Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed January 1998
Copyright ©1997 by Kate Norman

Breastfeeding, done in public or in private, is best for mother and child

Kate Norman of Greenfield, Mass., is a sophomore studying at Brown University.

"the sexualization of the breast in American culture makes women embarrassed and ... unable to breastfeed outside their homes or the ladies bathroom"

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that women begin breastfeeding within an hour of their child's birth and continue to do so for at least one year - longer if feasible.

Yet despite that recommendation and numerous studies that demonstrate the enormous health benefits mothers and children obtain from breastfeeding, women continue to confront obstacles to doing what is best for their infants. Not so long ago, a woman who was breastfeeding her three-month-old child in a New York shopping mall was asked to leave because she had been "exposing herself."

We ought to see more women breastfeeding their children in public, but the sexualization of the breast in American culture makes women embarrassed and, as in the case of the New York mother, unable to breastfeed outside of their homes or the ladies bathroom. In her article about "The Cultural Context of Breastfeeding," Katherine Dettwyler compares the American preoccupation with the breast to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding. For women in ancient China, the idea that tiny feet symbolized sensuality compromised their ability to fulfill the foot's biological use - walking. Just as Chinese women were forced to hobble around because of a cultural belief about sensuality, modern American mothers are hobbled because the biological utilization of their breasts has been compromised by their sensual image.

There are some who are concerned that by promoting breastfeeding as the ideal way to feed infants, women are being told to return to the kitchen. Breastfeeding should not force working women to give up their wages, nor should it force a woman who works as a homemaker to choose between staying in the nursery or participating in daily activities outside the home. It is precisely for this reason that breastfeeding in public should not only be protected by law, but generally accepted.

Many states have passed legislation protecting a woman's right to breastfeed - Florida, Delaware, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey and Illinois are just a few. Although such legislation is an important show of support, it does not solve the problem entirely. Women must be encouraged not to compromise the needs of their children out of embarrassment and not to compromise their own need to continue their lives as they aliment their babies.

The answer to the breastfeeding dilemma is not to relegate women to the bathroom as some entrepreneurs have suggested but rather to overcome the connotations attached to the breast so that women are not ashamed to feed their children in the way that is most beneficial to their health. This does not mean entirely desexualizing the breast but accepting its other functions as natural, nurturing organs.

Just ask the 40 women who staged a "nurse-in" at the New York shopping mall the day after the breastfeeding mother was asked to leave. They know that breastfeeding women, in order to promote their children's health, need to be able to feed their children in public as well as private settings.