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'A baby nursing at a mother's breast... is an undeniable affirmation of our rootedness in nature' -David Suzuki. Breastfeeding is an act in which a woman feeds a child with milk from her breast. It is a natural occurrence that has been done since the 11th century. There are pictures and artifacts of women from earlier times demonstrating this, glorifying the bond between mother and child. Even in Christianity, during the Medieval times those who witnessed Mary nursing Christ viewed it as a blessing rather than a carnal act. Today, the topic of breastfeeding is rather a controversial one. There are strong opinions on whether mothers should nurse their newborn infants naturally or through the use of artificial formula. Research has shown that breastfeeding naturally offers numerous benefits for both the mother and child. For a child, breastfeeding can greatly lower the risks of various cancers, diabetes, respiratory illnesses and bacterial and viral infections. For mothers, it can reduce the risk of postpartum depression, hemorrhaging and ovarian and breast cancer. Therefore, if one chooses to use formula it can be viewed negatively for as a mother may be ignoring all of the nutritional benefits for her child. However, if a mother chooses to nurse naturally from her breast, there are strong opinions on the acceptable locations for a mother to feed her child. By this, I am referring to women breastfeeding in public.
The term 'public' is broad. According to this paper, the definition of the word 'public' is any social space outside of one's home, that is accessible to people. This can be at malls, restaurants, workplace, park and public transportation. Although public breastfeeding is slowly becoming more accepted now, most people do not favor women breastfeeding in public. Most people would prefer women to use some type of cover-up method or relocate to a more private setting if they do choose to nurse in public. But why is this? Why do people react negatively towards something that is natural? Through my research, I have learned that there are several explanations why people are uncomfortable with women pulling out their breast to nurse in public. One reason being that breastfeeding in public is not something you typically see people do in a social setting, the lack of familiarity causes uneasy feelings. The second reason is that throughout the year's women's breast have become sexualized through the media and are no longer viewed as a means of nurturing and caring for an infant. Lastly, some people may have an 'erotophobia' personality, meaning that their openness to sexuality is limited; causing negative views towards bodily fluids. This paper will provide further explanations the negative feedback of public breastfeeding and analyze how it coincides with a mother's identity.
Lack of Familiarity
One reason why breastfeeding in public causes others to feel uncomfortable is that it is something a person may not be used to seeing. Most mothers breastfeed in the privacy of their own home. Because it is not a common thing to see in a social setting, people often feel uncomfortable when they do see public breastfeeding. According to a current study, 'People dislike the image of the woman breastfeeding in public because it is an unusual behavior to see, whether in person, on television, or in photographs' (Acker 2009). We generally like things less if they are not seen very often and, inversely, like things more when we do see them often (Acker 2009). This is an example of 'systematic desensitization', a behaviorist approach to changing personality. First introduced by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner in efforts to counter-condition fear in the baby Albert experiment; it is the process of disestablishing an existing phobia by causing the feared stimulus to become dissociated from the feared response (Friedman 2016). Although seeing exposed breasts may not be a phobia for all people, it does cause some type of psychological discomfort in some. This theory suggests that even really strong emotional aspects of personality can diminish over a course of time if consistently exposed to it. Thus reinforcing the idea that increased exposure to public breastfeeding will normalize this behavior, which will encourage more women to breastfeed.
The media also plays a role in the lack of familiarity with public breastfeeding. There is not much media promoting women breastfeeding in public areas. Most people are aware of this issue but it has grabbed little attention in the media and is often talked about only when mentioned in passing. In a study done in Malaysia, they saw that newspapers showed little interest in advocating a mother's right to breastfeeding in public. Although the did not directly object to public breastfeeding, they did make it subtly known that it should be done in private (Mohamad 2013). In a different study, an analysis was taken of magazines and articles in the United States and Canada and results showed that the images portrayed in these often emphasize the private realm of a mother's life (Acker 2009). For example, displaying mothers breastfeeding in nightgowns rather in daily attire; enforcing the idea that nursing should be done in private. Both of these studies are not only examples of how the media represents breastfeeding mothers but it supports the negative stigmas put on them as well.
