It’s Legal, So Why Isn’t It Accepted?


A state law protecting women’s right to breast-feed in public was passed recently. Still, comments by some legislators preceding its passage suggest that it marks the end of civilization as we know it.

One legislator groused that such a law may encourage mothers to get naked from the waist up to suckle their young. Another questioned the decency of breast-feeding in public, loosely equating it to certain natural bodily functions conducted in privacy. (You get the idea.)

As writer Glenn O’Brien queried in Playboy: “So what is it about this small gland of postnatal nourishment that puts a great nation in a dither?”


Think Marilyn Monroe, the push-up bra, breast augmentation. The female breast is seen dominantly as an erotic sex organ in American culture. Therein lies the problem: Whatever body part a culture eroticizes, it hides, modesty and embarrassment attending it in all its regards.

Breast-feeding introduces the very biological nature of the “gland,” disturbing its exalted position as sexual icon in this thriving cult of breast worship.

“Some people would even deny that the breast has any function in child rearing,” says Katherine A. Dettwyler, an anthropologist at Texas A & M University and author of “Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives” (Aldine deGruyter, 1995). “It is almost like people are upset that you are taking away their sexual pleasure by reminding them that breasts are really for babies.

“The human sexual obsession with the breast is cultural,” she adds, “and it is not very widespread.” Indeed, in a cross-cultural survey, anthropologists found that only 13 of 190 cultures view the breast as sexually attractive.

The ideal breast in nine cultures is “large.” Two cultures like them “pendulous” and two have a penchant for “hemispheric upright” breasts. But even in some countries where the breast reigns as erotic object, people seem capable of drawing a distinction between its functional role and its sexual one.

In Scandinavia, Dettwyler says, women nurse their children in public without being ousted or drawing criticism. The same is true in India, she adds. At the same time, breasts are considered very sexy in those countries.



While much is made of the allegedly reckless, breast-feeding nudist mother eager to share her maternal flesh with strangers, many women are so modest that they won’t even do a breast self-exam, reports Dettwyler.

But one culture’s sex object is another’s innocuous body part. The idea of hiding one’s breasts would amuse women in Western Mali, where it’s like showing your elbow, Dettwyler says. Yet, great lengths are taken in Mali to cover thigh flesh, which, if exposed, might lead to groping by a man.

The ankle was an erogenous zone in Victorian times. Its likenesses in furniture (piano legs) and fowl (legs of turkey and chicken) were concealed in dainty booties. In the Middle East, women cover themselves from head to toe: The hair, mouth and eyes are considered especially alluring.

And in parts of New Guinea, tribal men cover their penises with something called a phallocarp, up to 2 feet long and 4 inches in diameter. When UCLA physiologist Jared Diamond asked why they wore them, the men replied that sheathless, they felt immodest and naked. Never mind that their testicles were fully exposed.

“Somehow showing a breast in public is like pulling down your pants,” says David M. Buss, an evolutionary psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Americans are probably the most extreme in viewing the breast as a sexual signal.”

Why do Americans fixate on the breast out of all proportion to the rest of a woman’s physique? Dettwyler says it’s because of lingering puritanism and a bombardment of “sex sells” advertisements with breasts as the mainstay (beer, cars, clothes, burgers, milk, cookies, you name it). Even in most infant formula ads, women breast-feeding their babies are seen in bedrooms, dressed in negligees and slippers. The message: A woman’s breast belongs in the boudoir.



From a primatological perspective, human females stand out. Unlike all other 222 primates, Buss says, female humans evolved to have permanently enlarged mammary glands. One theory why: As our ancestors became bipedal, the sexual signals that initially ornamented the behind evolved to the chest. Caveman found chesty cavewoman alluring, and the trait spread across the centuries.

Another hypothesis is that voluptuous breasts are a deceptive sexual signal of high sexual reproductive value, functioning as a kind of round-the-clock trolling for Mr. Right. Another posits that breasts are honest sexual signals, emblematic of a girl’s passage through menarche into reproductive prime. Finally there is what scientists call “the good mother signal,” the idea that fatty deposits in the breasts (and hips) indicate the body has sufficient fat to sustain a pregnancy and subsequent lactation. (At last, a positive word for extra poundage.)

But in the schizophrenic world of the breast, its biological purpose seems to be the very thing that makes some, well, sick. In a letter to a local newspaper, a 36-year-old woman fired: “Breast-feeding is not some miraculous experience, it is a biological function which involves excretion, such as using the toilet, spitting and vomiting.”

In other words, sure it’s cute when a female dog nurses puppies, but let a human female do it and . . . retch! “It is part of Judeo-Christian belief that humans are fundamentally different from all other animals, and the things that we do that are animal-like are done in private,” Dettwyler says. “Urinating, defecating and having sex and breast-feeding a baby are things that make us like an animal.”


O’Brien is more specific in his analysis of the breast, zeroing in what he terms America’s nipple-phobia. He suggests that those who are most vociferous against nipple exposure didn’t get enough of it as babes, a Freudian throwback. These probably are the same people who complained when some department stores displayed mannequins with nipples (subsequently filed down, he reports).

Even Barbie, that plastic slave to impossible beauty ideals, is nippleless. The case of the missing nipple includes laws in some states that allow strippers to go topless except for the nipple; pasties and ornamental cones cap the offensive tissue.


Anticipating that nipple-phobia might cost women their right to nurse in public (if an accidental flash sent someone into outrage), New York legislators added language to their law explicitly allowing the nipple to show while breast-feeding.

“Perhaps America is turned off by nipples because America is so turned on by nipples,” O’Brien writes. “American men seem to be so excited by this arbitrarily erotic region that it’s a wonder they can take off their own shirts without lapsing into a prurient coma.”

But there may be hope. Cultural attitudes are not immutable and can be rerouted with, uh, exposure to new customs, Dettwyler says. As women begin to feel at ease breast-feeding in public, social norms will change. And if you buy O’Brien’s argument, as generations of children who get “enough nipple” come of age, perhaps people will stop going berserk at the sight of breasts and babies together.

“If you give somebody the opportunity to see it, very quickly it loses its shock value,” Dettwyler says. “I will show a class of 200 undergraduates picture after picture of breasts and babies either attached or about to be attached. At first there are snickers and titters. Soon, though, they stop.”