Friday, July 28, 2006


Things are getting interesting. First we had the health campaign which tried to shame women into breastfeeding by comparing not breastfeeding to trying to ride a deranged bull while pregnant. The old mother-guilt trigger there. Then comes this bit of news:

"I was SHOCKED to see a giant breast on the cover of your magazine," one person wrote. "I immediately turned the magazine face down," wrote another. "Gross," said a third.

These readers weren't complaining about a sexually explicit cover, but rather one of a baby nursing, on a wholesome parenting magazine _ yet another sign that Americans are squeamish over the sight of a nursing breast, even as breast-feeding itself gains more support from the government and medical community.

Babytalk is a free magazine whose readership is overwhelmingly mothers of babies. Yet in a poll of more than 4,000 readers, a quarter of responses to the cover were negative, calling the photo _ a baby and part of a woman's breast, in profile _ inappropriate.

One mother who didn't like the cover explains she was concerned about her 13-year-old son seeing it.

"I shredded it," said Gayle Ash, of Belton, Texas, in a telephone interview. "A breast is a breast _ it's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that."

It's the same reason that Ash, 41, who nursed all three of her children, is cautious about breast-feeding in public _ a subject of enormous debate among women, which has even spawned a new term: "lactivists," meaning those who advocate for a woman's right to nurse wherever she needs to.

"I'm totally supportive of it _ I just don't like the flashing," she says. "I don't want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn't want to see."

I actually think that this is a made-up story, at least partly. Most people don't mind women breastfeeding in public at all. But that there is even a need for a story like this tells reams about the culture and about the idea of the female breast as something purely sexual.

You might be astonished to hear that much of this is cultural. The United States is the promised land of the breast as a sexual irritant.