Every week the media slaps us with another example of someone so “disgusted” at encountering a mother breastfeeding their child in public that they shame, insult, and even threaten the mother, despite her legal right to do so. In an age when parents have made significant strides to feed their children in whatever ways work for them, including the choice not to breastfeed, or trans men who choose to chestfeed, there still remains a bafflingly deep-seated stigma about this primal connection between parent and child. What’s at the root of this strange shame? In the United States at least, a heady mix of sexual objectification and fear of our own mortality have created a climate of confusion around just what a breast is actually for.
In almost every breastfeeding-shaming story I’ve encountered, the same stern directive crops up: “You can’t do that here,” an infantilizing phrase, loading the word that with castigating subtext, as though a woman is defecating in public, not feeding her child.
Leigh Ann O’Connor, a New York lactation specialist and mother of three remembers hearing those exact words as she breastfed her 2-month-old son while he was in a sling against her body at her older children’s school, “in no way exposed,” she says. The person who slung these words at her was, to her added surprise, a female security guard. “You can’t do that here—there are children, here,” O’Connor recounts the woman saying. “I honestly thought she was kidding,” she says. “I was known in the school for the past few years to help other parents and staff to breastfeed. Was this actually happening to me?”
It’s a legitimate question given that 49 states (including O’Connor’s), the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed wherever they like in public or private, though some states have caveats about what does or doesn’t equal “indecency.”
Shocked as O’Connor was, she did manage to get in a few words. “I turned and said, ‘By saying this to me you are violating my civil rights and my baby's civil rights and you are disempowering me. If I were a first-time mom, particularly if I were a first-time mom of color, you could have ruined my breastfeeding journey.’" But she still found herself outside in tears at the intrusion of the moment.
Being female does not presuppose support for breastfeeding, unfortunately. Augustin Fuentes, Ph.D., a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Notre Dame says, “In the U.S. context, specific exposure of the breast is highly, highly sexualized, more so than any other society in the world.” Women internalize this sexualization and then project it back onto other women, just as often as men do.
Avital Norman Nathan, a Connecticut writer and mother of one son, saw this first hand when the tell-tale phrase, “Excuse me you can’t do that here,” came from a teenage waitress at a restaurant in her progressive town. The waitress tried to urge Nathan away from the table and into “a room” in the back, which Nathan was pretty sure meant the bathroom. (On that note, check out this amazing slam poet’s take on the hypocrisy of having to feed babies in public bathrooms.) Her sister-in-law took the issue to the manager while the waitress gazed on balefully. Nathan was not so much personally upset she says, as “sad about these girls who were offended or grossed out. What did that mean about them, what did they think about how breasts should be used?” she muses.
“The breast as a site of confusion is a very real tension for women themselves, and onlookers,” says Ingrid Johnston-Robledo, a health psychologist and dean of arts and sciences at Castleton University in Vermont. Students with whom she has conducted research have referred to the naked breast as “disgusting, offensive, and pornographic.”
The roots of these outdated and unsympathetic responses to the oldest form of feeding a child are complex and multifaceted, but seem to share one surprising source: a fear of our own mortality, known in social psychology as “terror management theory.” A 2007 paper in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, “Mother’s Milk: An Existential Perspective on Negative Reactions to Breast-Feeding” by C.R. Cox, et al., defines this as “a framework for understanding how a large part of human behavior results from defensive motivations related to the awareness of death.”
Apparently a breast in a sexual context conjures life, but a breast that spills its cloudy milk into a waiting infant’s lips reminds us of our temporal animal nature.
To test their theories that reminders of our mortality—known as “mortality salience”—has a negative impact on people’s perceptions of breastfeeding, the authors of the Mother’s Milk study conducted four experiments, in which participants were first exposed to reminders of their own mortality and “creaturely nature”—often a written essay or a series of key words—and then to scenarios of a woman breastfeeding in public, or were actually put in physical proximity with a woman they were told had just breastfed a baby in another room. In all four experiments, mortality salience increased negative views of breastfeeding. In the first experiment, people exposed to ideas of their mortality judged a woman breastfeeding in public as socially transgressive and “awarded a harsher penalty for such behavior” compared to the control. In experiment two, participants who were given a choice of where to sit in a room with a woman they’d been told had just finished breastfeeding, opted to sit further away from her than the control group. The third and fourth experiments showed that exposure to reminders of our animal, mortal nature made participants prefer photos of non-breastfeeding mothers. The authors concluded, “From an existential terror-management perspective, the negative constructions of breast milk and breast-feeding may stem in part from the desire to deny our animal limitations and inevitability of death.”
Specifically, says Johnston-Robledo, says, “Any creaturely bodily function is a reminder of our mortality and that creates anxiety.” Breastfeeding, like menstruation, is one of those examples of a messy reminder of our hard-to-control animal nature that also often breaks people’s comfort zone of social intimacy by introducing nudity.
Since women bear the brunt of the obvious elements of reproduction they are more vulnerable targets of the related prejudices and anxieties. Women also face extreme social pressure to go to great lengths to hide these aspects of their bodies. Indeed, entire industries exist to capitalize on these allegedly shameful states and sell women the products to cover up: feminine hygiene sprays, scented menstrual pads, “hooter hiders” and more.
In this regard, we may cling to science to ease our mortal anxieties and discomfort. James J. McKenna, a leading expert on mother-infant co-sleeping in relation to breastfeeding and SIDS, and a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame says, “We Westerners seem to prize technology above anything the body can do. Anything to differentiate ourselves and be reminded that we are a very special ordained species that doesn’t need to tolerate too much of a close affinity with other animals,” he says, chuckling. He points to the way women quickly embraced formula when it was heavily adopted by physicians in the ’50s, and how many people think it is “wrong” for mothers to co-sleep with their babies. “Science has to play a fairly guilty role in promoting this,” he says. It should be noted that McKenna is extremely pro-breastfeeding, calling it “a living fluid” and praises its effects on babies’ health and mother-infant bonding.
However, at the same time that women were being discouraged from breastfeeding in favor of the scientifically engineered “perfect food” known as formula, another industry was booming: Playboy magazine was first published in 1953, offering a context in which breasts were exclusively sexual objects framed in skimpy fabric for the male gaze. “Capitalism has capitalized on the presence of the breast and its role in American society and blown it up a thousand million times to make it one of the most profitable marketing tropes in the tool kit,” says Fuentes. “Rather than seeing the breast as part of the human body, and the way mothers and infants connect, we want to see it in a bikini or a bra that you pay a lot of money for.”
Though, conversely, there are movements such as “free the nipple” and “free bleeding” that seek to subvert these oppressive strictures. These activists give Johnston-Robledo hope of minimizing stigma and shame, though she says “I’d like to see more feminist groups take it up.”
The Mother’s Milk study authors take a broader recommendation for minimizing such attitudes, suggesting people learn to “accept their mortality (e.g., taking death-awareness courses)” in order to feel less threatened by the facts: We can’t take our messy animal bodies with us when we die, so we might as well enjoy them while we’re still alive.