What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of breasts? A woman wearing a bikini on the beach? A porno clip? Maybe you picture a nude scene from a show like Game of Thrones. I bet in the five seconds it took you to create that mental image a woman breastfeeding didn’t even cross your mind. In fact, many would probably turn away if they saw a mother breastfeeding her child at a park or a woman walking down the street topless.
Breast exposure remains extremely taboo in American society. I consider myself a rather progressive woman, and even I was shocked when faced with this recent situation.
Last week, one of my professors brought his wife and two toddler-aged children to class. His wife, who has experience with editing, was asked to review the first drafts of our final exam essays and provide feedback. As I sat down for my one-on-one time with her, one of the children became very fussy in her arms. After several moments of ear-splintering screams, the mother casually unzipped her jacket, rearranged her tank top and began breastfeeding the child while continuing to look over my paper. My eyes uncomfortably wandered to everywhere but her bosom; I just couldn’t believe that someone would be comfortable enough to start breastfeeding a child in the middle of a college classroom.
However, what surprised me most was not the woman’s casual attitude toward breastfeeding in a classroom, but rather my own, shocked reaction. I walked away moments later questioning why I had felt the need to look away, as if breasts were some private, foreign object. If I was so bothered by this, was breastfeeding in a public park, restaurant or at the beach as appropriate as I had once believed? Would I have reacted the same way if my professor had showed us a movie with a sex scene or nudity?
The uncomfortableness surrounding breast exposure in America ultimately stems from our history and upbringing. We are the products of a society rooted in puritanical and religious values, which have incidentally characterized breast exposure as obscene when unrelated to a sexual purpose.
It’s completely normal for bare-breasted women to be in strip clubs or sex scenes in movies and TV shows, but any non-sexual situation immediately receives backlash. In 2012, a woman named Jessica Krigsman was arrested for going topless while sunbathing on a park bench in Brooklyn. She cited the 1992 case People v. Santorelli which ruled that banning bare female breasts in public areas violated equal protection clauses, but the officers still arrested her. The charges were later dropped.
Though the law was clearly in Krigsman’s favor, the officers still felt the need to reprimand her for going topless. The decision to ignore Krigsman’s explanation seems less rooted in the officers’ understanding of the law, but rather their personal perception of breasts and their effect on the public.
In terms of breastfeeding, most states have passed legislation stating breast exposure in public (and sometimes private) locations is permitted for the purposes of breastfeeding. Connecticut, for example, has a statute forbidding any person from restricting the right of a mother to breastfeed her child. However, two states (West Virginia and Idaho) have no laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public, according to nursingfreedom.org
While clear laws supporting female breast exposure for breastfeeding and regular activity exist, social conventions prevent overall acceptance from being reached in American society. Many non-Western cultures and indigenous populations typically go topless without a second thought, and we’re all familiar with the European nude beaches. However, we’ve branded parts of the human anatomy as indecent when not fulfilling a sexual purpose.
As a society we glorify sex and not nudity, and this becomes particularly prevalent at colleges and universities, UNH included. There is a world separate from the one we see in those pretty, cookie-cutter university brochures – one consisting of drugs, alcohol and sex. College students remain in a confined, educational environment, and have little exposure to nudity aside from sex. Public nudity in any form on a college campus may spark initial confusion and natural surprise.
There’s a reason I looked away from a woman breastfeeding; I was unprepared for seeing such a scene play out on university premises. The media showcasing nudity primarily for sexual purposes also makes the issue of breast exposure even fuzzier. We are still living in a world of strict moral and religious values, and once we strip down that barrier, a better acceptance of non-sexual breast exposure and breastfeeding can be reached.