Why is Society So Bothered by Seeing Women Breastfeeding? // Stephanie Steele-Wren



Caption for cartoon picture: From David Horsey, Los Angeles Times

“The border between motherhood and sexuality is lived out in the way women experience their breasts and in the cultural marking of breasts. To be understood as sexual, the feeding function of breasts must be suppressed, and when the breasts are nursing they are desexualized”.
- Young 2003, p.159

Over the past year, there has been increased national and global attention toward women breastfeeding their infants in public. Both men and women often have very negative reactions to women breastfeeding, yet advertisements, media, and public displays of breasts (that are not intended for breastfeeding infants) are seen as “sexy”, desirable, and acceptable in our society. This issue taps into societal sexual objectification and oppression of women in that the women who are seen breastfeeding are shunned for doing something natural that biologically keeps our species going, while the women showing cleavage in public are lusted after and their displays are considered socially appropriate. I feel it is important to describe this issue based on women’s location in society and the history of women's sexuality being oppressed (i.e. men not wanting to hear about or see breastfeeding, or being disgusted about women's menstrual cycles and pregnancy).

As this issue has gained national attention, the stories of women who have experienced such negative reactions have been rapidly shared via social media, but this is not changing the beliefs of many people who continue to see these women as committing illegal, disgusting acts. In this blog, I would like to provide insight to key social psychological concepts that are relevant to people’s reactions to breastfeeding in public. First, I will discuss the more general issues surrounding women’s basic rights to breastfeeding, then move on to sexual objectification theory applied to this phenomenon, then social construction theory, then gender inequality, and lastly, end with a discussion on the implications of this phenomenon as a whole to mental health professionals.

Issue of Women’s Basic Rights to Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has been proven to be beneficial for infants, as well as their mothers, on many levels. In terms of health benefits, the cells, hormones, and antibodies in breast milk protect babies from illness and is said to put individuals at lower risk for other health complications later in life (Office on Women’s Health, 2014). Breastfeeding has also been said to lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancers for the mothers who breastfeed their infants (Stuebe, 2009). Breastfeeding can also save money for the entire country. The United States would save billions per year in medical care costs since than never-breastfed infants have more office visits than those who are fully-breastfed (Office of the Surgeon General, 2011). In addition, mothers who breastfeed miss less work overall to care for sick infants than mothers who feed their infants formula (Office on Women’s Health, 2014). The environment also benefits since less formula cans and bottle supplies are used. Furthermore, breastfed infants have stronger emotional bonds with others and less mental health issues in the future (Oddy, Kendall, Li, Jacoby, Robinson, de Klerk, 2010).

So if all of these benefits are associated with breastfeeding for more than just the mother and her baby, why are women being shunned from breastfeeding in public places, especially considering breastfeeding anywhere is a legal right in 49 states currently (National Conference of State Legislature, 2016)? This issue has most likely been introduced by society due to longstanding issues of the oppression of women, especially in this phenomenon where women’s natural, biological bodies are not supported. Women may have more rights today than they did years ago, but new mothers find themselves in difficult positions where they are unsupported as mothers. For example, in terms of this phenomenon, breastfeeding mothers being called derogatory names in public and forced to leave, while advertisements’ and public display of breasts, not intended for feeding children, are seen as sexy and desirable, creates a dichotomy for new mothers where their breasts being used for natural purposes are made as socially unacceptable.

Women are also not supported in the workplace to breastfeed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (1997) recommends breastfeeding alone for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as other foods are slowly introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as deemed fit by mother and infant." Yet, there are no laws (only some guidelines) in existence protecting women’s health rights to breastfeed, let alone take sufficient time off from work for maternity leave, if any paid time off. In addition, many insurance companies are known to make it difficult for women to access breastfeeding equipment, such as breast pumps, nursing pads or bras, or materials to store milk properly for later use (National Women’s Law Center, 2015).

