Cultural Attitudes Towards Breastfeeding. Are They Affecting You?
Remember that controversial photograph of Hugo Chavez that made the rounds on the internet a few years ago? While the Venezuelan president was touring a flooded area, the press snapped a shot of him speaking to a woman unabashedly nursing her baby. The mother’s full breast was visible with the baby securely latched on, and Chavez appeared to be in a heated discussion with her but seemed completely indifferent to her nursing her baby. He’s actually grasping her shoulder and looking her in the eye. In the north, the photo elicited responses ranging from cultural envy among breastfeeding activists to disgust and moral outrage among those disturbed by breast exposure.
While the debate raged on over whether a society should tolerate the exposed breast in this form, I got a first-hand glimpse into the difference in breastfeeding attitudes during an extended two-year trip to Central America. It wasn’t long before I noticed that breastfeeding was a non-issue. The acceptance of nursing in public was so obvious that by contrast, it brought our culture’s misplaced sexualization of the breast sharply into focus.
Growing up, I remember seeing very few women breastfeeding. In those days it was considered unusual and unnecessary, when there were alternatives available. In rare moments when I did observe a mother nursing I felt shocked and uncomfortable. Those feelings didn’t dissipate as I aged. After I got married I attended a vegetarian seminar with my husband. In the auditorium, I spotted a couple of mothers nursing their babies and I surreptitiously watched them with a mixture of fascination and disgust. During the communal dinner, I felt one mother had no regard for my discomfort, nursing so blatantly in front of me.
Until I became pregnant I harbored these feelings in the back of my mind. Then, I began to read about breastfeeding and I started attending La Leche League meetings. There I saw other women talking about and openly breastfeeding. I decided to breastfeed because it is the healthiest, most natural thing in the world. However, I feared I would not be able to persevere, so strong was my sense of embarrassment.
When I breastfed in public for the first time, I was at a local breastfeeding support group. I steeled myself for the inevitable moment and gained confidence from the other mothers who breastfed with ease. As I tentatively nursed my baby I developed more self-confidence but quickly came face to face with the shame I was repressing when a husband arrived to pick up his wife. He seemed uninterested by the show of breasts in the room, but if the earth could have swallowed me whole I would have succumbed gladly.
Whereas Latina mothers looked comfortable nursing anywhere, our culture stigmatizes the exposed breast to such an extent that public breastfeeding often goes underground, in parked cars and public bathrooms. Had I been raised in Latin America I may have not been able to afford the alternative but more likely there would have been no discussion about it, just as no one debates whether to brush your child’s teeth or not. The energy we spend informing, supporting and convincing women to breastfeed is pointless and unnecessary - on paper. Something so logical and healthy requiring literally thousands of articles educating and encouraging women to breastfeed is a clear indicator of our cultural attitudes and perspectives. Imagine spending the same amount of energy on educating women about the importance of brushing our children’s teeth? But if those teeth represented something sexual, we would all be suffering from one massive toothache right now.
The seven nations comprising Central America (Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador) are aligned by culture and language more to South America than their hemispheric neighbors to the north. Overwhelmingly Catholic, the religious influence does nothing to deter their almost enthusiastic practice of breastfeeding without feeling the need to cover up. We saw it everywhere. At the bus stop, mothers would breastfeed their babies and deftly climb aboard the bus with the infant still attached. My husband reported that, at a middle school where he was teaching, students as young as fifteen arrived with their infants in tow and breastfed them in class and carried on conversations with boys while doing so.
The acceptance, or rather the expectation that a mother would be comfortable breastfeeding in public seemed to be passed on by the indifference to the exposed breast by the entire community and reinforced by the presence of extended family members who lived together or nearby. I saw women with other women - a lot. I saw young girls taking care of babies; I noticed friends or sisters collectively with their complement of children playing together and I observed very few women at paid work. On the other hand, some of the working women I knew took their babies with them or had their family members bring them to their place of work for a period during the day. Mothering in general and nursing specifically was supported by the female community surrounding the new mother.
Exposing the breast while nursing is such a concern in North America that organizations such as La Leche League suggest mothers discreetly unbutton their blouses from the bottom to allow the fabric to fall over the breast. A woman can buy capes or specially made nursing tops, sewn with a strategic flap to accommodate a hungry baby. On our travels, I never saw any evidence that these tactics were being used. As in the Chavez photo, women pulled their tops down to feed their babies. I’ve only ever seen one woman do this in Canada. I spotted her with her infant at a beach. She took a lawn chair, plunked it squarely down at the water’s edge and pulled her one-piece bathing suit aside to feed her baby.
