Zelophehad’s Daughters

A quick observation on a topical topic

Posted by Melyngoch

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.

26 Responses to “A quick observation on a topical topic”

  1. 1.

    And, just to circumvent the inevitable strawmen:

    (i) I’m clear that heterosexual men are attracted to breasts and that this is really ingrained and that there’s no getting away from it, and I’m not trying to demonize heterosexual sexual attraction. I’m talking about how we manage that attraction, and what cultural forces exaggerate it beyond attraction and into fixation, not whether it does or should exist at all.

    (ii) It’s true that I don’t know what it’s like to be a teenage boy with raging hormones, etc., etc. (though being a teenage girl with raging hormones was a pretty unique experience in its own right). Arguably, teenage boys and their hormones are going to be excited about breasts no matter what’s covering them or not, so an argument based on this concern (if you breastfeed in church, the deacons might see!) is a bit specious, especially if we recall that the less taboo something is, the less sexually intriguing it becomes. If women breastfeeding their children were a normal sight for these hormone-ravaged teenagers, I suspect breasts with babies clamped on to them would rapidly become no more interesting (and possibly less) than all the fully-covered (or, in most high-schools, demi-covered) breasts that teenage boys have to find a way to cope with anyway.

    (iii) Obviously you can’t really separate sex and procreation. But then, you can’t totally conflate them either, since we have sex for other reasons, and the procreation on women’s side goes on for nine long months (arguably more) after sexy fun time is over.

  2. 2.

    In a repressed society, even a carved piano leg will set off the vapors.

    As a miserable virginal thirty something never-married TBM woman,I was often scandalized by nursing. From the noisy suckling sounds to the theories I’d read about orgasm-like reactions in nursing mothers, breast feeding seemed mysterious, private, sensual, and even self-serving. I witnessed mothers extended breast feeding and assumed that there was something psychologically wrong with them. I’m ashamed to say I almost called CPS on a family member who breast-fed her children until they were six.

  3. 3.

    I keep thinking about this in historical terms: we have the option to use bottles and formula today. As mass-produced, widely-available and functional products, they are twentieth-century innovations. Both are literal life-savers, significantly increasing the rate of infant survival, but both also clearly put distance between breasts as a means to nourish babies and breasts as decorative enticements for heterosexual men. (Did I really just write “distance between breasts”?) :)

    In other words, for most of human history men have had to deal with breastfeeding, and the non-sexual nourishing function of breasts, as a reality. It’s only in the twentieth century, and mostly in the United States, that we have shifted to a focus on breasts as almost exclusively sexual and decorative (thus the rise of breast augmentations – which often prevent lactation).

  4. 4.

    Spot on.

  5. 5.

    Oh, hell yes. Thanks, Melyngoch!

  6. 6.

    Bingo as usual Melyng.

    May I add to anyone who suggest that a nursing mother just feed the kid a bottle: Giving a bottle is exactly what you do when you want to wean them, and exactly not what you do when you are trying to establish a feeding routine shoehorned into the rest of your responsibilities.

    Also this: Teenage boys can handle whatever the grown men and women around them expect them to be able to handle. It’s part of civilizing them.

  7. 7.

    Fantastic point, Melyngoch.

    Mormonism is a complicated network of rules and norms and expectations about performed identity within the community. And those rules are based on justifications which are often highly inconsistent: “Don’t give in to your gayness! Fight the natural man!” versus “You’d best cover that boob, he really can’t help himself.” And there doesn’t seem to be a very theologically consistent way of determining ex ante which approach applies.

  8. 8.

    Boy you had me going there with the second paragraph. I found myself wondering “what church is SHE in, because that sure isn’t the one I’ve been attending!” I should have spotted the satire immediately.
    Personally, I think our anti-boobness is counter productive. It makes them mysterious forbidden fruit. I’ve seen in cultures where BFing is done out int he open, and you know what? Somehow their teenage boys get over it real fast. Nursing boobs really aren’t that glorious, once you remove the mystery of it. I mean, they ARE glorious, but not in a sex symbol way:)

  9. 9.

    Official church statement so far:

    LDS Church Spokesperson Scott Trotter released the following statement in response to the incident:
    “Countless thousands of mothers have been accommodated in church for generations, simply by everyone observing common sense, discretion and respect. We have received no information about this incident.”

    Here’s hoping she is successful in her efforts to nurse at church.

    (The article in the SLC Fox News web site says that her release was because she was nursing in a YW class–if that is so, does that mean that it was another woman or girl who complained??? I don’t expect that a man would have been in attendance. If it was another female who complained, whew! that adds a whole new layer to the discussion.)

    I nursed all my babies discretely in church meetings and no one ever said anything. I wish the same privilege for every sister.

  10. 10.

    I don’t always nurse babies…

    But when I do, I do it indiscreetly.

  11. 11.

    As with Pants to Church Day and Let Women Pray, the mere fact that the Church made an official statement is the win–five years ago (one year ago, probably), they would have rolled their eyes and maybe had a good laugh about those silly feminists. The fact that they can’t do that anymore is a Very. Big. Deal.