Many women also report a lack of education from their healthcare providers about the benefits of breast feeding, so many decide not to, thinking it is not all that crucial to the health of their babies (Office on Women’s Health, 2014). More related to gender issues, is the lack of family support, where the fathers often do not value the process of breastfeeding and the effort it entails for mothers to successfully breastfeed (Reid, 2013). Breastfeeding is a huge commitment for women in allocating their time efficiently, their money, their energy, and their bodies, and in meeting their needs as individuals, workers, and mothers which is very difficult within the constraints of society. Women’s basic rights to be able to breastfeed are unsupported in many venues in our society, which also plays into oppression toward women’s bodies as mentioned before. Men also seem to influence many of women’s decisions and have the power to do so, especially in deciding on laws to protect women. Next, a discussion on the sexual objectification of women by men will be an appropriate transition.

The Sexual Objectification Theory- A Feminist Critique

Now, with an overview of the lack of support for basic women’s rights impinging on breastfeeding, I will offer a discussion of the underlying assumptions and ideologies of social psychology operating in the phenomenon of shaming women who breastfeed via sexual objectification theory. In terms of social psychology perspectives, objectification theory presents as an insightful critique in explaining people’s attitudes toward women breastfeeding in public and in general.

Women have been sexually objectified since the earliest history of our species (Schama, 1989). Women’s bodies have long served the role of men viewing them. Objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) posits that women are sexually objectified and treated as an object to be valued for its use by others, namely men. Sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire (Bartky, 1990).

Furthermore, objectification theory provides a framework to understand how the manner in which women’s bodies are treated in our society and how it then affects women (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). In much of American society, the female body is constructed through society as an object to be looked at, critically evaluated, and used. Objectification is routinely experienced by women in their daily lives, through interpersonal and social encounters (Swim, Hyers, Cohen, & Ferguson, 2001), and constant exposure to media that objectifies women in as many ways as it possibly can (Aubrey, 2007).

In addition, the hypersexualized female breast is connected to the male gaze (Bartky, 1990). Kaplan (1983) identifies the male gaze as a, “cultural vehicle for images that construct ideal visions of woman- a mechanism of sexualization and objectification- which also serves to annihilate the threat of women by denying their sexual agency” (p. 311). Kaplan also claims that the male gaze has been utilized to depict motherhood as a form of repression. In doing so, women’s breasts that are affected in appearance by motherhood are no longer seen as sexually desirable. Therefore, the male gaze clearly divides the female body as “sexual” or “maternal,” but never as one. In creating such dualism of sexual versus maternal, men continue to repress women from being in control and from defining their own sexuality (Bartky, 1990). This is a major part of the reason why women are shamed in public for breastfeeding and why they are told what they are doing is wrong and that they need to be stopped for such presumed indecent exposure due to such a duality of women’s sexuality and motherhood in American society. The concept of the male gaze can be applied to breastfeeding being seen as indecent to men because the male gaze centers on women as sexual beings only, and not as mothers performing their necessary biological duties, unless it is to serve the sexual pleasure and desires of men.

Social Construction Theory

Next, highly related to objectification theory, it is appropriate to explain the phenomenon of women being shamed for breastfeeding via social construction theory, which has been alluded to in the previously section, but requires further critique of the issue. Gough, McFadden, and McDonald (2013) describe social constructionism as the role of language in defining or constructing reality, in which women’s breasts are constantly and primarily focused on as sexual objects by men that seem to be the focus of a woman’s sexuality and her desirability. Related to sexual objectification, Gervains et al. (2012)’s findings suggested that people fundamentally process women’s bodies as parts rather than as a whole. However, they found that simple manipulations in orientation and space alleviate this phenomenon, which supports the claim that women’s breasts and bodies and how they are used and viewed is highly socially constructed.

The negative public perception of breastfeeding in American society most likely has connections to the social construction of women’s breasts as they have taken on a specific reality as sexual objects exclusively for the sexual pleasure of men. Breasts have become “the crown jewels of femininity” (Stearns, 1999, p. 309). Furthermore, “the gender script enforced by the cultural standard of emphasized femininity requires female breasts to not only meet a criteria of physical demands- that they be perfect orbs, large and unmarred by the ravages of motherhood or disease- but they must also be consistently available for sexual pleasure” (Carathers, 2014, p. 9).

