The Demonisation of Breasts

I started to think about this in the summer, when I read a news story which went like this: in Italy a woman was sunbathing topless on a beach and when rubbing suncream on her breasts, was confronted by another woman who told her to cover up because her bare breasts were ‘confusing’ her teenage sons. The police were called and, although being topless is not illegal in Italy, the sunbathing woman was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’.

This reminded me of a conversation I had had with a friend while I was staying in America. My friend related how she had been in a bar one night and had felt disgusted at the sight of a woman who was obviously not wearing a bra under her top. The top was not see through, but the sight of the shape of a natural breast, and moreover the message that this bra-less woman was deemed to be sending out, had my friend morally outraged. She concluded that the woman must have been a prostitute.

In the case of the sunbather, I feel so disappointed that the mother did not take the opportunity to explain to her sons that there is nothing confusing about breasts, they are simply one part of a woman’s body and that while of course they may look good, feel good and play a sexual function, they are, essentially, there to produce milk to feed babies. However, instead of educating her sons, she victimised the sunbather and reinforced the message that breasts are dirty, to be hidden away and kept from view.

In the case of my friend, appalled that a woman would chose not to wear a bra, I could not believe that this is what womankind has come to. Gone are the days when we would burn bras to protest against their real and symbolic constraining of the natural female form, now the natural shape of a breast is seen as dirty and lewd.

Meanwhile, facebook has a big problem with breasts, especially nipples. Not men’s nipples of course, only women’s. A topless male is fine; a topless female corrupts. For months now, I’ve been hearing about photographers having their images removed from facebook when breasts are shown. If the nipples are censored, it seems that’s acceptable. I’m not talking sexually explicit, page three, pornographic images. I’m talking high fashion, tasteful, artistic images of the likes seen in Vogue, where the woman’s chest just happens to be naked and in shot, not like the images of Nuts or Zoo, where the model is holding a sexually provocative pose and showing her breasts as a means to encourage sexual arousal. Presumably, the removal all images showing breats on facebook is done under clause 3.7 of the facebook ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ which states that “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”. It is hard to know whether the images are removed because they are deemed pornographic or simply because they contain nudity, but I’m assuming it’s the latter because the images are clearly not pornographic. They are not sexually explicit images whose primary purpose is to create sexual arousal. So if it’s because the images contain nudity, then why are topless pictures of men not removed? What are facebook telling us here? That the naked female chest, especially the nipple area, is obscene and dirty? These would be the same breasts, the same nipples, that many of us suckle from as babies and go on to feed our own babies with.

Which of course leads us on to one of the more damaging elements of this issue, which is the impact that all of this has on breastfeeding. A UK Department of Health survey found that 84% of people find breastfeeding in public acceptable if done discreetly. Therefore, it seems that the onus is on the mother, when feeding her child, to be discreet.  Heaven forbid the general public should see some flesh or, shock horror, a bit of nipple when a baby is getting it’s nourishment. (It seems our nipple-shy friends at facebook also find breastfeeding obscene and will remove images of women feeding their babies under, you’ve guessed it, clause 3.7; you can join the protest against this by joining the group ‘Hey facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!’). And so now there are a great number of tent-like products available for new mothers to buy to hide their baby and breasts under when they’re feeding. As if you haven’t enough to buy / worry about / carry around when you have a baby, apparently you should also lug around a contraption with which to shield the world from your shameful act of nature.

And now, apparently, legs are in danger of becoming equally disturbing. On Monday (1st November, 2010) the Italian town of Castellammare di Stabia will undertake a vote to establish whether to ban the miniskirt, under anti-social behaviour legislation. Yes, showing your legs is anti-social. A local parish priest has argued that the measure will also help to reduce sexual harassment. Forget having a culture that recognises that women’s bodies are not merely sexual objects and that refraining from sexual harassment is the responsibility of the perpetrator and not the victim. Oh no, just cover up ladies! This is harking back to the days when it was acceptable to question a rape victim on what clothes she was wearing at the time of attack, or whether she had red lipstick on, to determine whether she was “asking for it”.

The over-sexualisation and, ultimately, demonisation of women’s bodies undoubtedly comes from society’s obsession with sex and the mainstreaming of women being regarded as purely sexual objects. In this respect, Kira Cochrane’s article on pornography is very thought-provoking. Subconsciously, we are being encouraged more and more to automatically associate a woman’s body with sex, in a way which we do not do with men. In doing so, we are both putting women’s bodies up onto a pedestal, where they are seen as desirable in a way in which men’s are not, but also shameful, in that they are always associated with sex, which we too often associate with shame.  Boobs are just boobs, they’re bits of flesh, just one part of a woman’s body. Some women have big breasts, some have small ones, some don’t have any. Can we please stop making such a big deal out of them?  If you think “sex” every time you see breasts, then you need to re-train your brain. The problem’s in your head, not on her chest.

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14 Responses to The Demonisation of Breasts

  1. Kris says:

    Thank you.

  2. Laurissa says:

    Well said!

