Could we please, in the name of all that is desirable and nurturing, get over the dichotomy of the breast?
Breasts are fun. They’re so fun that we’ve named them funbags, squeezeboxes, jugs, hooters, racks, boobs, and tits. They’re fun to look at, fun to touch and squeeze. They bounce. Men like them, and that is a good thing.
Breasts can be fun to own. They give a woman pleasure, and that is a good thing. They are an important part of a woman’s body—emblematic of her femininity, her sexuality. When a girl begins to develop breasts, it is her body’s way of saying she will one day be a woman, and a girl listens to that. She listens as the growing pains shoot through her chest, she listens as her mother and grandmother talk about finding a bra. Breasts are such an important part of the transition from girlhood to womanhood that we sometimes call them girls.
Breasts can be a total drag to own. You have to figure out what to do with them—hike ‘em up, pump ‘em up, flatten ‘em out, air ‘em out, cover ‘em up. They’re sensitive, and if one of them gets kicked or pinched or squashed it hurts like hell. Growing them hurts too. Sometimes they grow too fast, and a girl hates being teased for it. Sometimes they grow too slow, and a girl wonders when she will look like other girls. Breasts always grow just right, but girls don’t always know that. It’s confusing to grow breasts.
It’s confusing to own breasts, because breasts are great at selling things.
They are FABULOUS at selling beer. They’re also quite handy when one needs to sell a cheeseburger, a car, some soda, a TV show, a video game, or most anything a man could want. Oh, yes, and bras. Breasts are good at selling bras.
It’s confusing to own breasts, because on a deeply subconscious level (or maybe not so subconscious) a woman has to wonder—if breasts are so great at selling things, does that mean the ones on her body would be? Sexy enough to sell something, that is? What if the ones on her body are smaller than most of the ones that sell stuff—or bigger? What if they bounce less, or more? What if they’re not simultaneously perky and exceedingly large—is that natural, and sexy? Yes, the cultural interest in breasts can be confusing to a woman.
And it’s not like this confusion is an occasional thing, say something we run into once every couple of months. No, breasts are so fantastic at selling things that they pop up everywhere, all the time. I haven’t studied the matter, but it would be interesting to know how many breasts the average American views in a week. I bet we really rack ‘em up.
Of all these breasts we see, very few are ever doing what they were made to do: feeding children. That’s right, y’all. The magnificent, versatile breast not only brings us pleasure and sells us a variety of fascinating and delicious products, it also feeds children.
A breast can go her whole life and never meet a child, and be just fine with her perky or swingin self. A breast can go her whole life, meet a child, and introduce that child to a bottle—and be just fine with her perky or swingin self. But if a breast meets a child and feeds that child—watch out, y’all. She’s gonna have to figure out how to feed that child without upsetting anyone. And that is not an easy thing to do.
There are periodic outcries against women who breastfeed in public. Sometimes women are made to feel ashamed—asked to cover up, as if they were doing something indecent. Facebook has removed pictures of breastfeeding women, labeling them obscene. Read that again. Breastfeeding has been, in a variety of contexts and for many years, seen as obscene. However, using breasts to sell beer or cheeseburgers does not violate any societal code of conduct. Just ask Kim Kardashian, whose glorious breasts conform perfectly to cultural expectations: breasts are for fun, silly. Not for food.
Why, in the name of all that is pleasurable and seductive, do we freak out when a woman wants to feed her child in public, but we don’t freak out when she wants to use her breasts to sell something?
My husband offered three words in response to this question: “It’s the nipple.”
He has a point. Although most of the breast is considered fair viewing game, the nipple is not. We like to keep that covered, and we are shocked and outraged if a woman shows one, even accidentally, like through a wardrobe malfunction brought on by a serious lack of wardrobe. Maybe it makes us anxious to imagine that we might see one, even accidentally, like when a new mom is trying to feed her hungry baby.
But I don’t think people really get upset about breastfeeding because they’re anxious about nipples. Sometimes public outrage gets going when there’s no nipple involved whatsoever.
I think people get anxious because of what the nipple represents.
The nipple is the nexus of a woman’s pleasure.
It is also the fount of a baby’s sustenance.
In the nipple, we find a silent summation of the breast’s dual purpose. And in a breast partially exposed to feed a child, we find a silent reminder that no breast, anywhere, was created to sell a damn thing to anyone.
What a radical thought.
Our societal response to this radical thought—and to the breast’s real purposes—makes it confusing to breastfeed a child. If everyone thinks it’s wrong to do this in public, but it’s okay to draw a salary for exposing your breasts (though never your nipples!) to sell products, what does this say about the breast? What does it say about feeding children? And what about—gasp!—the fact that breastfeeding can be relaxing and enjoyable, in an entirely different way than having someone squeeze your funbags is enjoyable? What’s a woman to do with the contradictions of it all?
Add to this confusion the fact that breastfeeding can be logistically challenging, physically draining, and emotionally overwhelming, and you have a real firestorm on your hands—all because your body is trying to do what it was made to do.
Fortunately, the firestorm blows over. Breasts, when left to their own devices, are wonderful at figuring themselves out.
Looking into a nursing child’s face, knowing that your body is nurturing the infant you suddenly and prehistorically love—there’s nothing like it. A hormone—oxytocin—is released when a woman nurses her baby. It bonds them together, and it calms them both. This process is the most natural thing in the world. And after a while—a month or two—you realize that. You feed your child, you go about your day, and you get used to thinking of your breasts in a new way. Yes, they are for pleasure. But they are also for feeding a child. If God is down with that—and, if you believe God invented the system, you have to believe God is down with that—then you can be too.
Moving along, then—the breast can be pleasurable for a woman (and for a man), and the breast can feed a baby. If exhausted, overwhelmed, sometimes shamed nursing mothers can figure this out, I think it’s about time we asked the question:
How, in the name of all that is vulnerable and resilient, can we continue to pretend that the breast is anything other than what it is—a beautiful part of a woman’s body that can and sometimes does help another human being to survive, and even to thrive?