Furthermore, empirical studies provide support for the claim that women’s breasts are socially constructed as sexually desirable objects. Beck, Ward-Hull, and McLear (1976) found that males of the United States rate a female’s figure with breasts larger than the average female breast size more favorably than others. Additionally, Wildman and Wildman (1976) found that the bust was the most sexually stimulating female body part for males and that men preferred larger busts than women typically possess on average, thus contributing to the reasons why breasts are so hypersexualized in American society.

There is very little depiction of breastfeeding in the media aside from magazines marketed toward mothers, whereas mentioned before, breasts are hypersexualized in all other media. Acker (2009) describes this phenomenon well in that, “images available emphasize the private sphere of life with mothers in nightgowns, rather than out in public” (p. 477). Thus, this implies that breasts that are lactating should be confined to the home and kept out of any public realm due to their socially constructed meaning of being sexual and intended for men’s pleasure.

Since breasts are socially constructed as sex objects, any other use is then seen as deviating from the norm. Therefore, public breastfeeding is often seen as an act of indecent exposure, so breastfeeding mothers who nurse in public have been labeled “nasty, offensive, rude, and distasteful” (Acker, 2009, p. 479). This now brings in an issue of society and power; the issue of who has the power to determine the appropriate uses of women’s bodies (Carathers, 2014). Such a patriarchal society has defined what is considered feminine and thus, the understanding of women’s bodies, in which, glorifying breasts as they relate strictly to men, as sexual objects for men’s viewing and pleasure (Young, 2003). The biological body certainly has sexual purposes due to reproduction and ultimately survival, but the meanings we as a society apply to the body and how bodies are used are clearly socially constructed.

There are several notable factors influencing the response to women breastfeeding in public due to the hypersexualized social construction of breasts. First, the constant sexualization of breasts in the media has served to amplify the objectivity and deconstruction of women into body parts, mainly their breasts (Hall & Crum, 1994). To men and women alike, breasts are what make a woman a woman and the most visible to the eye feminine feature (Blood, 2005). This male, socially-constructed view of femininity also requires that female breasts must be untouched by the natural effects of motherhood and remain voluptuous and near perfect, or else they are not seen as sexually desirable. This is seen in how women’s breasts’ and their sex appeal are used to sell products, to make film and television more appealing, and to entice people to men’s sporting events where women are scantily dressed and solely sexual objects, among other things in our society (Hall & Crum, 1994). Therefore, breasts that do not measure up to societal standards, especially during motherhood, are not meant to be seen by men. Breasts are created to be sexual entities in society, which leads a discussion into gender inequality and why women who choose to breastfeed are constantly unsupported and mistreated.

Gender Inequality and Breastfeeding

Along with this dichotomy of motherhood versus sexuality, as previously mentioned, women’s basic rights over their own bodies and not being shamed for their decisions (breastfeeding in public, sufficient maternal leaves from work, allowing time for women to breastfeed at work, time off for obstetrician appointments, not being taxed on feminine products, etc.) all connect especially in that male leaders often make these decisions for women and perpetuate the negative attitudes toward women’s maternal bodies. Contemporary social psychology offers us some insight into how inequality is perpetuated in daily interaction. Risman (2004) suggests that, “In a sexist and racist society, women and all persons of color are expected to have less to contribute to task performances than are white men, unless they have some other externally validated source of prestige” (p.437). Hence, there is a strong historical bias that serves to reproduce gender inequality in everyday life interactions.

Thus, Connell (1987) outlines a theory of how gender operates through social structures that leads to unequal access to opportunities and resources on the basis of sex; thus, these patterns lead to gender-based inequities in political, economic, and social status, which always place women as inferior. The costs of breastfeeding are raised by role differentiation that leads to unequal parental role expectations and economic opportunity, by social norms and policies that associate male bodies with authority and productivity, and by social norms that complicate women's search for social status (Connell, 1987). For example, employed women may be legitimately concerned about how breastfeeding or pumping may affect their relationships with their colleagues or superiors, or how breastfeeding might affect the admiration and respect others have for them all on the account of feeling shameful of their bodies and doing something natural that a male-dominated society frowns upon (Smith, 2013). Women in the workplace, as mentioned previously, are already seen as inferior workers. Therefore, breastfeeding singles them out as being different in the aspect that they need to handle many different roles and that their male counterparts may look down upon female coworkers who are no longer serving the role of the male gaze and thus, their place in society.

