Monday, November 22, 2010

The Breast as an Object

This post is a musing. I don't have a conclusion, it's kind of just a theory. Your thoughts are welcome.

When I took Women's Studies, there was a unit on media. One of the topics we studied was advertising. One of the ways advertising uses women's bodies is to use only parts of a body. For example: a leg here, a hand there, a butt, breasts, hair, etc. A nice small summary of this can be found at 2:47 of this video, Killing Us Softly. She talks about dismembering the female body so that it can be objectified and dehumanized and used as a tool for selling stuff.

With that background, let's go into my musing:

A few weeks ago I bought my first nursing shirts ever. I decided that after over 2 and a half years of nursing, a few nice nursing shirts would probably be a good investment. Mind you, I did have a gift certificate- there's no way I'd actually pay $40 for a shirt.

Anyway, when I went to sit down and nurse Isaac, I moved the fabric out of the way and latched him on. Then I saw the fabric there, separating him from me. There was a line of brown fabric: my breast was on one side and I was on the other. I had gotten so used to just pulling down and nursing that this set up it was kind of shocking for me. And then I remembered how dismembering a body can de-humanize it. And it made me wonder something.

I know more people are going to be ok with a scene like this:

than a scene like this:

Why? I wonder if it is because that bit of fabric visually separates the breast from the person. In the first, my breast is separate; it is an object, a tool for feeding. But in the second picture, it is a part of me: there is no break between my breast and my face. In the first, it is easier to mentally distance my person from my breast and maybe that is why that makes others more comfortable. In the second picture, more mental gymnastics have to be done in order to separate me from what I'm doing because my breast is visually attached to my face (through my neck, of course. A breast attached directly to my face would just be freaky weird).

In the first picture, my breast is nursing Isaac. In the second picture, I am nursing Isaac.

Now, I'm not trying to set up pulling down from the top as superior. I know that having that fabric there can be very advantageous to the mother. For example, in the cold, it allows for more warmth and in the summer it prevents sunburn. I nursed with fabric on the top of my breast for 18 months until Margaret decided that she didn't like it. In fact, yesterday at church when I wore the above shirt, she insisted that I pull down instead of using the layers built into the shirt because that's what she likes.

I wonder if it helps her feel closer to me since there is no visual separation for her. Lately, it has been very clear that when she nurses at times other than naps and bedtime, it's because she's trying to connect to me, so it's something that has been on my mind.

Anyway, I know that some people consider nursing from under the shirt or fabric instead of over is more discreet- and I wonder if it has to do with this.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Obscentities? What do you think of this? Do you think people (the mother as well as those around her) are more comfortable with fabric on the top of the breast because it sets the breast up as an object, something separate from the person nursing? Am I totally making this up? Probably.


  1. This is an absolutely fabulous post and an absolutely fabulous train of thought. I love it! Moving on...

    I think you're onto something with the "I am nursing" versus "my breast is feeding" mentality. This is part of my issue with using the word "breastfeeding" instead of "nursing". Breastfeeding emphasizes the breast and the feeding in a way that makes it seem like just another feeding option, while nursing emphasizes the relationship. I think it no coincidence that breastfeeding is how most people talk about the nursing relationship.

    My comment could end up a blog-long entry itself, so I'll stop here. Please keep going with this musing, though! I'd love to see this as a blog theme where many of us bloggers tackle it simultaneously on our various blogs.


  2. idk, I kinda think the nursing shirt calls more attention to it ... but then again I'm a comfortable public breastfeeding mom ... so I'm probably not the best opinion on the matter. :)

    But I do get your theory, and it is in interesting one.

    How do you feel using the shirt? I never really liked them. I felt like the extra layer of fabric was bulky and looked funky.

