We can always access the Spirit to determine how we will proceed. Breastfeeding should not be blatantly distracting. That is not modesty. We do have a responsibility to normalize breastfeeding. One woman commented on my previous breastfeeding post,
“After my first child was born, I did feel uncomfortable feeding him in public, but I also felt like it shouldn’t have to be hidden. I eventually came to the conclusion that modesty really doesn’t have anything to do with breastfeeding. To me, immodesty is about seeking attention or praise for worldly attributes like beauty (by wearing revealing clothing) or wealth (by flaunting extravagant purchases), as a substitute for self-esteem, or testimony of our individual worth. I feed my baby to take care of him, and myself, not for anyone else’s approval. I nurse without a cover, in all church meetings, even recently during tithing settlement (my bishop didn’t blink an eye). I support whatever way other mothers want to nurse, but I do feel like nursing in public without shame helps to undo some of the cultural stigma around breasts, which is a good thing.
This view of modesty has also challenged me to think more about my clothing. I always wore clothes that were generally accepted as modest in the church, but I realized how often I was hoping to receive compliments on my clothing or hair. I don’t think it’s wrong or immodest to look attractive, but focusing on what other people think of my appearance so often probably is a form of immodesty that I need to work on.”
Can breastfeeding be immodest? Yes, if that woman is trying to attract attention to herself and present it in a way to flaunt herself. This is not usually the case. I know that for me I simply want to feed my baby without being noticed. The last thing I want is to attract attention. At the same time I want to participate in the gospel as much as I can. I love the gospel. It is my heart and soul and I hope that shows when I use my body “after the manner Christ has taught.” It should be done virtuously. Many women are able to do this without a cover and without flashing their breasts at people. Many others are grateful for a blanket or cover or simply want to remove themselves. All of these women are virtuous in their approach.
Breastfeeding is an art form and took me years to perfect to where I was comfortable enough to do it in public. But many mothers master the art much quicker. I still remember my brother leaning over to me after a Sacrament meeting while my baby rested cradled in my arms after having been nursed. He leaned over to say, “she seems so content like she could have been nursing.” I smiled knowing she already had and nobody around me even knew it but me and my baby. I recently attended a day at girls camp with my infant. A member of the Stake Presidency stopped to tell me something. He either didn’t notice I was nursing ( I was not using a nursing cover) or he was completely unaffected. I smiled to myself as he left, just grateful it was not big deal to nurse my little one in the midst of the young women I serve.
I have heard commented that we should be mindful of the men in our midst at church who are addicted to pornography. Because of their addiction, we should cover or go somewhere else to nurse our babies. Some women have been told that nursing our babies in front of them contributes to their addiction.
So what is pornography? One definition is “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.” The origin of this word being from the Greek word for harlot. A further definition offers, “writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement.” So is breastfeeding pornography? Our culture may have tried to twist breastfeeding into something pornographic but we should not be so fooled. To equate breastfeeding with harlotry is not a fair comparison. Breastfeeding is not obscene nor is it designed to stimulate sexual excitement. It is interesting that the Utah code recognizes this, “(2) (a) a woman’s breast feeding, including breast feeding in any place where the woman otherwise may rightfully be, does not under any circumstance constitute an obscene or lewd act, irrespective of whether or not the breast is covered during or incidental to feeding.” (H. B. 262 (2) (a) State of Utah Jan,. 30, 1995) But in practice we struggle with this. Somehow the bottle, with its protruding nipple in representation of the breast, is okay but the breast is not. Maybe we should put a blanket over the bottle?
The reality is that rather than being intended to sexually stimulate, nursing actually stimulates prolactin, the mothering hormone that causes mothers to relax and take on the role of a nurturer. Breastfeeding was designed by God to perfectly nourish our babies and make us better mothers. It is divinely ordained. It is motherly. It is using our bodies “after the manner Christ taught.”
From the Book of Mormon scripture reader chapter on Enos (babywearing while nursing).
This is a touchy subject. Pornography is rampant. And I have seen firsthand how it destroys families, some near and dear to me. But the burden should not be on the breastfeeding mother’s shoulders to control the interpretation of what she is doing. Somehow society is asking that she be responsible for the dirty thoughts in someone else’s head. Somehow removing from view the divinely ordained use of breasts will help in the fight against pornography? All the while we will continue to be bombarded by images of breasts in a sexual manner. I feel that this perpetuates Satan’s plan to objectify the female body and weaken the God given role of women to nurture their little ones.
I have heard people say, what is the big deal? Just use a cover. I think breastfeeding covers are great. However, I have often felt like I was drawing attention to myself. Putting a cover over us seems to announce to everyone around me that I am about to nurse my baby when usually I can do that more discreetly without. And really, everyone knows what is going on under there and can choose to have dirty thoughts about that too. Just because a blanket or cover is being used does not mean someone is being more modest than someone who is not. Some babies just don’t like their head covered when they eat. Would you like to wear a drape over your head while you eat?
A recent study revealed that 79% of moms know that breastfeeding is best for mom and baby. 40 percent of moms list their greatest concern as breastfeeding in public. 28 percent were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to breastfeed long enough. The more uncomfortable a woman is with the breastfeeding the less likely she is to continue. We have made righteous women uncomfortable with the virtuous use of their breasts because of our culture’s hyper-sexualization and objectification of them. I think breastfeeding rates (and the duration of breastfeeding) would rise if women felt more comfortable to nurse in public.
Let us not forget that there are many body parts that have dual functions. In addition to doing very useful tasks, hands and lips perform very sexual functions but they are not required to be constantly unused in public. We are not expected to not use them or cover them when they are used to consume a meal. Sadly, if someone wants to interpret something in a lewd manner, they can. It does not take much and is out of our control.
Is breastfeeding sexual? It is an extension of our sexual traits if that is how you define sexual. Is it about sex? No. Is it pornography? No. It is the antithesis of such filth. It is because breastfeeding became so hidden that it became so taboo and misunderstood. “Teach your children that they will find joy in their bodies when they use them virtuously after the manner taught by Christ.” Breastfeeding is using our bodies virtuously, after the manner taught by Christ. What we need more of is breastfeeding mothers.
So, thank you mamas and babies for standing for truth and righteousness and nursing while you are doing it.