<Waving hello to the seeker of a ‘sexy lactating woman’ or the person looking for something on ‘breastfeeding woman sex>
As previously mentioned, I’m speaking on the subject at the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers conference in Birmingham in June. I’m reading survey data (580 respondents), reflecting on academic papers and examining photographs of Pamela Anderson.
<Waving hello to the person who finds this blog after searching ‘Pamela Anderson’>
Let’s reflect on Pamela Anderson* for a moment. Let’s picture her in 1995 jogging along a beach in an efficiently- measured red swimming costume. And let’s think about her breasts.
Yes, perhaps if you are a breastfeeding mother. Yes, because that’s what newly- engorged maternal breasts look like.
The cult of the augmented breast is all about that inflated engorged look. Picture it running in slow motion...
Men do the manly equivalent of swooning.
That same breast with a baby attached or a baby nearby or...
...a drip of milk hanging?
Good God, no.
Because that would make you WEIRD, wouldn’t it? Surely?
One subtle difference – referring to the inherent purpose of the mammary gland, the one associated particularly to that shape of breast - and WHOAH, a switch is expected to be flicked and sex is disconnected.
The Western cultural view of the attractive woman is an ultra-thin woman with large breasts. We are in a mix-up. Maternal engorged breasts but ‘tight abs’ and a non-maternal torso. Young women must diet to achieve the torso shape, inevitably leading to a reduction in breast size, so augmentation surgery becomes the norm. An ‘A cup’ is seen as abnormal, even a ‘B cup’. There is a proliferation of young women starting their adult life by artificially increasing their breast size to fit our cultural ideals.
Kathy Dettwyler makes some points in her essay, “Beauty and the Breast: the cultural context of breastfeeding in the United States” that are shocking to us because we are so embedded in these assumptions, even those of us constantly reflecting on the world of breastfeeding, that we struggle to see the big picture.
Dettwyler asks us to think about the foot-binding tradition of China. The tradition that existed in China for a considerably length of time where the fetish of the tiny foot developed to an extreme and young women mutilated themselves to fit the ideals of men’s desire and sexual attraction.
“Just as it was inappropriate for people in Chinese society to let the cultural idea that deformed feet were sexually stimulating overshadow their primary biological function for walking…it is inappropriate to let the very Western cultural idea that breasts are for men, overshadow their primary biological function for feeding children”
[P.202 Breastfeeding: Biocultural perspectives. Ed. Patricia Stuart-Macadam, Katherine A. Dettwyler]
You may think, “Come on!” It’s hardly a Western cultural idea that breasts are fanciable. Men are hardly able to control their urges that come from biology and inherent attraction. Give the poor guys a break. It’s not ‘culture’ that has the Baywatch slow-motion run so admired.
You may think. You may think, “Hey, it’s evolution. We’re attracted to the breasts that look like they’ll be good providers – or something”.
However, the concept that the female breast is attractive is very much a cultural one and remarkably unpopular when you get down to the anthropology.
In 1952, Ford and Beach undertook a cross-cultural survey of 190 cultures from around the world.
In just 13 of those cultures, men found breasts sexually appealing.
9 liked large breasts. 2 liked long pendulous breasts. 2 liked upright, hemispherical breasts.
And by the way, evolution would tell you fairly sharpish that large augmented-type breasts don’t necessarily make the most effective long-term breastfeeding breasts anyway. Those long pendulous ones may well do the job far better.
Humans live in societies that find breasts sexy and they LEARN to find breasts sexy.
This isn’t bad. This isn’t wrong. But it’s where we are.
It would make life a lot easier if we somehow managed to combine this reality with the notion that the primary purpose of the mammary gland is feeding young. If we could JUST find a way to value both of those things simultaneously, life would be a lot easier.
But we struggle. New mothers are struggling to work out how to incorporate their breasts into their sex lives. New fathers are not quite sure how to process some confusing feelings and whether they are allowed to talk about some of these confusing feelings. ARE we allowed to be turned on by dripping breasts? Are we allowed to find our wives feeding erotic? Is my mouth still allowed to touch this breast?
These are not conversations for the NCT dads’ night out in the pub.
