What is the distinction?
I believe that one of the difficulties that women experience during breastfeeding is the pull between cultural femininity and biological femininity. This distinction was first brought to my attention in Karen Pryor’s book, Nursing Your Baby (which I believe is out of print now). Cultural femininity is comprised of many stereotypes that limit a woman’s expression of self, mold her personality, and affect her body image. Very often this is ruled by the media, which has very specific ideas of what’s considered ‘feminine’, and it’s rarely an empowered definition. Biological femininity is the expression of feminine power through pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. When breasts became viewed as sexual objects and society began to glorify sexual attractiveness, the exposure of breasts became limited to private moments. We only show breasts, or should I say nipples, to our partners and not to anyone else. Such a taboo is bound to have an impact on the choice to breastfeed, and can also manifest as a stumbling block for those who do breastfeed. If a partner is uncomfortable with the biological aspects of breastfeeding, the mother will often develop issues that will make it difficult if not impossible to nurse her baby, in order to make her partner more comfortable (all on the unconscious level). Since our sense of sexuality is reshaped during the childbearing year, some women are unwilling to trade off that intimate contact with a partner if they sense breastfeeding conflicts with that.
Why is it more acceptable to see nubile young women glamorously dressed in décolletage so deep that it meets the waistline, but it’s obscene to see a mother feeding her baby at the breast? This is a debate that is currently trending on Facebook, which removes images of mothers’ breastfeeding, but shows all manner of other sexualized images of breasts. There is a cultural distortion in elevating the useless shape of the body curve as having more significance than the functional aspect of the glands. These glands have produced the perfect food to nourish our babies, like no other substance on earth. Society falls short of encouraging mothers to go the natural route in a practical way. Lactation is the natural state of the mammary glands. Choosing not to breastfeed is the denial of this natural aspect of our maternity. I believe that education for partners is essential for increasing awareness of functioning breasts as sources of nurturance, food, and comfort for infants, and that in the scheme of things this is a relatively short time in the life of a woman. I can say that now, having reached an age of maturity where I can reflect on the five years in total that I have breastfed my four children.
A personal experience with both
I am uniquely qualified to discuss this topic, having once been a Playboy bunny and a nursing mother. Talk about glorified sex objects! However, it must be said that I met my (ex) husband in the Playboy club, and when we started having children, my second birth inspired this career choice for me (http://dianespeier.com/and-then-along-came2/), so in some ways the cultural and biological overlapped. I have personally experienced both cultural and biological femininity, and there is no comparison. Cultural femininity is defined by others. Here’s a secret: those of us who were not zaftig (well endowed) used creative ways to make our breasts look larger in our costumes – it was my legs, not my breasts, that got me hired! Biological femininity is defined by nature and can be enormously fulfilling, and for me childbearing is when my breast size increased. My feminism helped me to transcend the stereotypes of cultural femininity. Susan Brownmiller wrote the book Femininity (1984), and with regard to breasts she sums it up perfectly: “…the cultural belief that breasts are primarily decorative and intrinsically provocative seems related historically in Western civilization to the elimination of the routine sight of breasts as a means of nourishing the young” (p.44, emphasis mine).
Restoring the breastfeeding landscape
When bottle feeding became the norm in the 20th century, the sight of mothers breastfeeding disappeared from the landscape. Before this, children grew up observing this natural expression of femininity, and girls were primed for the day when they would become nursing mothers. This visual display is indeed reappearing, as the debate about breastfeeding in public can be a rancorous discourse – I’m thinking of the UKIP leader who recently shared his view that women should go in the corner to breastfeed their babies. I guess the corner is better than the toilet, which is what many women have to resort to when their babies are hungry in an inconvenient location and time. I think it’s time to see nursing paraphernalia, like nursing pads, pumps, or bras, in other media besides parenting and baby magazines. Imagine commercials selling these kinds of products on television! That would normalize things considerably. We would be fostering an acceptance of our biological femininity to offset the limitations of cultural femininity. We would be expanding the consciousness of society to accept breastfeeding as the natural biological experience that it is. And many more women would be able to experience a positive experience of nursing their babies without conflict that they must give up their sexuality in the process.
What do you think?