On the Subject of Breasts

In the forums, you’ll find a question on breastfeeding in public.


And you’ll find a number of opinions and observations. And I had a few other thoughts come to me after I’d posted mine.

One of them was, should a GUY really comment on this? After all, I’m not the one who’s breastfeeding his children anywhere, private or public, so should I really comment on this?

Probably not. But we nursed our children for a long while, and living where we live, I saw a lot of nursing mothers in parks, restaurants, malls. Women who were very much matter-of-fact just did their best to make themselves and their babies comfortable. Women who were generally very discreet, though their babies might not have been, as they sometimes flailed their arms and legs around.

I said this in my little forum comment: that our Puritanical American society seems to have taboos about the public presentation of breasts. In museums we can tolerate them, in paintings and in sculptures (unless of course you’re John Ashcroft), but we do not tolerate them in most magazines. I find this amusing, because when I look at Manet’s Venus I see an extremely sexual image that might not be out of place in a magazine like PLAYBOY. There’s that old joke about the difference between nude art and magazines like that is that the nude art does not come with a staple in the middle, though I am not entirely convinced of this as I once was (probably a side effect of becoming the father of two girls).

In the fifties, American pop culture became totally obsessed with breasts, and, well, it has let go – of the obsession. Frank Tashlin, director of THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT! and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, brilliant, almost cartoon-like, satires of pop culture from the pre-Simpsons age, makes this point about the American obsession with breasts, using of Jayne Mansfield’s to mock it. Tashlin started out his career as a cartoonist, and so the visual gags have that feel, like when the opening scene involving the milk man watching Mansfield’s character walk down the street.. Of course, Tashlin is exploiting the image of Mansfield and her large breasts to try and talk about that exploitation and obsession, but that’s another story.

The most obvious example of this is the entire madness over the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast at the halftime show of the Super Bowl over a year ago. There was a lot of hubbub about children watching this. I did not see the “wardrobe malfunction.” But I cannot imagine that children seeing a woman’s breast could be more “unhealthy” or “traumatic” that children hearing and watching adults get all upset and saying stupid stuff about it on TV and radio talk shows and family dinner conversations. The incident became more of a big deal because of the reactions. I should think that children watching a plane crash into Two World Trade Center would be more traumatic than seeing a breast, but maybe that’s just me.

The very next day after the Super Bowl, I took my youngest to Music Together class, and at least two women nursed their babies in the room, before the class began, and when one little one was really cranky, during the class. And yes, for a moment I did see these women’s breasts. The women were un-self-conscious, and it was no big deal that there were men in the room (one of the women is the wife of the MT instructor). It was a completely ordinary, natural thing, and it made the brouhaha over the Janet Jackson incident seem very silly.

Of course there is a difference in the presentation, I know. A person “flashing” in a sexual manner is not doing the same thing as a person who is giving nourishment to a baby. But part of the obsession is a function of how we have taken a very natural thing – the female breast – and sexified it, tried to shame it, make it taboo. Am I guilty of this? Sure. I have my issues, too. But I do think that such issues are worth talking about, rather than, pardon me, covering them up.

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About T.B. White

lives in the New York City area with his wife and two daughters, 6 and 3. He is a college professor who has written essays about Media and the O.J. Simpson case, Woody Allen, and other areas of popular culture. He brings a unique perspective about parenting to families.com as the "fathers" blogger. Calling himself "Working Dad" is his way of turning a common phrase on its head. Most dads work, of course, but like many working moms, he finds himself constantly balancing his career and his family, oftentimes doing both on his couch.