Breastfeeding in public has become a huge debate lately. I’ve been sort of wishy-washy on my opinion. While pregnant, I was sure I would use a cover when in public or when we had guests over because I’m someone who isn’t even comfortable in a bikini top so I was sure I would feel too exposed to ever nurse without a blanket. As my pregnancy went on and I researched more and actually saw images and video of women nursing, I slowly started scooting more toward using a cover most of the time but being open to not using one. One of the most frustrating conversations around the breastfeeding in public debate however is the discussion of whether or not a woman choosing to breastfeed in public without a cover is immodest, and whether it is appropriate for a Christian mother to ever breastfeed without a cover.
But breasts are for sex
My husband was not a big fan of this idea (nursing openly in public) but has definitely come around as we’ve discussed it more and more. I understand his point of view (and many others share it). Breasts have been sexualized. Even though he knows and I know and most people know that breastfeeding isn’t exposing breasts for the world to see and be aroused by, people are still going to see them as sexual. I get it. My daughter is now almost 6 months and I have very rarely nursed in public without a cover. There have been a few instances where I’ve nursed her in our Ergo carrier with only my bra pulled up to cover the top part of my breast. When I have girls’ night at my house, I never cover. But mostly, I still cover. Even though I know when I’m nursing, there isn’t really much sexy about my breasts, it can still be uncomfortable for me to feel that exposed in public. There is a degree of vulnerability to nursing (even with a cover) when there are other people around. Even nursing under a cover, I feel vulnerable when random people (okay, men) are near me or talking to me. In my head, I don’t hear a word they’re saying, I just think “My boob is out right now. My boob is out.” It just doesn’t feel normal. I think this is more a product of our over-sexualized culture than there actually being something wrong with nursing in public.
Baby loves the cover… to play with
The older V gets, the harder it becomes to cover because she wants to play with the cover or pull it off. It almost becomes more of a distraction as I wrangle her little hands under the blanket and pray she latches quickly and quietly and stays that way until she is done. Honestly, it rarely happens like that anymore. More often than not, she ends up pulling at my hands, the neck of my cover, the edges of the cover, twisting and arching so she can get away from the cover and get back to exploring the exciting world around her. I don’t blame her. What curious kid would want to be stuck staring at the underside of a piece of cloth while they eat? I even use a nursing poncho as my go-to cover (I just cut a neck hole in a large piece of cute jersey knit) and while I’ve found it is the easiest cover to use, she still pulls at the neckline or tries to pull the edge back over her head so she can see.
First of all, and I know many people have mentioned this in conversations and blogs across the web, no one is forcing anyone to stand and stare at a woman’s breast while she is nursing. Most of the time, you would have to stand immediately beside or behind a woman to actually see her nipple. And the nipple is what gets people really fired up, right? Because we love to see women’s breasts. Especially beautiful women’s breasts that aren’t being used for their biological purpose.
Just keep walking and you probably won’t even notice a woman is nursing. And if you did notice and you immediately were aroused, act like an adult and keep walking, you’ll get over it. Seriously, what have we become as a society that we require infants to behave in public, keep quiet when we want them to, and eat under blankets, but we have no expectations that a man can control his sexual urges while a woman cares for her baby in the most natural way possible? Would it be okay for a man to walk up to a woman wearing a revealing outfit and berate her for turning him on? I don’t think so.
Breastfeeding is not immodest
Do I think there are more modest ways to nurse? Yes, but only because I believe we’re using the term “modest” incorrectly. I don’t believe breastfeeding by simply pulling your breast out is immodest. Many women who don’t use an actual blanket or cover use the two-shirt method, where they pull one up to cover the top of the breast and have another they pull the neckline down so it still covers their torso (or a nursing tank that unclips). This is the method I lean toward more and more. But if you have a hungry baby or a baby that needs the comfort of nursing, by all means, please nurse your baby. Instead of berating or shaming that mother, go get her a snack or a glass of water, or just keep walking. We have a beautiful example of the peace and bonding between a mother and her nursing child in Our Lady of Le Leche. I have a small OLLL medal I was given that I wear to remind me to put my child’s needs first and find peace in giving her the best nourishment and comfort I can.
But I think a bigger conversation that we’re missing is that calling breastfeeding modest or immodest is the wrong discussion altogether. This is a really great look at modesty from a Bibilical perspective. This is another great look at the breastfeeding/modesty debate from a Catholic perspective. Instead of using modesty in reference to breastfeeding, I think the discussion needs to shift to “discreet”. Our modern understanding (however wrong that may be) of “modesty” is too closely intertwined with sexuality. Some women are more comfortable nursing discreetly – and this looks different for every woman. Maybe discreet to some women is using a cover. That’s their choice. Maybe for some it’s a two-shirt method so their child is calm at the breast instead of causing a commotion and drawing more attention fighting/playing with a cover. That’s their choice. Maybe for some discreet simply means not shouting “I’m breastfeeding” while nursing their child on a park bench. That’s their choice. There is nothing wrong with a breast. There is nothing wrong with putting the needs of our infants and children first by nourishing and comforting them whenever, wherever and however.
It’s important that women feel supported and safe when nursing in public. We can’t expect them to stay at home for their child’s first few months or years of life. And while no one should judge another mama for choosing not to breastfeed or for switching to formula after a few months, we should create a culture where no mama feels pressured to stop nursing when she really wants to keep doing it, just because she doesn’t feel supported or comfortable doing it. By shifting the paradigm that breasts are for sex, we can normalize breastfeeding and encourage mamas to do what is best for their children and themselves, instead of having to compromise on their wishes in order to avoid stigma and confrontation.
Nurse all the babies!