Selling Sex to Nursing Moms
Breastfeeding mothers have enough to think about without worrying that they’re not sufficiently sexy
A New Jersey mom agreed to make an educational video about breastfeeding two years ago. Last week, that mom filed suit against the video’s producers—the Meredith Corporation, publisher of Parents magazine, which I’ve written for—after parts of her educational video ended up on porn sites.
Of course, feeding a baby is not pornography. But it’s hardly surprising that some folks view normal mammalian mothering as something highly sexual, considering that we live in a culture in which anything related to breastfeeding is sold with a shimmy and a come-hither gaze, soft-focus lighting and the language of seduction. Just look at how breastfeeding is portrayed in advertising that aimed at the mothers themselves; of course people (particularly those who, um, aren’t equipped to breastfeed) equate it with sex.
There are maternity and nursing lingerie lines called HOTMilk, Milkalicious, Whoa Momma, MommyLicious, and PassionSpice. (Warning: Some of those links may be NSFW, because nursing is sooooo naughty!) The manufacturers of sexy nursing wear claim to be all about women’s empowerment, but they’re really about selling sex. And not the I-own-my-own-sexuality kind of sex; the I-am-an-object-see-me-giftwrapped kind of sex. A lacy teddy or filmy polyester gown isn’t going to make life easier for nursing women; only better health care and family leave policies will do that. (Here’s something else that won’t help: Latch On NYC, New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s recently announced plan for hospitals to lock up formula like contraband as a way to help women breastfeed, which won’t make life easier for breastfeeding women and will make life more challenging for women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed for personal or economic reasons.)
When the language and visuals of breastfeeding products aren’t sexy, they’re sniggeringly cutesy. In the last few days, I’ve gotten press releases for nursing products called Milkies and Bamboobies. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink language is similar to the tone of breast-cancer awareness campaigns aimed at young women: “Save 2nd Base,” “Save the Ta-Tas,” “Feel Your Boobies”—campaigns that don’t improve the lives of women with breast cancer in any meaningful way but do not-so-incidentally trivialize breast cancer and disenfranchise women who aren’t interested in being hotties. (Most women, I’d bet, aren’t so interested in being hotties while undergoing radiation and chemo treatment. Women shouldn’t feel bad for not feeling foxy while nursing an infant, either. Sense a pattern here?) Like the breast cancer campaigns, nursing products today are sold with a certain coyness that masks a lot of anxiety.
Nursing mothers are entitled to tune out commercial culture that pushes them to be sexy all the time. It’s OK to take a hotness time-out. “When you’re a nursing mother, you need that island of time,” said Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a Canadian psychologist, Orthodox Jew, and author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. “You need to be connecting to the baby, fully; you don’t need to be split down the middle, being sexy and feeding your child, at that exact moment. Breastfeeding isn’t a sexual act; it’s an intimate act with the baby. It’s love of a different kind. And turning it into an opportunity to sell sexuality is almost as though someone’s intruding on your private moment, diminishing it. A woman has to be respected and honored as a person, not just as a body.”
The conflict may indeed be particularly resonant for us Jews. We’re more likely to breastfeed than other groups, since white and highly educated women are the most likely to nurse, and we’re disproportionately represented among that group. “Breastfeeding is of value within our community,” Radcliffe said. “In a culture that’s fragmented and not supportive of mothering, it can be difficult. But I see very strong family support that still goes on in the Jewish community that’s not always there in the larger community.”
Historically and religiously, Judaism has always valued nursing. A 2006 study by the former head of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center pediatric department in Israel published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine found that Orthodox women tend to breastfeed longer than average. The author, Arthur Eidelman, pointed out that religious women may be influenced by the amount of support expressed in the Talmud for nursing. He adds that the Talmud recommends breastfeeding for two years (and helpfully points out that breast milk is pareve and kosher, even though it comes from a non-kosher animal—that is, us human ladies).
Sages in a superstitious age accepted the existence of invisible devils and the use of magic to render them visible