  3. I think it's an interesting train of thought, but looking at the two pictures, I'm less comfortable with the second because it shows more skin. I know both of them are you nursing a baby, but I'm a rather modest kind of person and the less skin that shows in the chest area, the better. Doesn't matter if you're nursing, wearing a v-neck, or advertising for Victoria Secret. To be honest, I wasn't comfortable with the first one, either. I've seen nursing done while showing no skin. My sister is champ at it. I've never mastered it; not even close. Then again, she's on baby #6 and I'm on baby #1. I always wore a cover, until my baby decided she hated it, then I just left the room, and I hated it. So I'm intrigued by nursing in public without a cover, but I will not do it until I can do it without showing any chest/stomach skin, like my sister does. But that's just me. :)

  4. I also only recently purchased my first nursing shirts (from Motherwear, $15 on sale) almost entirely because my wardrobe is not nursing friendly--most of my shirts are t-shirts with no stretch in the neck, so I can't just pull them down. Instead I end up pulling them up and wearing a tank top underneath but it was frustrating with the t-shirts being too tight to comfortably lift, etc.

    So the reason I bought them, finally, was because it's freezing cold here in Utah and I want to keep as much of my body covered as possible. Also, I didn't have many long sleeved t-shirts and long-sleeved nursing shirts cost about the same when I got them.

    Otherwise, I have few problems with letting it all hang out for Rylan to nurse because so far as I'm concerned my body is designed to nourish my child, and anybody confused about that purpose probably needs more exposure to the act of nursing.

    But I can definitely see what you mean about separating the breast from the person as an object. Nursing clothing that does such is a pragmatic matter for me, not one of hiding but of staying warm... but it's something to keep in mind as a lactivist.

  5. Anonymous10:48 AM


    I love your blog! You are such a great mother!

    I think you have a good point when you say the fabric is seperating your breast from you.

    I hope we can get to a point in this society where people are comfortable seeing breasts in the process of nursing.

    I think you/your blog is helping with that!

    Kristen Sisson

  6. I see you as feeding your baby in both of them. I see the first a way to maybe keep a little warmer in the winter.

    I also see the first as a way for mom's to feel a little more modest, if that is what they are comfortable with.

    I like (identify with, it seems familiar/reasonable to me) the idea of objectifying the breast, and I can totally follow your train of thought.

    I am not sure what I think about it though...I hope you write more. You often bring out items I enjoy musing.

  7. I've always just lifted my shirts up to nurse. I had a few nursing tops way back in '91 when my oldest was born but found them cumbersome (this was back in the days when there were snaps or hook and eye closures on the flaps) to use and quickly abandoned them.

    After reading your first post about nursing from the top of the shirt I gave it some thought. But - my necklines aren't wide enough for me to do that and I don't want to stretch out my shirts so we continue one with nursing by lifting my shirt up.

    I don't cover my kids with the shirt and it's pulled back from the top of the breast most of the time because that's the way they like it.

    Even if I nursed from the top there would be some fabric there since my bras are the style where a flap comes down and the "skeleton" of the bra remains.

    For me it's just a matter of convenience and I'm always on the lookout for a more convenient method of nursing since I do it so many times in a day! :)

  8. I think your thoughts about objectifying and dehumanizing parts of the female body are fascinating, and I want to hear more.

    But logistically -- I nurse by lifting up my shirt because I would have to wear a v-neck cut to my navel in order to nurse from the top (in fact, I had never even though of it before I read your blog, it just seems counter-intuitive to me).

    Maybe with my first I could've found a shirt that would be able to fit my breast over the top of it and then stretch back into modesty after nursing, but now, saggy and fat and 33 years old, there's no way -- any top that would accommodate my breast over the top would be completely immodest/uncomfortable when not pulled down for nursing.

    Also, I wonder what you do with garments -- with my first my mom unpicked the middle/vertical seams for me (did they even make nursing garments 10 years ago?), so I pulled the cup to the side/down to nurse. Now I wear nursing garments, and the flaps are horizontally cut -- I'm not even sure you could wear the nursing top you're wearing in that picture without the top flap showing. I'm not saying you shouldn't modify garment wearing for breastfeeding, but it's something to consider, esp. when it changes how/what you wear the whole day, not just while nursing. I'm also not saying that letting some of your garments show in order to nurse is wrong either, because I'm sure that frequently some of the garment on my stomach/side shows when I nurse by lifting up.

