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Exchanging the Natural for the Unnatural

As I’ve been reading blogs and news articles lately, I’ve seen quite a few articles on the subject of breastfeeding. That’s kind of a strange observation, I know, but I’ve seen it as a recent theme in the media. I guess society is still negotiating whether or not it is appropriate to nurse a baby in public. This reminded me of an article I once saw in a Florida newspaper where the author discussed a fascinating situation involving Victoria’s Secret.

Victoria’s Secret became the target of breast-feeding activists this week after women in Racine, Wis., and Quincy, Mass., went into the popular women’s lingerie store and were told they couldn’t breastfeed their children on the sales floor.

It’s hard to imagine that Victoria’s Secret, of all places, could be anti-breast—or at least squeamish about the partial exposure of a woman’s breast amid the racks of revealing peekaboo attire on sale.

But it happened. The result: Victoria’s Secret was the target of a nationwide ‘nurse-in’ protest this past weekend called for by a group of angry breastfeeding women.

You can’t help but note the irony: Victoria’s Secret, a company that has done so much to commodify the breast (along with pretty much every other aspect of a woman’s body), refused to allow women to breastfeed on their premises. As the article says, “Victoria’s Secret, after all, is all about partial, and more-than-partial exposure of a woman’s body.” The company’s advertising shows a lot more exposed breast than you are likely to see when a woman nurses her child. And what’s wrong with a woman feeding her child in public?

Until about eleven years ago I had never thought much about breastfeeding. My mom, with still a little bit of hippie in her blood (you should see those early photos of her as a mother), raised five children and each of us nursed for at least a year or two. I was the second child to be born into the family and so, for at least five or six years of my life, I saw little sisters nursing. I thought nothing of it; it was as natural as breathing. Babies needed to eat, so mom fed them. If they needed to eat at home, mom fed them at home, and if they needed to eat when we were out, mom fed them in public. She was discreet about it, of course, but was certainly not ashamed to fed us when we need to be fed. There was nothing complicated about it.

Eleven years ago, Aileen gave birth to our first child. Suddenly, breastfeeding seemed complicated. Aileen struggled with breastfeeding in public or even in semi-private conditions (like when friends were visiting). She would gladly nurse the baby when her girlfriends were present, but when a man entered the room, she would sometimes opt instead to drag her friends to a different room. Somehow, between generations, breastfeeding had become shameful. While a few of our friends would breastfeed when men were present, most tended to camp out in a room by themselves, or at least sat around a corner or with their backs turned.

It is not my purpose here to argue for or against public breastfeeding. Ultimately, I believe a woman should confer with her husband and do what they feel comfortable with (also taking into account social mores). If they are uncomfortable with nursing a child in public, the mother should not feel compelled or obliged to do so. Similarly, if they are unashamed to have her feed the child in public, then by all means, she has the right do so. The right to nurse in public is protected by the laws of the land, and so it should be.

I found the story from that newspaper quite instructive. It shows something about our society, I think, that we will gladly tolerate breasts when they are in the context of sexuality, but not when they are in the context of child-rearing. Somehow, over the past couple of decades, public breastfeeding has become taboo—or at least it has gone in that direction. Stores and restaurants routinely request or even demand that breastfeeding moms take their babies to the bathrooms to nurse them there. More and more people seem to regard it as unnatural or disgusting. Victoria’s Secret can plaster the store windows with huge posters of nearly-naked women with their breasts almost fully exposed, but when a woman sitting inside the store discreetly latches her child to a breast, it is regarded as exhibitionism.

My dad has often remarked that television and movies, while routinely showing scenes with explicit sexual content, will almost never show scenes that involve sex between married couples. He does not mean to say that it would be somehow morally superior to show a married couple engaging in sexual acts on the screen, but that it is only a certain kind of unnatural, unbiblical sexuality that our society wants to see. Satan hates what is natural and good; he loves what is unnatural and evil. When we look at breastfeeding in this context, it makes perfect sense that our society does not object to public displays of breasts when they are in the context of sexuality. Men love to be able to walk past Victoria’s Secret and to see vivid images of other women displaying their near-perfect bodies. But in the context of something that is natural and good, like a woman nursing her baby, breasts are somehow repulsive or embarrassing. We have exchanged the natural for the unnatural. And I guess we must like it that way.