Ban the Boobs

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Short essay on why public opinion may not always favor mothers who public breastfeed through analysis of Chrissy Teigan's breastfeeding photo debacle.

Submitted: June 05, 2019

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Submitted: June 05, 2019



“Ever since the field of biology emerged in the United States and Europe at the start of the nineteenth century, it has been bounded up in debates over sexual, racial and national politics” (Fausto-Sterling).  As we advance in the field of biology, the knowledge produced from it becomes entrenched with normative discourse that is sexed and gendered.  With a sexed and gendered view of biology, more specifically the human body, cultural norms and stigma can enforce sex/gender discrimination.  Breast-feeding, one of the most vital functions of the human body, has become victim of cultural norms which leads to policing of female bodies.  The breast feeding controversy has debated where these women can breast feed and if they can in a public space, but now in our digital age, breast feeding has gone public in the online world as well.  In 2018, celebrity couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen posted photos of Chrissy breast-feeding her children and breast-pumping.Heart-warming photos showcasing the realities of parenting for this couple has turned into a social media frenzy with well over 13,000 negative comments.  The couple had many supporters as well, but it turned into an online debate on Instagram among the users.  The users attacking the couple base their opinions on the account that it was “indecent”, “inappropriate”, “attention-seeking”.  Some of the critics claimed to be mothers and believed that Chrissy should regard breast feeding as a private matter.  Others who supported Chrissy and John claimed that it was inspiring and proud to see public breastfeeding becoming normalized by an influencer.  They argue that breast feeding is natural and a necessity so the mother should not have to change but society should change what is normative regarding female breasts.  Thus with accounts like Chrissy’s, it reveals that criticisms against public breast-feeing is a product of the pathologizing female reproductive systems, hyper sexualization of the female breasts, and gendered/sexed discourse of female biology.


Criticizing breast feeding in a public space is not a result of the female biology but rather a result of the culture that attaches normative ideas to her body.  As Fausto-Sterling claims, “we look at the body as a system that simultaneously produces and is produced by social meaning”.  Breast feeding is a natural act in which women feed their children.  Without breast-feeding or breast pumping milk ducts can become blocked and cause pain.  In the U.S there seems to be an established norm that women should not expose their breasts in public and rather save it for the private realm, even it is to provide nutrition to her children.  So when a woman must expose her breast, even if it is not fully exposed, it is considered “disgusting” or “attentional getting” and even “unhygienic” making it a non-normative.  However, the biggest assumption made, especially in the Chrissy Teagan case, is that they are not good mothers or parents .  But where are these claims coming from?  Why do these individuals view it as “disgusting” or “unhygienic”?  As we have talked about pathologizing those who blur the boarder for binaries, it seems that part of the stigma originated from pathologizing breast feeding as well.  In the 1930s, women were having issue producing a sufficient amount of milk.  According to Miller-Bellor, doctors urged mothers not to breast feed since the fluid coming out was not entirely safe.  In  response, male doctors created baby formula which was endorsed by the medical community.  So in that time period, baby formula was praised for “fixing” what was defective within the mothers.  This is where part of the stigma arose from.  However, this stigma is very outdated but still the sentiment is carried over by an older generation of individuals that is still important to acknowledge since it targeted lower class women who could not afford to purchase formula.  Interestingly, the paradigm has shifted as we move in a more modern age with a greater means of media.  Now the normativity surrounding breasts is much more than just “unhygienic” and it is beginning to target working women instead of lower-class women.  In a modern age the stigma surrounding breast exposure ultimately stems from the normalization of hyper sexualized female breasts as pushed through the male gaze.