    I was thinking about this at church yesterday, and also when I had my oldest take pictures of me nursing at home -- when I'm home I just naturally pull my shirt way up, exposing my entire breast, while in public I can arrange my shirt flap in order to show almost no skin -- but if the baby is having a problem latching or gets frustrated, then I pull up as much as needed to see her and get her happy. I enjoy nursing at home more bec. I feel no compunction about being comepletely nude, while in public I feel more comfortable being more covered, though I've never used a nursing cover or anything; it just seems natural in public to show only as much as necessary (dictated by how easily/quickly she latches).

    But, one thing that makes me uncomfortable sometimes when I'm reading your blog is the extreme (to me) accommodation of kids' wants, even when they seriously inconvenience or even physically hurt you -- I'm thinking of your discussion of Margaret twiddling (?) when you were pregnant with your son. Maybe I am just selfish or more easily touched out, but I can't/don't allow certain behaviors.

    For me the balance between my wants and needs and my childrens' wants and needs is somewhere closer to my side of the line. These breasts, after all, are mine, they're part of my body, and while I enjoy sharing them with my kids for a couple years, they don't get to dictate how I do that -- I know I've kind of gone off on a tangent here, but your line about Margaret insisting you pull down reminded me of it.

    I admire you for being so conscientious and committed to raising your kids gently, and being aware of when your kids need more connection (I notice this in my second youngest too, but she's 4, so I can answer this by holding her in my lap and reading to her), but I feel almost a physical cringing away from the idea of letting my kids have such free rein/unrestricted access to my body -- it's almost like you've allowed your kids an objectification of your body for their own use, without requiring them to respect your body as yours to dress and direct.

    I hope that doesn't sound critical; attachment parenting in many ways baffles me. Sometimes I feel like if I gave one more particle of myself (physically/emotionall/mentally) over to my kids, I would disappear forever.

    And now I've REALLY gone off on a tangent.

    Thanks for making me think!

  9. Xaka (la mujer)- I'm not sure what other thoughts I have, but if I figure them out, I'll continue. Maybe I'll bounce some ideas off you if I see you later this week.

    Dorcas - The shirt in the picture is actually a little too big for me, which is funny since my other nursing shirt is also a medium and is too tight. You can't win, can you? So anyway, the cut of this one is kind of big on me and bulky and does look a little funny. In my gray one, you can see where the fabric is cut out because it is so tight, so that looks a little funny too.

    Arual- you'll notice in my pictures my shirt is long sleeved as well. We're not getting the snow Utah is, but it is chilly!

    Jane- The shirts that work best have strong elastic. I have one that seems like it's made to be pulled down- the elastic is so quality! I also do button-down shirts and unbutton from the top or middle. A lot of my of sleeved shirts are button-down so they are what I'm getting use of right now with the cold. With garments, I wear the scoop neck and just pull down as well. I've never tried the nursing garments because garment flaps + bra flaps + shirt flaps sounded like it would be way too complicated to maneuver. Of my two nursing shirts, one unclips like a nursing bra and the other (pictured above) moves to the side. I know a friend of mine has 3 that pull up. It would be a maze if I had to get a bra and garments situated as well!

    As for accommodating Margaret's wants, it has definitely changed over time. During most of my pregnancy, she was under 2 and I didn't feel like she would understand some of the limits- especially in the middle of the night when she is unconscious. 2 year old + half unconscious does not make for a child who will rationally understand limits. At her current age (2 and a half), though, I do have more limits and weaning is sometimes brought up in conversation to slowly warm her up to the idea. I should do a post on it. Thanks for the idea!

  10. I'm trying to work out my feelings about the two pictures. I think I like the first one better because the second one reminds me of a really low cut shirt (because that's the only other time I see that much breast).

    I also can see how with the first one, if someone was focusing just on the breast, and viewed breasts sexually, since it is cut across with fabric, it looks less like the "sex object" breast. The second one looks more like the "sex object" breast. Does that make sense? Mine you, I'm completely ignoring the fact that there is a child attached at the end.

  11. I think your perspective is more valid than an onlooker's perspective. Breadtfeeding is for emotional nourishment as well as physical nourishment. You feel separated and a bit distant all of the sudden. It doesn't matter if it is all in your head - that's where emotions come from!

