Baring breasts in public not always about sex

File this under ‘things that never would’ve occurred to me.’

My sister and I recently had a conversation in which she told me about the people who verbally assaulted her for nursing in public when she was a new mother. Although such prudery is somewhat mystifying in our “Girls-Gone-Wild,” silicone-happy society, it’s not news that some people have a problem with public breast-feeding.

According to the La Leche League (a breast-feeding information resource and support group for new mothers) at least 26 states have laws clarifying that public breast-feeding is not considered lewd or indecent behavior. The fact that such laws exist suggest that someone at sometime thought breast-feeding is lewd or indecent. But the why of the matter had me stumped.

So I consulted my resident behavioral expert, my husband.

His response was, “Some people perceive breasts only as a means of sexual arousal.”

His exact words, I swear.

The theory goes that people who are offended by women breast-feeding are embarrassed about viewing something that might arouse them in front of their wives, husbands, families, friends, etc.

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Not possible, I thought, despite his many years in psychology.

So I asked a few friends, both male and female, as well as doing some online research.

Survey says, he was right.

Apparently there are people who think the human female breast is inherently erotic.

It made me wonder if this is a belief peculiar to American society. There is absolutely no disputing that in most cases breast-feeding is the healthiest option for both the mother and the infant.

My research indicates that, with the exception of some Muslim nations, most other societies attach little or no stigma to public breast-feeding. Perhaps this is indicative of the U.S.’s puritanical roots. After all, how many medieval and early modern paintings depict a bare-breasted Mary, suckling the infant Jesus? Then again, how many times have you heard the words Jesus and suckling in the same sentence?

The arguments against public breast-feeding are pretty strait forward. For the most part they consist of the “I don’t like it” sort of complaint.

My personal favorite argument of the anti-public breast-feeding set is this one: It’s never hot chicks who are doing it so they shouldn’t be allowed to. Hmmm- And I don’t like fat people in spandex, but that doesn’t mean we should ban everyone from wearing it.

I also like the argument that if the baby isn’t old enough to be off the teat, the baby should stay at home. This one is so mind-bogglingly obtuse that the only retort I can muster is laughter.

Not surprisingly, these arguments are almost always put forth by men, most of whom seem to be upset, not that a breast is exposed, but that it is exposed for the benefit of someone other than them. On one blog, the gentleman (using the term loosely) even went so far as to say that if he wasn’t paying a cover charge to see the breasts, they shouldn’t be exposed in public.

The true irony is that many biologists now believe that breast-feeding is the very reason most men find large breasts attractive. That is, when a man sees a woman with large breasts, somewhere deep in the double-helix of his mostly-primate DNA something says, “This female will be an acceptable reproductive partner, since she appears more than capable of providing adequate nourishment for my offspring.” Which translates to “boi-oi-oing!”

The pregnancy and parenting books and magazines I’ve consulted state that witnessing the act of breast-feeding can cause some men to feel jealous. However, they differ on whether the man is jealous because the female is engaging in an act he cannot or because the baby is allowed unfettered access to what he wants. Either way, he’s being a jackass.

Of course not all men feel this way. Most don’t, I’d postulate. And there are whack-jobs on the other end of the spectrum too, like women who still breast-feed their 4-year-olds and so on. But for the most part we’re not talking about a huge, quivering teat flopped over onto the pickup counter at Wendy’s. Most mothers practice discretion, exposing as little of the breast as possible or even covering the whole production, baby and all.

Maybe this is out of modesty, but I think the reason is far more personal. Anyone who’s ever been in a group of friends or family when a mother started breast-feeding can attest to the uneasiness with which some people respond, whether they verbalize it or not.

This isn’t a reaction to the exposure of a breast. It is, rather a reaction to the public display of a very intimate and exclusive relationship. Anytime two people ignore everyone else in the room, we’re socially conditioned to be offended. But it takes a lot of courage for a woman to flout that and ignore the stigma attached to nurturing her child. That courage should be commended because providing for the physical and emotional needs of her infant should always take priority over social convention.

And anyone who thinks otherwise should stay home.