So we forge on alone.
And there are huge repercussions for the wider view of breastfeeding in society. Dettwyler is particularly talking about American society but it’s applicable to the UK. She talks about how if breasts are primarily fulfilling their cultural purpose to be sexually attractive, then a woman breastfeeding must shun that view for a while (as long as she can bear) in order to fulfil her biological purpose.
Of course, feeding in public becomes a very different concept in the society of the highly sexualised breast. That means that women also are much less likely to see breastfeeding around them and girls grow up without ever having seen breastfeeding first hand.
HOW much TIME do those of us who support breastfeeding mothers spend talking about positioning and attachment?
And how many of those conversations might be redundant in a world where, when we finally come to breastfeed and hold our own child, our brain is full of images dating back decades?
And if breasts are sexual and breastfeeding is private and part of our ‘private world’, when a mother wants to bring breastfeeding into the workplace she’s sometimes up against it. Not least because breastfeeding is supposed to be short-lived, surely? What’s she doing still wanting to pump after 6 months or even a year?
We live in a society where the extended family is often Skype- based at best. The couple at the centre of the nuclear family is exalted. Our partners are expected to fill a huge space in our lives and we also live in a highly sexualised society.
And if we’re in a bit of a tizzy about how a lactating breast fits into our sex lives and how a lactating mother continues as a sexual person, is it so surprising that the rates of mothers still exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months is so underwhelming? I’m not saying exclusive breastfeeding rates at 6 months is hardly measurable because people just fancy a shag, but I am suggesting that our cultural attitudes towards the breast has a part to play.
Dettwyler was writing in the mid-1990s.
I think if she was writing today she may take a moment to also consider breastfeeding rates among young women. If you were born in the mid to late 90s and you are a teenage mum today, what imagery of the breast have you lived with your entire life? How much more explicit is the world of the music video? How many bare breasts are used in advertising? How many celebrity mums are ‘bouncing back’ into shape? That CAR ADVERT on TV this week has the cartoon jiggling lass with the impressive cleavage.
They have been bombarded their entire lives. And they get pregnant and we expect them to switch ALL that off instantaneously and embrace a concept that they may never have SEEN or thought about before that leaflet gets thrust into their hand. This isn’t just about whether their mothers might have breastfed. This is about the fact that they are surrounded by models of the normal breast as the one designed for sexual attraction. Constantly. We expect them and their partners to just switch all that off.
Spend 10 minutes on Twitter and search for the term ‘breastfeeding’. You’ll find the supporters and lactation consultants. And you’ll also find some very very confused teenagers and young people who are occasionally encountering women breastfeeding out of the home and they literally don’t know what to do themselves. They pick up their smartphones (which they imagine are entering them into a private dialogue with just a few friends) and express this confusion.
So what next?
Anyone educating young people about breastfeeding or working with teenage pregnant mums should explicitly talk about this culture. Watch the music videos. Look at the advertising. Talk about what’s been going on and where their feelings come from and acknowledge breastfeeding might not yet feel ‘normal’ and then try and explain why in fact it is.
And let’s talk to any new parent about breastfeeding and sex. Let’s not simply leave that to the lactation fetishists.
<Waving hello to the lactation fetishists>
A breastfeeding woman can be sexy without needing to go to bed wearing an industrial bra and breast pads and a desperate fear milk might APPEAR. I’m not expecting ‘Mother and Baby’ magazine to discuss how lactating breasts can be a normal part of foreplay but if an article like that was possible, I wonder how women might think about their bodies differently? Could there be a world where women can be both sexy and breastfeeding simultaneously without compartmentalizing themselves into the polarities of ‘Madonna’ or ‘Wife on a mini-break leaving the baby with the mother-in-law’? And if that integration happens, might more women and their partners imagine happily breastfeeding for longer?
I don’t know. But if we can find a way to find breasts sexy without losing touch of what their biological purpose is, it would be a brave new world.
*And the rather fabulous Pamela Anderson breastfed successfully with her implants. This isn’t about implants being incompatible with breastfeeding. It is about WHY implants are happening in the first place and what this tells us about how our society views the breast.