  12. I think your musing is spot on. This is why many people say NIP is okay as long as it's discrete like the 1st picture. The breast is being used in place of the bottle. Much like the breast/butt/leg of a woman is being used to represent products for sale. The reason people have a problem with a scene like the 2nd picture is that in their mind, showing just a body part or hint of a breast can be done artfully/tastfully but if a woman is fully attached to that body part it becomes about sex.

    I almost always have fabric on top of my breast because I pull my shirts up instead of down. Like Jane, I takes nearly herculian effort to nurse from the top because I can't just pull down. My breasts require being lifted up and out. When we are NIP I will pull the shirt down to cover more surface area, but like Margaret she sometimes fights with that. She also like to put her hand up my shirt and lay it on my chest, so there is a definite need for some skin to skin for her.

  13. I think there might be something to your theory... I've nursed both ways. But, unless I'm in my skivvies, I prefer to nurse with layers on top. It's just more comfortable. I don't like the way the shirt pulls at my neck and arms when I pull down. And I can't remember my kids ever having a strong personal preference to one way or the other. I'll have to pay more attention next time ;) *B

  14. I think it's definitely a separation. I actually kind of like it, in that I feel like X person can converse with "me while nursing" without feeling like they're conversing with "nursing woman," esp with males. I mean, I'm nursing, and there is some breast, but I can nurse without comment or without feeling uncomfortable around even the, uh, stodgy members of the family or right in front of church leaders or little old ladies without feeling like I'm "whipping it out." It is almost like I'm separated from the act itself--like I am listening to a talk in church, while my breast is feeding G. That is a very valid point.
    That being acknowledged, I am uncomfortable nursing from the top, myself. It's just too much skin for me to feel relaxed about--and I wouldn't want to show that much skin without nursing, either, like another commenter said. I like being able to nurse without creating a fuss. I wouldn't leave or stop if anyone asked me to, but since I can just lift up my shirt to nurse & feel much more comfortable, I'd rather do that. Is it the separation or is it just being able to be less noticed, period? (Being shy/having social anxiety issues, not being noticed is sadly pretty important to me, in everything from my regular dress, black/no makeup, to hiding when I see people I work with at the store, lol--it's NOT about hiding the nursing. It's about hiding period. So maybe I'm not the best one to talk about any of this.) I don't bother with nursing shirts since I just lift mine up, which probably shows more stomach than other women may be comfortable with themselves, lol. I have to draw my happy line somewhere, and that's where I chose.

  15. I've always lifted up because my shirts don't have much give, and it sounds more uncomfortable to have to try to squeeze myself through the top of my shirt. Plus my nursing bra flaps move down, so it just worked better for me to lift my clothes up. I never felt that this created any kind of separation, because his face was touching my breast as he nursed, and I pulled up enough that my breast was mostly exposed.
    I do believe though that it's important that our children see us as a source of comfort physically, but not to the point that they are telling us what to do with our bodies. Children are demanding anyway, but I think it's important to draw some lines if we need to. I think it's the start of them respecting their own bodies as well as the bodies of others.
    Lately Stephen has wanted to be picked up and carried a lot, but being as weak as I have been, it's really hard for me. I've had to come up with alternatives, like taking his hand and having him walk with me to where he wants to go or sitting on the couch and snuggling with him while we read a book, so he still gets physical contact with me, which is important for both of us.
    He resisted at first, insisting on being held, but being persistent with this arrangement has helped not only me (and prevented me from passing out), but has also fostered independence in him. He is more willing to play beside me now rather than insist on being in my arms constantly, but also chooses to sit on my lap or give me hugs or whatever he needs so that both of us continue to get plenty of physical contact.

  16. This is so interesting! Thank you for writing your thoughts about the topic--and adding the photos really helped to illustrate your thoughts.

    I posted a photograph once of my son latched on to my breast without my face in the picture (a close-up of just breast and baby face) and got a comment about what a beautiful picture it was, qualified by something like, "It's different when your face is in the picture." I was confused by the comment at the time, though I knew it wasn't meant at all as a negative. After reading your thoughts here, I think the comment was motivated by this idea of needing to separate "me" from "breast," effectively dismembering me in that way.