The lack of education on public breastfeeding also is a contributing factor to the unfamiliarity of this current issue. From the time a baby is born health professionals encourage mothers to breastfeed for the first six to twelve months of their newborn's life. Mothers are given classes, pamphlets and medical advice on the importance of breastfeeding. However, there is a lack of education on the issue of breastfeeding to the public. Campaigns such as, 'Breast is best' exist to promote the benefits of breastfeeding but there are none that promote a mother's right to breastfeed in public. Perhaps if these campaigns switched their focus to something such as 'In public is here Breast is best' maybe we would see different outcomes. The general public's lack of knowledge can reflect their attitudes on breastfeeding in public areas. If we made them more aware of this issue, it can possibly desensitize these stigmas.
Sexualization of Women’s Breasts
A second explanation as to why breastfeeding in public receives a lot of negative feedback is due to the sexualization of women's breast. Today, especially in western culture, the primary purpose of a breast is for sexual stimulation. Breasts are no longer viewed as a means of nurturing for an infant. Examples of this can be seen in pornographic films, advertising, magazines, and music videos. In the media, female models are often used to promote products by exploiting their body parts. Since the majority of the advertisements that are broadcasted to the world are presented in this manner, this has now become the social norm. It is not unusual to see a woman wearing a tight top, exposing skin and cleavage. However, it is highly unusual to see a woman with her breast out to feed a baby. The way women's breasts are portrayed in this manner is far more influential than the importance of nurturing.
Differences in culture is a contributing factor to the sexualization of woman's breasts, particularly in Western Society. In the United States, breasts are typically viewed in a sexual manner. Most would agree that breasts have become especially hypersexualized in this country. This has shaped many American's perceptions of not only breast themselves but also breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public may bring forth images of sexuality simultaneously with motherhood (Boyer 2017). This combination is likely to cause a mixture of emotional responses from onlookers.
What is interesting, is that even though the United States has hypersexualized women and their breasts, they also place very harsh criticisms towards those who expose themselves in that manner. Celebrities the embrace their feminine qualities and promote them through the media, often receive harsh feedback often describing them as promiscuous or inappropriate role models. Some examples famous female icon figures are Madonna and Beyoncé. These people embrace both their natural beauty and motherhood but get criticized for being too 'sexual'. In other countries, women who embrace their bodies and sexuality are often praised. This type of behavior is viewed as normal because sex is less of a taboo. Since it is more sex is more openly talked about, people in other countries outside the United States are more supportive of women nursing in public (Russell 2017). There have been several incidents of mothers being asked to vacate the premises of restaurants, aircrafts and waiting rooms, for nursing their child. Stating that exposing their breasts to the public in that way, is something you would see in a pornographic film. It is mind-boggling to think that breastfeeding, a once biological act necessary for the survival of mankind is now viewed as a promiscuous act.
This leads me to my final explanation for negative feedback of public breastfeeding; 'erotophillia'. Erotophillia is an aspect of personality used to describe an individual's openness to sex and sexuality. If one responds negatively towards sexual stimuli, they are demonstrating personality traits of 'erotophobia' (Forbes 2005). These are the type of people who perceive sex and sexual acts as inappropriate, pornographic, disgusting and avoid anything of this nature. If one responds positively to sexual stimuli, they are demonstrating traits of 'erotophilia' (Forbes 2005). These people are attracted to this type of behavior. They are comfortable with topics related to sex, sexuality and embrace sexual behaviors. According to Gordon Forbes, the negative emotional response linked to breastfeeding in public is likely due to the sexualization of female breast and how the individual general attitude towards sexuality (Forbes 2005). This can explain why those who are not comfortable with sexuality are less likely to support a breastfeeding mother in public. Whereas, those who are comfortable with sexuality, are more likely to show support (Forbes 2005).
It is also known that people are very uncomfortable with bodily fluids, especially those associated with reproduction. These fluids include sweat, urine, sperm, discharge, and blood. Most people are not comfortable talking about these and even experiencing them from their own bodies. Some people experience embarrassment or shame with these fluids, causing one to feel self-conscious at a young age. These anxieties can further develop into phobias that relate anything in that manner later on in life. In the case of breastfeeding, breast milk is also considered to be a bodily fluid associated with reproduction. With the already sexualized view of breasts, it likely for one to associate the same feelings of disgust when exposed to breastfeeding. That is why most people believe that restrooms are more appropriate settings for mothers to perform their nursing duties since that is where most people eliminate their bodily fluids.