Unfortunately, these differences create a societal discourse that posits a false dichotomy between the body as opportunity to nourish and the body as constricting and a stressor (Connell, 1987). Women are expected to fulfill their roles as mothers, but also as working citizens, as well as sexual beings upon the terms of males, which creates a multitude of stressors for women with numerous responsibilities, especially when they are seen as inferior in all roles, as much of my argument has suggested. The distinctions between men and women in American society seems to form the basis of power that values masculinity over femininity, which helps to ignore mothers, their needs, and the needs of their infants (Bem, 1993). Women sustain life biologically, so it would seem men would want women to prosper and highly nourish their young to carry on male genes, but this is not the case entirely, when it comes to supporting omen in all contexts of life. American employment practices have largely ignored the needs of mothers that are a result of their unique biology, as previously mentioned. Social policies and norms fail to value women's unique ability to be mothers, work against the female body and its needs, whereas in doing so, society does not support women’s needs to fully participate in the social world, which certainly continues to perpetuate their inferiority (Ridegway, 2011).

Furthermore, the failure to support women's bodies means that women who have less control over their time, space, and their bodies are highly burdened when pregnant, so making the choice to breastfeed, while also fulfilling their professional and personal roles, then becomes a difficult one to make. Again, women are seemingly punished in ways for their natural bodies and motherhood, and not given basic rights to breastfeed as they need to, regardless of where they are or who they are around; and this violation of their rights is controlled by a patriarchal society. It seems as though women are isolated quite often due to their demands from society where males make and influence many of their decisions, as women are the inferior gender and serve the purpose of pleasing men, which can be seen with this phenomenon as women are disrespected for the action of breastfeeding, and not only in the public realm.

The Discourse on Women’s Breasts Related to Their Location in Society

As evidence suggests, it seems as though the root of this social constructed problem of women breastfeeding in public is the belief that women’s sexuality is dangerous and bad (Bartky,1990). Breastfeeding in society is not seen as a desirable part of women’s sexuality, so when women choose to breastfeed and do so in public, they are seen as disrupting the way they should act in public, as our patriarchal society puts forth. Therefore, in this case, women's sexuality is framed as having the power to corrupt men and boys, and make them lose control (Carathers, 2014). Female sexuality should be hidden from public view, and only expressed when invited or coerced by a man (Acker, 2009). This leads into the discussion of the discourse on gender, femininity, and motherhood in explaining the phenomenon of breastfeeding in public being seen as so aversive.

The issues with discourse on gender, feminist, and even breasts in general have been alluded to throughout this post, but not significantly analyzed. As previously discussed, displaying one’s breast for the use of feeding a baby is often seen as culturally deviant in that the norm is for women to solely show their breasts for men and not when breasts are plagued by motherhood, as previously mentioned are then undesirable and we get the dichotomy of being “sexual” or a mother. Bartlett (2002) claims, “Specific acts of breastfeeding can therefore be read as challenging and resisting dominant discourses- of changing the cultural scripts available” (p. 113). In this way, breastfeeding in public can be seen as a “symbolic threat” to the feminine discourse in place in American society that demands mothering be confined to the home (Bartlett, 2002, p. 118). Therefore, engaging in breastfeeding in public spaces challenges the gender scripts available to women and can be seen, likely on an implicit level, as a threat to the patriarchal structure of society, which places women below men who should make decisions based on the influence and wants of men, and what has been in place for centuries.There still appears to be a societal view that men’s behavior is the standard, while women’s behaviors are often seen as abnormal, especially when they deviate from cultural norms, such as breastfeeding in public (Ridgeway, 2011).

