As Mormons (in fact, as Christians), we’re asked all the time to resist worldly beliefs, worldly ideologies, worldly practices, worldly what-have-you, in favor of the transcendent, absolute truth of the gospel. “Worldly” here, of course, stands for local culture with its array of conventional cultural practices that may be more or less dissonant with gospel principles. So, for example, American culture says (wherever you locate the “voice” of American culture, which is clearly not univocal) that sexual activity is fine in a number of different situations and relationships; the Church says, nope, only marriage. American culture (or some segments of it) says, get ahead and make lots of money and buy stuff and you’ll be happy; the gospel suggests we focus on family and relationships instead. American culture (in the voice of Dale Cooper) says coffee is a-okay; the Church says, we have revelation to the contrary, have some Ovaltine.
Here’s another one for you: American culture says, women’s breasts are primarily sexual objects for the visual and sensual pleasure of men. The Church says, Women’s breasts have unfortunately become a focal element of a hypersexualized culture and economy that regularly makes the female body into a commodity, or a vehicle for selling other commodities. We recognize how insulting this is to women’s personhood, in addition to how it exploits the male sex drive, reducing men to their libidos and women to the sexual desirability of their bodies. Since we know that the primary function of women’s breasts is actually to feed babies, and the attraction they hold for men is strictly secondary, we work hard at resisting the temptation to overemphasize them as sexual characteristics — this is difficult, but then, so is the law of chastity, and tithing is no slouch either.
HAH! I WISH! Actually, church culture (not the gospel, and not even, explicitly, the Church institution) doesn’t resist this particular cultural doctrine at all. Instead, it pretty much caves to the world’s sexualized fixation on breasts, and as a corollary assumes that women engaged in that super embarrassing, awkward, totally weird act of lactating milk into their babies’ mouths (sooo awkwarrrd, amiright?) will just remove themselves from polite company to do it.
Why is this an issue where we’re suddenly unwilling to resist cultural trends in the way we’re happy to with regard to, say, alcohol, or dress standards, or sexual orientation? Well, think about it from the perspective of patriarchy: Resisting the super-sexualization of breasts puts a demand disproportionately on men: that they learn to see something they’ve been trained to see sexually as, instead or in addition, something else which is utterly benign and more about procreation than sex. Embracing the whole breasts-as-men’s-sex-object position, though, makes it women’s burden, to monitor and cover and control and disguise their breasts, to the point where they can’t even do what breasts are actually supposed to do.
It’s difficult and inconvenient for men (and women, too, insofar as we’re all co-opted into the male gaze, etc.) to resist and revise what they think about women’s bodies, but it’s also the right thing to do. On the other hand, it’s also difficult and inconvenient for a nursing mother, especially with other children (especially especially if she’s taking them to church by herself), to leave a meeting and go sit in a closet when her baby is hungry. In our family-friendly motherhood-idolozing baby-making-machine of a church, it seems like we should recognize this as a wrong thing to do– but then, that’s assuming that “we” includes something other than a male perspective.