Breastfeeding and Identity
Breastfeeding is highly associated with the identity of being a mother. It is a symbol of nurturing and wellbeing. It is an act that only females can identify with and it is closely tied to the ideals of motherhood. Mothers who breastfeed often feel a sense of belonging to a community (Acker 2009). There are many breastfeeding support groups and social networks created by nursing mothers. It is a common place where mothers can go to feel supported, if not by their family and friends. Because breastfeeding is an important time to bond with a baby, it reinforces a mother identity. If mothers are able to successfully latch their baby and nurse for the recommended length of time, it can make a mother feel very accomplished. This can boost their confidence and strengthen their identity as a good mother.
However, some mothers feel that breastfeeding will actually distant them from their self-identity. Making the decision to naturally breastfeed a child is a huge commitment. It is very time to consume, almost like a second job. Majority of your day is devoted to providing food for your child. This may require dropping old habits and adapt to a new lifestyle, for some this can be difficult.
According to one study, their results showed that most mothers indicated a loss of independence result of breastfeeding (Andrew 2010). Breastfeeding put a lot of constraints on a mother's social life due to inability to be apart from her baby for a long period of time. It has also been reported that some individual who wished to re-establish their identities are more than a 'stay at home' mother and wanted to get back into the workplace as soon as possible. But having to meet the demands of both work and breastfeeding proved to be quite difficult. Mothers stating that 'they would not be able to continue providing breast milk at work because it is inconvenient and embarrassing' (Andrew 2010). As mentioned in chapter six in the Kroger textbook, one of the challenges of identity in early adulthood is having to find the right balance between one's own identity needs and those of significant others or children (Kroger 2007). When breastfeeding there are many things a mother can and cannot do. Since mother's physical health needs to be in optimal shape in order to produce healthy milk for her child, this may mean moms will change their diet, exercise more or giving up alcohol. Fist time mothers who valued their self-identity and wished to preserve it viewed breastfeeding as a detrimental threat (Andrew 2010).
Another barrier from breastfeeding that was often reported from mothers, was the fear of embarrassment or isolation due to the lack of support the felt from their communities, partners, and family members. It is not easy for a nursing mom to expose their body in public in order to feed their child. Most women are sensitive about their physical appearance, so when people stare or make comments, it does make them feel self-conscious. Also, women are concerned more about the negative responses they may receive from the male counterparts (Boyer 2016). They are worried that their partners and other males may not find them physically attractive because they are nursing.
In conclusion, breastfeeding in public areas is a very controversial subject. Although it is slowly becoming more accepted now, most people do not favor women breastfeeding in public. When people do see a woman pull out her breast to nurse in public, it can cause psychological discomfort.
Although it is not completed rejected by society, most people would prefer women to use some type of cover-up method or relocate to a more private setting if they do choose to nurse in public. There are several explanations that provide answers to these reactions. One is that lack familiarity with this act. Because not many women breastfeed outside of their homes it is unfamiliar to many when seen out in public. The second explanation is the sexualization of women's breast, particularly in western culture. Breast are viewed as a means for sexual stimulation rather than for nursing babies. Lastly, the development of erotophilia within the personalities of others. Those whose share positive outlook on sexuality will embrace and support breastfeeding in public. Whereas those who view sex and sexuality negatively, will show a lack of support and view breastfeeding as inappropriate if done in public. Breastfeeding coincides highly with the identity of motherhood because it also reinforces the ideals of what it means to be a mom. However, the negative feedback mothers receive from onlookers can cause them to feel embarrassed and excluded from society. There are no laws that prohibit women from breastfeeding in public, but we do not promote these mother's rights enough.
I believe if mothers came together and breastfed their children in public more often, people would become desensitized and the negative outlooks would slowly diminish over time. It is very important that society comes together on this issue, in order to provide the support the needs of nursing mothers. Being a mom is one of the toughest jobs in the world and they should never feel like isolated or shamed just for providing the best possible future for their baby.
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