I once had a colleague who was much further along in her career come and talk to my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Somewhere during the class, the conversation turned to the objectification of women’s bodies in our culture and specifically to the objectification of breasts. This colleague proceeded to tell my students that breasts had one purpose and that was to nurse babies.
The students laughed, and the conversation moved quickly along to another topic, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said. In fact, it disturbed me so much that I went back into my class later that week to explain to them that I appreciated my colleague’s opinion and her experience as a mother who had breastfed but that many women, including me, see and experience breasts as far more than bottles that are tucked into bras each morning.
I talked to them about women enjoying having their breasts and getting sexual pleasure from them. I explained that many women take pleasure from their breasts long before they are old enough to nurse a baby and long after they are capable of nursing. I informed them that some women take a kind of pleasure—even sexual pleasure—from nursing, indicating that even in the act of nursing breasts are more than mere conduits for milk. I told them that many women are never capable of nursing—for a variety of reasons—and so the idea that nursing is all that breasts are good for means that women who can’t breastfeed end up being positioned as somehow having faulty equipment. I told them I didn’t have children and never planned on having children but still liked my breasts and refused to see them as useless because I wasn’t using them to feed a baby.
Somehow, however, the argument my colleague had made appealed to them. In a world of black and white, either breasts were sexual objects or natural feeding devices. Somehow, students were hesitant to see women’s relationships to their breasts as far more rich and complicated than that.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Breasts are mostly portrayed in very dichotomous ways in our society. Many criticisms of mainstream representations of women’s bodies suggest that the sexualization of female body parts is always oppressive, and sometimes such images and criticism are used to actually promote breastfeeding, which was the case with several posters that juxtaposed images of women in bikinis with images of women breastfeeding and proclaimed that finding breastfeeding offensive but not bikinis meant the viewer was a hypocrite. Often, such posters are considered feminist in nature; many students certainly saw my colleague’s opinion as feminist in nature. Maybe part of the appeal of such an argument is that it seems like a way for women to fend off the pure or unwanted objectification of their breasts by proclaiming that the person objectifying them has mistakenly seen breasts as only sexual when they are actually only for babies.
Pleasure from one’s breasts or pleasure from being sexualized is totally left out of such a formula. Of course, there’s shockingly little conversation in our society about women taking pleasure from any parts of their bodies for any reason—much less conversation about sexual pleasure. And heaven forbid a woman admit that she ever enjoys being looked at as a sexual object.
Additional pressure to see breasts as only functional surely also comes from so many organizations now pushing for women to breastfeed. In fact, I recently discovered that I can even buy myself a t-shirt to announce to the world—with a big slogan right across my chest—that my breasts are indeed for that purpose and that breastmilk is “what’s for dinner,” as if that doesn’t promote its own kind of objectification.
And then there’s the “Babies are Born to Breastfeed Campaign,” a campaign that features photos of women’s breasts with captions such as “The Only Food Group Your Baby Needs” and has been pushed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama as one of the best ways to end childhood obesity. Great. Another reason to blame women for the obesity epidemic and another means of telling them what they ought to be doing with their bodies.
Don’t get me wrong. I think women ought to be able to breastfeed if they want to and can. I think our culture is way too uptight about breastfeeding mothers in public spaces and there ought to be more understanding and even physical accommodations for breastfeeding women. I work at a university that, to my knowledge, has nowhere for breastfeeding mothers to go to quietly nurse—even though we have a childcare center on campus.
I think that if some women only see their breasts as having that purpose that’s their business. I don’t, however, feel like women who don’t see their breasts that way or women who choose not to use their breasts that way ought to feel shame or guilt or like they’re misusing their breasts or buying into the idea that women are only ever sexual objects.
What it ultimately comes down to is that I don’t want anyone else telling me what my breasts are for. I want to decide that for myself, if you don’t mind. And I’d like for all women to be able to make that decision without feeling guilt or shame or like they’re betraying their nature or their feminist ideals—or like there are only two choices for how to see one’s breasts. After all, my breasts are for me.