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Stop Sexualizing Breasts -- They Produce Food!

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One expert reminds us that breast really is best.


Dr. Wendy Walsh: This week, a statue of Angelina Jolie breastfeeding twins was unveiled in Oklahoma, and it has sparked plenty of controversy. Celebrity sculptor Daniel Edwards' latest work is a park-bench-sized statue of a nude Jolie, double breastfeeding her twins. This artistic work is called "Landmark for Breastfeeding," and was inspired by Jolie's cover photograph on W magazine last year. Edwards decided that, in order to encourage more women to breastfeed and to raise global awareness of public nursing, he would depict one twin as African-American and the other as not, since that could totally happen in the real world.

I understand the eyebrows that might be raised by this public display of natural beauty, for I once staged a research study for my psychology dissertation on breastfeeding. While collecting data, I learned that one of the most common reasons that women quit breastfeeding is embarrassment about nursing in public. All over Europe, paintings and statues of the Madonna (the real one, not the one who Vogues) depict her nursing, yet our American culture still can't get past the idea that breasts are more than sexual objects.

The sexualization of the breast had very early beginnings. Back in our evolutionary past, when humans got up off all fours and became bipedal, women evolved to grow larger breasts for sexual attraction. Now that we were upright, our lovely derrieres couldn't be seen from our front side, so breasts got bigger as a kind of, ahem, yes, frontal tushy. Men liked the view on both sides now, and all our lovely orbs signaled our fitness to reproduce.

But for hundreds of thousands of years, breasts still had a day job, and the sight of a nursing woman was commonplace in all cultures around the world. Up until 1932, every human was breastfed by their mother, auntie, or wet nurse. It was how humans survived before infant formula. During World War II, when women were needed in factories to build weapons, mostly male pediatricians convinced women that this new product made from whey (a cheese by-product) was better than human milk. It also allowed women to leave their babies for longer periods. Anyone who has nursed a newborn knows that feeding schedules are based on a child's needs, not a clock. And, sometimes their need is to just suckle and be comforted, so working full-time is tough. Jump ahead to the 1970s, when breastfeeding hit an all-time low.

But today, thanks to the pioneering women of La Leche League International and many other breastfeeding education groups, 80% of American babies leave the hospital with mother's milk in their tummies. However, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a MINIMUM of one year of breastfeeding, at four months postpartum only 20% of American babies are still receiving the nutrient-rich food. This is not only disturbing for health reasons -- breastfeeding is known to have health benefits for mother and child -- but from a psychological standpoint as well. It can also disrupt attachment behaviors that teach our babies how to love.

Which brings us to the number-one reason that women in my study reported quitting breastfeeding: shame about nursing in public. So, whether it's a statue of Angelina or any other celebrity breastfeeding in public, these models are very valuable in our culture. I myself nursed for a combined six years (three years with each of my two kids), and if you think nursing a baby in public is a bit uncomfortable, try nursing a squirming toddler! But I can honestly tell you that I never, not once, received a negative look or comment about breastfeeding in public. Instead, I was inspired to stick to my goal by all the encouraging remarks I received from men and women alike.

Breastfeeding is good for your baby because:

Breastfeeding provides warmth and closeness. The physical contact helps create a special bond between you and your baby.

• Human milk has many benefits:

It's easier for your baby to digest.

It doesn't need to be prepared.

It's always available.

It has all the nutrients, calories, and fluids your baby needs to be healthy.

It has growth factors that ensure the best development of your baby's organs.

It has many substances (which formulas don't have) that protect your baby from a variety of diseases and infections. Breastfed children are less likely to have:

Ear infections
Pneumonia, wheezing, and bronchiolitis
Other bacterial and viral infections, such as meningitis

Research also suggests that breastfeeding may help to protect against obesity, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and some cancers.

• Breastfeeding is good for your health because it helps:

Release hormones in your body that promote mothering behavior.

Return your uterus to the size it was before pregnancy more quickly.

