Changing the Conversation about Breastfeeding and Sexuality
Guest Posting by Star Rodriguez, IBCLC
Editor’s Note: A hefty dose of Sensibility, social media and popular perceptions of breastfeeding and sexuality.
In a time where Facebook takes down photos of nursing mothers (to the point where women protested their policies at corporate offices this week), those of us supporting mothers see a lot of indignation over the fact that breasts in an overtly sexual context are fine while breasts in a nursing context are bad. It leads to memes across the web decrying Victoria’s Secret models and Hooters waitresses while holding up the right of mothers to nurse (and post pictures) where they see fit.
“It’s such a double-standard: if you type in ‘breasts’ on Facebook, you can see pages with thousands of members where there are naked breasts,” Kwasnica told The Huffington Post. “How is that happening, when at least 30 women I know have had accounts shut down for a single breastfeeding image?” Huffington Post 1/12/12
Certainly nursing mothers should be allowed and encouraged to breastfeed their children in public. There are many laws giving breastfeeding mothers the right to do so – and while a few states have questionable policies in place, the majority of states uphold a mother’s rights. Even Facebook, in their corporate policy, “agree(s) that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful” and allows breastfeeding pictures as long as the nursling is actively engaged. Their policies for removal of pictures, including breastfeeding ones, based on reports from the Facebook community are somewhat sketchy, however.
In a very baby-bottle oriented culture, breastfeeding images can be very important. Recent studies in the US have shown that
“41% of African American men and 27% of ‘Whites’(sic) felt that breastfeeding in public was ‘embarrassing.’”
We also know that partners are a deciding factor in a woman’s initiation and duration of breastfeeding (Avery) and that seeing images of breastfeeding is a normalizing factor. One could then argue that these images, shared on Facebook, can help result in a more breastfeeding-friendly culture.
I grow concerned at the tone of the conversation. It seems as though there is a constant battle between the attractiveness of breasts and the function of them. We cannot deny the benefits of breastfeeding. We also cannot deny that women are concerned about the toll that motherhood and breastfeeding will take on their looks, bodies, and yes, breasts. As childbirth educators and lactation consultants, we address this to some extent. We tell mothers that breastfeeding does not make their breasts sag; that there are numerous other factors, including: smoking, gravity, age, and the pregnancy itself.
“Conclusions The risk of breast ptosis increases with each pregnancy, but breastfeeding does not seem to worsen these effects. Expectant mothers should be reassured that breastfeeding does not appear to have an adverse effect upon breast appearance.”
The question then, is are we actually addressing the needs and the concerns of the mothers (and fathers) posing these questions?
In popular culture, there are many examples of mothers being seen as less attractive. Remember the Saturday Night Live “Mom Jeans” sketch? This is a stereotype that is perpetrated regularly, and although society has become better at developing characters depicting moms as sexy (although even then, it’s generally the mothers of an older child,) this is still what many women think of when they picture their future as a mother.
The notion of sexuality and breastfeeding being opposing forces in some never-ending battle is worsening this idea. How many times have you heard someone advise a mother to “just put away the sexiness for one, two years and focus on feeding your baby. This is such a brief moment in time. Your baby won’t stay small forever”? When we say those things, are we meeting the mother where she is? For some mothers, absolutely. For others, the idea of putting their sexuality on hold for a year or two is terrifying. They feel like they will lose an inherent part of their womanhood or even their self identity. We can decry our culture’s seeming obsession with sex and image, or we can understand that this is nothing new (after all, Victorian women utilized wet nurses to maintain their figures, as Palmer points out in The Politics of Breastfeeding) and figure out a way to resolve the great debate about nurturing versus sexuality.
I propose that we open a more honest dialogue about breastfeeding and sex. We can discuss how mothers may have a hard time reconciling their sexuality and their role as primary nurturer for a newborn. We can explore her fears over the new use of her breasts. We can talk about feeling touched out or having issues with vaginal dryness, and we can assure her that this is normal and will pass. We can affirm that she is still a sexy and sexual being, even if she is not ready to actually indulge in sex yet. We can handle the controversy over public breastfeeding or breastfeeding photos without making her feel as though she will be somehow betraying her role as a mother if she doesn’t look with loathing upon everyone who posts a Facebook picture in a bikini. Most importantly, we can get on her level and make a genuine effort to understand and support her in this journey.
Since research shows time and time again that peer counseling
“effectively improve(s) rates of breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity, (d)espite major environmental differences in infant-feeding practices, health care access/delivery, and the availability of breast milk substitutes…”
Peer counseling could make a world of difference for a mom who is feeling conflicted adding the new role of breastfeeding to the uses of her breasts.
Do you talk to mothers about sexuality in relation to breastfeeding and new motherhood? How do you overcome a mother’s concerns about the dual roles of her breast and the conflict that she may feel? Do you include fathers in the conversation?
Star Rodriguez, IBCLC, is a breastfeeding peer counselor for a WIC in the Midwest and has just started her private practice as an IBCLC. She also sits on the breastfeeding task force in her town, is helping her community’s Early Head Start redefine their breastfeeding support, and is the driving force behind a local breastfeeding campaign. In the remainder of her free time, she chases around her nursling and preschooler. Learn more about Star and her work here.