On our travels, I also noticed that it wasn’t just breastfeeding that was a non-issue; the breast itself was a non-issue. Because of the oppressive heat in the coastal communities, woman felt comfortable wearing halter tops or what we would consider skimpy clothing. We set down temporary roots in a village near a beach called Agujas, in Costa Rica and I arranged to teach English at that aforementioned middle school. Typically, I wore a professional looking outfit, an A-style skirt to past the knees and a (sleeveless) shirt with collar. Sometimes I wore a tank top that was considered dressy, with some fancy beading at the neckline. My female students wore bathing suit type halter tops in class. They also looked a lot cooler than me.
As the months went by and the temperature got hotter, I adopted the halter top style in town, allowing me to forego the extra layer of a thick bra. This was a big step for me. I once went topless at a beach in St. Martin but that was completely involuntary and directly related to an unmannerly set of waves that sent me crashing to the ocean floor for a free sand sandwich. But walking down a public street wearing a bathing suit top? No one in our little Costa Rican village noticed nor did they seem to care what I was wearing.
One afternoon, I was running late for my English class of young teens, and left the house still wearing my halter top. The small class of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds did not bat an eye, didn’t even sneak a peek, didn’t snicker or cut their eyes away quickly. They were so desensitized to cleavage-revealed that my chest was as unremarkable as my shoes.
Has our Puritan background contaminated our attitudes about exposure of the breast? I wanted to test out my theory in Quebec (where we landed after our adventure in Central America) thinking that the more relaxed attitude there toward sexuality would have an impact on breastfeeding there. However, in the 4 months there, I didn’t see any women breastfeeding. From Panama to the Yucatan in Mexico, we saw droves of young mothers and babies and small children but back in Canada I was suddenly struck by the sheer number of boomers and elderly people. No breastfeeders there. Therefore, I wonder if we are doubly impacted by our more repressive attitudes and an aging population. We are less likely to observe and evaluate mothering because we don’t see very much of it in the open, in our neighborhoods or in public.
I think about my own girls and how much exposure they have had with breastfeeding over the years. When they were little, everyone around them was breastfed. They also witnessed so many women openly and blatantly breastfeeding on our trip that it will surely have an impact on their comfort level, which has everything to do with seeing breastfeeding as normal and commonplace. Nursing women in the north are still waiting for our society to feel comfortable about viewing the normal function of the breast in public. At a mall near our home there is a breastfeeding rocking chair in the public bathroom. Breasts out of sight, breasts out of mind.
In all those months on the road, I saw no negative reaction to breastfeeding. I observed just the opposite. In one women’s group I was involved with, one of the mothers was struggling with her whiny toddler. The facilitator finally mentioned that she was trying to wean her. The other women murmured their understanding. Breastfeeding was the norm. It was accepted and ordinary, quite humdrum. Weaning a toddler was not an unusual topic of conversation.
Admittedly, extended breastfeeding was less obvious on our travels, but I knew it was there. Once, when we spent the night in the jungle with an Indigenous family, I noticed the mother was still nursing her two-year old and in another instance, an American expat I met declared that when she hosted a movie night for area families, “Everyone sits around and breastfeeds while they watch the movie, sometimes two at a time. A clear indicator of tandem nursing.
What will it take to reach that level of indifference - to achieve the reaction of no reaction? The fact is that there is no other part of the body that straddles the line between utility and erogeneity so precariously in our culture. In Central America, I noticed that the media tended to censor sexual displays of breasts more so than ours. I observed that love scenes in movies I had already seen were either edited or deleted, but I saw no disdain for wearing cooler cleavage-bearing clothes nor for exposed breasts, so long as they were in the process of feeding a baby. They seemed to place attitudes about the breast squarely where they belong. Breasts used for nursing were not considered sexual. If I stand back and try to absorb our North American perspective on the female breast from the vantage point of my two female children I am concerned about the message they are receiving. Images on television, in magazines and TV flash scantily clad starlets – yet I’ve got to go online to buy a doll that doesn’t automatically come with a bottle. Of course, this is where the corporate world has infiltrated our mothering psyche so successfully. Ultimately it means that nudity of a sexual nature is acceptable while publicly displaying the nurturing function of a breast is not.
By the time my girls are grown, I hope that women in the north develop the confidence to breastfeed anywhere, anytime our babies demand it and disregard the reaction of those who find it objectionable. One day, maybe, we’ll see a photograph in the New York Times of some mother from Milwaukee or Manhattan speaking to a political candidate while breastfeeding. And no one will notice.