    I do pull up and down to breastfeed usually, just because that's how most of my clothes work. I am wondering now (as you suggested) if this type of clothing really does perpetuate the idea that we "should" "need" to be "discreet" when feeding our babies.

    Thank you so much for the food for thought!

  17. I've never thought about it. I wear what I like and what is comfortable, and nurse usually by pulling my shirts up. You aren't selling anything in either picture, just feeing your baby. I think the first picture would be less shocking to most, as you are showing less skin. Seeing an entire (almost) breast can be strange for people who are told their entire lives to cover up every part of their bodies. :)

  18. This sucks... I just typed my heart out and got an error and my message was not posted! I was really hoping for some feedback on some questions and had some comments I wanted to make, but alas, I don't have the time right now to retype the thoughts that just took me over 30 minutes to get down. >:O/ Grrr.

    LOVE this post though!

  19. I sort of wonder what the problem is with having "your breast feed your child"--especially out in public. It seems like if that is a way to get people more used to seeing women nursing, then isn't it a good thing--or at least an acceptable stepping stone to the way you think it should be?

    Also, it's like the way you talked about eating at home versus eating from a drive through window sometimes. The nursing shirt is a drive through window (perfect analogy) for when you're on the go--where as at home you can have the "connecting nursing" with more skin.

    I also agree with Jane that you should feel you have the right to set limits about your own body. Not allowing twiddling always or having a shirt or cloth covering the top of your breast when in public are neither one denying your child of your milk and cuddles. Understanding the concept boundaries and limits is an earthly and eternal concept--we don't always get exactly what we want right when we want it.

    Just my thoughts to add to the discussion.

  20. Jeanette- There isn't a problem with having "your breast feed your child." It was just a musing. I don't think your analogy is "perfect" (well, I don't think any analogy is perfect) because how a woman breastfeeds should be determined by her personal desires- not by her surroundings. No one should ever tell a woman to put more clothes on or take clothes off- ever. And I do set limits with twiddling and such. The post Jane is referring to is almost 6 months old- and at that time I didn't have as many limits because my daughter wasn't at a level that I thought she could understand them. But 6 months is a long time in child development, and I have since added more limits as she has grown to understand them more.

    Crystal- if you want to come back and share your post again, please do!

    MommyD- I think we need to stop telling people to cover up every part of their bodies so this will be less strange. Also, I can post family pictures from the beach showing all my leg and shoulders and no one would be shocked at all. It's more than just skin that is shocking- it is the act of breastfeeding.

    To all- I know not everyone is comfortable with pulling down and I tried to be clear that I'm not trying to say it's "better" or anything like that. I constantly hold that how the mom wants to breastfeed is how she should breastfeed- no one, not even me, has the right to impose their will on how that happens. It was strange to discover that I was now more comfortable will pulling down 100% than I was to use any sort of layers and I was trying to put that into words.

  21. I think this post is spot on. I just recently blogged about nursing after reading a negative, "why would you put something like that on Facebook" comment on a friends photo where she is trying to get her minute old son to latch and nurse for the first time.

    Personally, I want to be curtious to people in public. I know that not everyone is comfortable seeing a bare breast when a mother is trying to feed her child, and my 2 month old and I aren't coordinated enough yet to feed with no cover, so I pull down my shirt with a blanket over my daughters head, and once she latches, I uncover her head so she doesn't overheat. Even though I do cover up, I don't do it because I feel I HAVE to. I am just not coordinated to not have a nipple slip out, and honestly, I don't want to be showing everyone my nipples.

    I think you are right though. I really do. I get mad when I hear of women who all they are doing is trying to feed their child, get yelled at and belittled for doing something so natural. I actually keep wishing that something will happen in my area where a mother gets harassed and we form a nurse in! But everyone here is so polite and very understanding. Though I've never seen another mom nurse in public, I have never have once received a dirty look or a dirty comment because I am feeding my child.

    Keep up the good work! I'll be following your blog!


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