  12. 12.

    The most effective way to counter the broader American sexualization of breasts is to normalize their designed purpose. As long as women are asked to cover and hide breastfeeding the more the idea of them being sexual parts is reinforced. The more people see breastfeeding and view it as a normal natural function of caring for infants the less unusual and titillating an activity it is.

    The church’s cultural practice of asking women to cover while breastfeeding or remove themselves from the company of others while breastfeeding is perpetuating the sexualization of breasts.

  13. 13.

    Just to lighten the mood, my favorite breastfeeding story: when my niece was two or three, she saw her aunt nursing her daughter. Niece’s mom was never able to nurse, too many problems, so this was new for her. After watching a while, she asked “what are you doing?” Aunt explained that this was how she fed baby. After a few more minutes watching, niece asked, “can you get Kool-Aid out of there?” We’ve been laughing over that for almost 40 years now!

  14. 14.

    Cannot even handle all the “we have no problem with her breastfeeding as long as she isnt IMMODEST about it by daring to not have a cover up or remove herself to a stinky mother’s lounge where she will be isolated from everyone and all the meetings” comments. BREASTFEEDING IS NOT IMMODEST. EXPOSING A FEW INCHES OF SKIN FOR THE PURPOSE OF NOURISHING AN INFANT IS NOT IMMODEST. My kid HATED the cover up and would not eat with it on, insisting on pulling it off me constantly. Then again, what do you expect from folks who are scandalized by an exposed knee, shoulder, or *gasp* the feminine form in pants.

  15. 15.

    The whole “immodesty” issue is ridiculous. I see women breastfeeding in public all the time. Most exposed skin is covered up by baby’s head! It’s ludicrous.

  16. 16.

    This whole issue brought back a memory from my early childhood. I was five years old and playing with my best neighborhood friend and her 4-year-old brother. He started making silly/mocking comments about breasts, probably because he was just starting to become aware of them. Our babysitter was his elderly grandmother. She heard him mocking and immediately said that there is nothing weird about breasts and that all women have them. She then opened her shirt and pulled out one of her breasts and said “See? I have them, too.” The little boy said, “Oh! OK” and that was that.

    I wholeheartedly agree with those who are saying that if YW are uncomfortable with breastfeeding that means they need more exposure and education about it, not less.

  17. 17.

    I am embarrassed to say that I was nodding along to the breast feeding paragraph, until I came to the “HA!” part. I guess I have never noticed if this is an issue for others, because it has never affected me (as far as being negatively impacted by seeing a nursing mother – I have not had children) or been a complaint that I heard among the women of my ward. It is somewhat baffling to me that the approach you outlined, Melyngoch, isn’t just accepted by everyone. Isn’t it obvious? Don’t we basically reverence the idea of motherhood? Gah, people!

  18. 18.

    Galdralag, I love that story. Sounds like a great way to normalize breasts for him. (But as an adult, he probably had a difficult time being interested in women’s breasts because they were too . . . normal. (Sorry!) ;) )

    Melyngoch, this is a great post. I love it when you get riled up about stupidity and go out and smack it down!

  19. 19.

    Nicely put!

    And so true: “Church culture. . .doesn’t resist this particular cultural doctrine at all. Instead, it pretty much caves to the world’s sexualized fixation on breasts, . .”

    I remember when the issue of double and triple ear piercings was talked about in general conference. How women shouldn’t alter their bodies. I’m a registered nurse and my first response was, “Are you KIDDING me!? You’re talking about pierced ears as altering the body and NOT mentioning women paying thousands of dollars to be paralized, anesthetized and brought to a level of consciousness that requires suspension of DNR orders (because it’s not clear whether you are alive or dead under general anesthesia) cut open and have bags of saline or silicone inserted into your chest . . . SERiously!? Pierced ears!?

    Yep. Welcome to ‘merica brothers and sisters.

  20. 20.

    P.S. I nursed all three of my babies (now all grown-ups). In church. Discretely. I think.

    But this whole twisted modesty/sexualization thing didn’t seem to be so insane back then.

  21. 21.

    I don’t like the way that last comment came out. But, hopefully you get what I’m trying to say.

  22. 22.

    It’s so interesting because the church in other countries can have such a different culture. In Finland and other Scandinavian countries, for example, everyone does sauna, which is either a family, couple or men/women nude in sweltering temperatures. Male and female bodies are *normal* and less sexual there. Somehow we’ve managed to sexualize everything here.

  23. 23.

    I <3 Melyngoch.

  24. 24.

    As the issue of breastfeeding and modesty in general has been in the forefront of my mind this last week, there is one persistent thought I keep coming back to.

    I often hear the arguments that women “just don’t know how dressing immodestly affects men” or “It is common courtesy to think about how your actions affect other people.”

    To these arguments I want to respond, “Have you considered how all the rhetoric about modesty affects women? Have you considered how this rhetoric affects both their thoughts about themselves as well as how it limits their activities?” and “It is common courtesy to think about how your actions (and your words) affect other people.”

  25. 25.

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