Burn more calories, which may help you lose the weight you gained during pregnancy.

Delay the return of your menstrual period to help keep iron in your body.

Reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer.

Keep bones strong, which helps protect against bone fractures in older age.

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16 comments so far | Post a comment now
cyndi August 11, 2009, 7:25 AM

Of course breastfeeding is good! Do I want to see an ugly naked statue depicting it? Ugh!

Melanie August 11, 2009, 9:38 AM

I agree breast-feeding if natural and woman should be able to feed their children in public. But I really wish that breast-feeding moms didn’t look down upon the formula moms. The majority of my girlfriends breast-fed their kids and they are sick more often than my formula fed son. Let’s step down off the high horse and agree that breast-feeding will not make your offspring medically or mentally superior!

Anonymous August 11, 2009, 10:03 AM

I’m still breastfeeding my almost 3 year old and I think it’s great. However, I don’t breastfeed in the nude in public. I don’t think the breastfeeding statue is bad. She probably should have had her panties on, that’s all!!! :)LOL

MarMar August 11, 2009, 2:01 PM

I too had problems with the formula-vs.-breastfeeding issue, but that’s not the point of this article. The point, I believe, is that breastfeeding is natural and shouldn’t have to be hidden. That the breast is so sexualized in this country that women think they shouldn’t breastfeed, or do it somewhere that no one will see what they’re doing - as if they’re doing something “dirty.” This article says that those who chose to breastfeed, and are able to do so, should be able to do so. I couldn’t breastfeed but any time I was at the mall, I could pop a bottle in my daughter’s mouth. Why can’t a breastfeeding mother have the same sort of convenience without running off to find the nearest restroom, or making a makeshift tent over herself in a remote corner near a vacant store? We’re both doing the same thing in both scenarios: Taking care of our child’s needs as best we can.

nancy bui August 11, 2009, 2:26 PM

my 13 month old son is still being breastfed but WIC and my son doctor told me i should only breast feed him for just 1 year..

Shannon August 11, 2009, 3:09 PM

Love this article!! I’ve breastfed my son since he was born and am still breastfeeding (he just turned 1 yesterday). I have already started to wean him to the Go & Grow formula by similac. He will be completely weaned by next week and I will miss it, but I’m ready to. He’s only been sick once and that was a cold when he was 2months old. He’s off the charts as far what percentile he’s in and I fully believed it was because of my choice to breastfeed for the 1st year. I also lost all of my baby weight (45lbs gained during pregnancy) and an additional 10pounds!!! BREASTFEEDING ROCKS FOR BOTH MOTHER AND CHILD!!!

Shannon August 11, 2009, 3:14 PM


dean August 11, 2009, 4:45 PM

Yawn. I can see where this is going…..
Mommy wars 2: Breast vs. Formula. A couple of weeks ago it was “SAHM vs. WM”. Boo.

Sara August 11, 2009, 4:47 PM

Shannon get off your high horse. Neither of my children were breastfed and both are extremely healthy and intelligent. As far as weight. i was back in my size 6 jeans the same month I gave birth, heck, within a few months had even lost more than I’d weighed before pregnancy! Just step down off the high horse and realize that other babies and moms will be just fine if they are not breastfeeding! I’m so tired of the attitude like the one shown in this article that just makes it sound as though breastfeeding moms are so superior. Guess what, you’re not. We’re all doing the best we can and I assure you that all of our children will turn out just fine regardless of breastfeeding.

Sara August 11, 2009, 4:52 PM

Very true Dean. It’s just turn into another war. Why couldn’t this article stick to the point about breasts not being just sexual? Why does it need to include all the negativity towards not breastfeeding? Keep in mind, Wendy, that not all moms can breastfeed nor does it work out for everyone. Can’t people just accept that and move on doing what is best for YOU! You decide for you, everyone else decides for themselves.

