Breastfeeding in Public: Is a Woman's Body Her Own?
Why are so many Americans – both men and women – so uncomfortable with seeing a mother breastfeed her baby? The answer is stranger than you think.

Some people feel violated when they see a woman nursing in public. Others find the sight of a woman’s nursing breasts disgusting and shameful but have little problem with scantily clad women in movies, on TV or on magazine covers and billboards.

What’s behind the contradiction? Breastfeeding advocates say the answer is simple: The public is sexualizing breastfeeding. “It all comes down to the basic question, ‘Whose breasts are they?’ ” says Linda Blum, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire and the author of At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States.

Women’s bodies, contends Blum, have always been on public display, to be looked at and admired in a sexual way. In Victorian times, the curvy, small-corseted waist was prized. Showing ankles was once considered racy and scandalous – and very sexy. In China, women’s feet were subjected to torturous binding to achieve a desirable small size.

All in all, women have been on display throughout the ages, and since the late 20th century, large breasts have been the ideal of feminine sexuality in America. “The message women get [from society and media] is that their breasts are not their own,” asserts Blum. “Their breasts belong to someone else – especially if they are out in public.”

Breastfeeding is Sensual, Not Sexual

And since much of American society only sees women’s breasts as sexual objects, the idea that they can be nurturing instruments can be completely baffling. This conflict is hard to resolve for many people, especially men.

One man in his 30s reports being uncomfortable watching his younger niece breastfeed her child in her own home. “I couldn’t watch was going on,” he confesses. “I slipped into the other room until it was done. It just didn’t feel right.”

Another woman admits that she stopped breastfeeding because her husband was jealous that the baby was “getting all the breasts. He said he wanted to have me back 100 percent.”

The overriding misconception about breastfeeding is that it is a sexual act. It’s not. But in some ways, it is a sensual act. Many nursing moms do cite how close and warm they feel to their babies when they breastfeed. It feels good. In Blum’s research, she discusses the intimacy and affection that is often passed between mother and child.

For some women, who have struggled with body issues for most of their lives, breastfeeding allows them to feel positive about their bodies for the first time, says Blum. “They were reveling in sensuality,” she notes. “One woman said that she spent so many years thinking her breasts were too small and inferior, and now by breastfeeding, she thinks her body is wonderful. This aspect of breastfeeding is a hopeful sign for women’s self image.”

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