  3. Aisha says:

    loved this article thanks so much for creating a thought provoking article. It also reminds me of how the Victorians would cover the legs of pianos and tables because the sight was considered “too much” for women. Why is everyone but the woman allowed to decide how her body looks? Western society likes to look down on the Arab countries for their women’s lack of freedom in dressing, yet here we are doing the same thing just not quite as drastic (yet)

  4. Jennifer says:

    I was traveling in Italy 18 tears ago with my infant son and noticing images of bare-breasted women at news stands in small villages as well as big cities. There were also topless women (& men!) at beaches. However, when I was nursing my baby at a dinner party, I was ushered into a bedroom with the door closed so I could have some privacy, which I didn’t want or need. I needed to eat and enjoy the party! I nursed my 3 kids for 3-4 years each and never covered up. Here in Seattle I have been noticing pop-up tents women erect around themselves & their babies to breastfeed “discreetly”. It pisses me off as I feel like it might make new mothers who otherwise would go about their business feel like they should do the same. And it looks like a major hassle and probably encourages bottle feeding as it must be easier and less awkward to pack a bottle around. I think nursing covers (which are marketed as a way to “nurse in style”) are setting us back to the mid 20th century and are right next to formula as things to avoid for successful breastfeeding. Thanks for the awesome post, Gloria. This has been on my mind since last week when I saw a mother who was shoe shopping while nursing and had most of her breast exposed- her baby covered her nipple. I wanted to thank her for her lactivism, intended or not, but my belief that women don’t need strangers commenting on their bodies won out.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Sorry for calling you Gloria in my recent comment- your blog head photo is the same as a midwife named Gloria Lemay who addresses pertinent topics in a most excellent way just as you have. I saw your blog from a link from Midwifery Today on facebook, by the way.

  6. Melissa says:

    Great post! Some of the most beautiful statue fountains are Italian ones showing powerful females spraying their milk into the air..will Italy make those fountains cover up for lewd conduct??? I guess breasts are ok to sell beer and bras but heave forbid they be used to feed babies, gasp. I highly suggest the book, Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts”. As a lactation consultant in private practice I am always reading technical stuff but this book was a lovely, refreshing look at the many roles our breast play and how we feel about them.

  7. mrsculpepper says:

    While recognizing that there is no shame in breastfeeding, can we recognize that there’s no shame in sexuality either? For whatever reason breasts have come to serve a dual function in western society. The primary function is feeding babies and children. Feeding is a built in biological function but sexuality has come to be so strongly associated with bare breasts that I don’t think we will change that. And thats ok. The function any particular bare breast happens to be serving is of course dictated by wether or not there is a child feeding from it, and by what function the woman to whom it belongs is assigning it at the time.

    • thethreebees says:

      Thanks for your comment, mrsculpepper, I totally agree! That’s what I was alluding to at the beginning of the article, when I said that breasts look good, feel good and serve a sexual function, and in the last paragraph, where I said that too often we associate sex with shame. But perhaps it wasn’t clear enough. Breasts serve a dual function and often no function at all! And I agree that that’s fine, in fact I’d say that it’s great. I also think it’s worth noting that, of course, many women don’t have children (including myself) or if they do, some cannot breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed… and, of course, that’s fine too!

  8. Adrienne says:

    Just wanted to post a different perspective. First of all I admire all you ladies who can take breastfeeding so naturally. I have one dd who I nursed til 18 months (wanted to do longer but she was done). In my family I was strange for nursing so long. Also I was seen as “indiscreet” for nursing in public… WITH a blanket. This is just how I grew up. I remember seeing my mom nursing the babies, and it was no problem. However I have 5 brothers, and while they saw mom nurse when really young, as teens the nursing mother would’ve been in a different room. It’s sad because like one of my SIL’s said, “I don’t want to nurse anymore. I miss out on too much” and one of my brothers said in regards to me nursing in a restaurant and not going to the bathroom or car to nurse: “When I get married, my wife will never do that!”
    I was raised in a strict Christian home and it’s hard to break out of the barriers and “thou shalt not’s” that are added to your life. Fortunately for me my husband is very different from my family and says the boobs belong to baby as long as baby needs them. (My dad on the other hand, insisted my mom wean just after 6 months so he could “have them back”).
    I did use a blanket in public while nursing DD, I’m still self-concious about my breasts. It’s difficult to break out of old ideas. So please don’t condemn all of us who nurse covered in public. Sometimes it’s a big step, just to be in public, since everyone KNOWS what you’re doing under there!!
    I’m currently preggers and looking forward to my parents coming to visit when my next nursling has arrived. I may still use a blanket, but I’m not going to the bedroom, and I know my dad will squirm. LOL.
    I enjoyed your article. I hope to do a good job with my dd and children that nursing will be a normalized part of life, not something so private that needs to be done in a darkened room, alone (or with other women).

    • Jennifer says:

      I appreciate your candor, Adrienne. I think every generation has the opportunity to break free from outdated ideas, so good for you! I was also seen as a freak in both my husband’s and my own family, but I’m enough of a rebel that I didn’t take their views to heart. Your dad may squirm- mine did- but he’ll be fine and see that you and your baby are fine.

  9. The Italian woman with the sunscreen was eventually let go without much proceeding. Still, the main point remains, and you’ve made it well.

    Please note that Facebook removes photos capriciously and without regard to anything. Its so-called rules are inconsistent, hypocritical, ignorant, and insulting. For evidence:

    and pages numercially descending from there: 13 12 11 10 9 7 6.

  10. Purple Doula says:

    …. hitting the ‘like’ button frantically……..

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