Anon August 12, 2009, 1:28 PM

No need to see a breast feeding statue. Breast feeding is natural, yes, but no need to see the breasts while feeding. And that’s not “sexualizing” them, it’s called being discreet. It’s natural men to pee, but I don’t need to see them whip out their equipment to do it. Same difference here.

michelle August 13, 2009, 2:10 PM

If what you say about the evolutionary origin of breast sexualization is true, then how is a command from Wendy Walsh to stop sexualizing the breast going to change that? Shouldn’t a smart person look for a solution instead of blaming a statue (which is beautiful and harmless, btw)?

Also, I can’t even believe this needs to be said, but if Wendy did even a minimum amount of research she would find that the “shame about nursing in public” is also about not being able to keep it up in a discreet and dignified manner (or at all) in the workplace. American workplaces are notoriously unfriendly to nursing mothers. Isn’t the solution, instead of smugly hectoring women about how breast is best, to advocate for more private places (in and out of the workplace) for women to pump or breastfeed?

Comsi August 18, 2009, 6:55 AM

May i point out that the author of this article is not a trained pediatrician or OB/ GYN , but a psychologist, and psychology has nothing to do with the negative effects of breast feeding your child.

And she breast fed her children till they were 3, which is slightly disturbing.

Tracy August 22, 2009, 7:32 AM

Just the title of this article ruins the cause!
Breast isn’t best, it’s normal. Formula is taking a risk, should be a last resort not treated as a choice.
Saying it’s best gives it this “perfect mum” status, gets the backs up of women who didn’t feed. Nobody is perfect, but normal is achievable.
This is great news for formula companies, they love the bickering in the formula vs breastfeeding argument.
The fact is only about 2% of women can’t physically breastfeed. But those who say they can’t is greater. Because they’ve usually been unsupported by medical professionals, given bad advice, pressure from friends and family, myths, and aggressive formula advertising (and in the US a frankly heartbreaking and shockingly non existant maternity leave).
Stating the facts about he risks of formula is necessary for parents to make fully informed choices. It shouldn’t be taken as a dig at mums who bottlefeed. Babies’ health is more important that the mum feeling bad!
(for the record my eldest only fed 4 months because I was given bad advice, instead of feeling guilty I educated myself, fed my others until self weaning and trained as a peer supporter so I can help women breastfeed).

Kirsten August 25, 2009, 2:18 AM

Good God, Sara. STFU and stop whining.

Stating FACTS and being proud of something does not automatically mean they think they’re better.
It’s not Shannon’s fault that you’re bitter. Just be proud of the choice you made, don’t think everyone is out to get you.
Breast milk is superior to formula =FACT, not insult.
No one said breastfeeding mothers are superior to formula feeding mothers, so stop complaining.

Bruce Sallan September 5, 2009, 7:04 AM

I’ll leave breast-feeding’s values to the experts but only say that a whole generation of kids were bottle fed and turned out just fine. In this same vein a recent British study revealed that there was NO difference between organic food and regular store-bought food as far as its healthful benefits. So, we all can get a bit obsessed about what we think is and isn’t healthy when it really doesn’t make much difference.

I do believe and think the notion of a baby getting certain protections from infection, by breast-feeding, just makes common sense as does any religious person’s belief that G*d knew what he was doing when he made us.

All that said, as a man the objectification of breasts is very real and impactful on us. I grew up with Playboy and when movies began revealing women’s bodies in every increasing detail. So, for us men, it became a constant assault in essence, on our nature (which is looks-oriented). Therefore, my only objection is when women breast-feed without regard for those in view and don’t cover up. By all means, it’s YOUR choice to breast-feed, but please don’t think a naked breast is not a sexual object to men, whether it is used for a Vogue cover ad or to nurse a baby.

But, what do I know, I’m Just A Guy (feel free to check out my blog on the bloggers page as I’m sure several will raise some women’s ire…as they already have. But, my whole point is to recognize, satirize, and celebrate men’s and women’s differences).

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