Internalized Sexism Applied to Public Breastfeeding

One would think that other women are more sympathetic with fellow women who breastfeed their babies in public. Alas, this is not the case. Several (informal) social experiments on social media platforms show a high number of women shaming other women for breastfeeding in public. This sub-phenomenon brings internalized sexism, or the involuntary belief by girls and women that the stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a male-dominated society are actually true (Bearman, Korobov, & Thorne, 2009), into the discussion. Internalized sexism leads women to believe that other women breastfeeding publicly is wrong and distasteful because they have been raised in a system where discourses on gender, sexuality, and femininity tell them this is not appropriate. This seems similar to “slut shaming” in that women critique and disapprove of each other instead of providing each other with support and empathy (Strelan, & Hargreaves, 2005).

Women have internalized what our male-dominated society has told them is how things should be, especially when it comes to the lives of women. Many women most likely feel vulnerable to act the way the want to or need to, especially with breastfeeding, and when their fellow women counterparts also perpetuate the idea that breastfeeding, and essentially, natural parts of being a mother, are something to be ashamed of. Internalized sexism can be seen in each critique offered as well. For example, sexual objectification theory has created a system where women typically dress modestly in public, but when invited my a male, can dress more provocatively at home or in venues where the male decides is appropriate. And when they decide on their own to dress more revealing, or to expose part of their breast for feeding an infant, they are shamed for their decisions, which also relates to the fact that women’s breasts are socially constructed to please males sexually, as well as the fact that such women are challenging patriarchal discourses on gender, further perpetuating the inequality women face for their biological assets.

Implications for Mental Health Professionals

The field of counseling will benefit from knowing the underlying concepts to such a phenomenon, as well as the general issue of women being objectified and seen more in terms of their attractiveness and evaluation from a patriarchal society. There is no doubt that with the constant bombardment of the media’s highly unattainable ideal for women that many women struggle with body image issues, which can lead to numerous mental health issues such as eating disorders, depression, and anxiety, to name a few (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Mercurio & Landry, 2008; Szymanski, Carr, & Moffitt, 2011). The objectification of women and reducing their breasts to a source of only sexuality can have extreme effects on women’s value in society, also contributing to the shame they may also feel for even a part of their breast being exposed during feeding as it is considered to be culturally inappropriate and something to be hidden from the public eye. Internalized sexism from other women may also cause feelings of isolation and betrayal from fellow women who berate and humiliate women who must breastfeed their infants in public. These are all issues that psychologists and mental health professions should be considering when counseling women and understanding their oppression within our society.

Concluding Thoughts

There needs to be a movement to remove cultural barriers that constrain women from breastfeeding in order for mothers to feel free in their decision to breastfeed. The phenomenon of women being shamed for such a natural act due to issues deep rooted in American society suggests a social environment that is very unlikely to inspire women to breastfeed. First of all, there need to be laws and regulations within the workplace to support women to breastfeed including mandatory paid maternity leave for sufficient amounts of time, breaks in the day to feed infants, as well as medical offices being mandated to provide education about the benefits of breastfeeding, as well as ensuring all women have access to the necessary equipment for breastfeeding. Breasts also need to be seen as both an aspect of sexuality and an aspect of motherhood without duality. The media and advertisement industry also need to be required to find different platforms other than hypersexualized women’s breasts to sell products and also to create more body-positive campaigns for women in our society that supports all women and celebrates them. Such a movement would be resisted by many due to the strong history of our societal values, but little by little, those in positions with high social influence can begin to make changes and accept women and empower them as more than sexual objects, but as equals with a unique biological opportunity to be mothers and supported as such. To end, further research should focus more on how women are continuously placed as inferior to men and ways in which society can be educated to be aware of this phenomenon and how supporting women and their rights, especially biologically as mothers who should be able to choose to breastfeed, has benefits for society to prosper as a whole.

Written By: Stephanie Steele-Wren


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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKjO0jZWkx4; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOEHRsRIodI; https://www.facebook.com/AshleyKaidel/posts/1061611757185057

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