In Chrissy and Johns Instagram post, comments assume that the couple was trying to gain attention, others claimed that this moment is too private to be shared to a public audience. The anxiety surrounding breast exposure stems from the sexualization of female breasts through the male gaze. Although the breast is a natural part of the human body, the female breast has become a cultural sexual symbol.  For example, in pre-colonized Hawaii, women were not expected to cover their breasts.  It was the norm within their culture until European settlers came and forced their norms onto the Hawaiians.  Thus bearing breasts was criticized.  Because the female breast becomes victim of the male gaze under a modern Western perspective, women are taught to cover to subvert any sexual subjectification.  How is female breast sexualization normalized?  In a new era of technology, one is constantly exposed to sexualized images of women.  Advertisement billboards , Instagram photos, and movies. These forms of media have disseminated sexual images of women and establish the norm for the sexualization of the breasts.  It originated from the male gaze which can be seen especially in film.  Males have predominantly directed and produced movies, historically thus controlling how they set the visual narrative (Mulvey).  In result, many shots of the women sexualize certain body parts such as the breasts, hips, and the butt.  So now as the U.S has become entrenched with a male dominant visual narrative of the female body, we become normalized to breast equating to sexuality. Now when applying this knowledge to breast feeding, many women criticize it because the breast, a sexual symbol, is used in a non-sexual manner (Green). Many Instagram comments push for Chrissy to consider her breastfeeding a more private matter because of the fear of seeing a sexual symbol in the public eye as normal.  However, the users defending Chrissy beg the question, how are we okay with revealing fashion or nudity in films, but when we reveal to nurse, it is then crossing a line?  When one sees revealing models in advertisements, nude stars in film or magazines, there is never a frenzy or controversy, why?Because breast exposure is acceptable in a sexual connotation.  But anxiety stirs over breast feeding because now breasts are exposed in a non-sexual manner, which falls out of the Western norm.  The female breast is natural, it could be normalized like in pre-contact Hawaii yet the controversy stirs because individuals still want to project a sexual lens onto breasts even in a non-sexual manner like breast-feeding.


In addition to sexualizing the female breasts, the sex/gendered discourse of female biology has a significant impact on why criticisms arise in public breast feeding. As we have discussed in class, the idea of the civilized woman in the U.S is not sexual, she does not desire sex rather love.  There are many expectations mother’s in the U.S face, and many of the expectations are based from stereotypes.  As Martin asserts, “reproductive biology relies on stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female.”  In the U.S mothers are pushed into gendered feminine roles due to the language surrounding her biology.  In Emily Martin’s article, “The Egg and the Sperm”, she goes into more detail on how the way in which we describe biology reflects gender roles.  The egg is considered passive, much like females, while the sperm is considered active. With breast feedings, her reproductive biology asserts that she must be hidden or she must be kept at home. The language and conversation around breast feeding confines the mother to a private sphere to which she is not bound to.  With an increase of working mothers, public breast feeding is a lot more common since she is not tied to the home.  According to Shankar, in Austraila, Senator Larissa Waters was the first mother allowed to publicly breast feed her child in Parliament.  She claimed that she wanted to be with her daughter more, but due to long hours, she must breast feed during work hours.  Waters proved to be a successful case, however there are many other women who are criticized and banned from a biological necessity.  The nature of female biology push mothers into feminine gender roles of staying home, out of the public eye. In the U.S we uphold an idea of what defines the “mother” so when she deviates outside of the modest framework that is expected of her, then her role as a mother is criticized.  Looking into Chrissy Teigen’s case, a lot of the norms upheld by the users attacking her choice was criticizing her publicizing a private moment as a mother.  Thus, Chrissy as a mother, deviates outside of the norm surrounding what it means to be a mother which creates a lot of anxiety from a community of other women, even mothers.  There seems to exist a struggle between ideologies, being conservative or liberal as well as the idea of what it means to be civil and primitive-like.  These norm behind what it means to be a civilized mother can derive from a European colonial perspective.  With civilization comes decency, intelligence, and progression.  But for instance, there are societies like Hawaii pre-contact that normalized breast exposure, yet they were considered barbaric, indecent, and backwards.  Still today, these ideologies exists and propel the controversy of public breast feeding. 


Chrissy represents someone who does not view motherhood as something to be hidden or private, she rather share intimate moments of motherhood to relate to her fans and empower other mothers like her.  And those on the opposing side view Chrissy as a mother who has crossed boundaries and see her reproductive biology as disgusting, indecent, unhygienic and inappropriate.  These comments stem from the pathological view of breast feeding, the widely held stigma that breasts are a sexual appendage and the norm that mothers should be civilized women who are confined to the home due to their biology.  Breast feeding has had a long historical debate, starting from the pathological view of breast feeding to a more modern view of it as indecent rather than unsafe.  These paradigm shifts within the community show the fluidity of norms and how they have affected mothers like Chrissy still today.  The root of the tensions in the 20th century ultimately boil down to the normative standard to hide breasts in a private sphere due to their sexual nature.  But as mothers take on roles as professionals who work long hours, she does not need to compromise her role as mom, caretaker and nurturer to focus on her career.  But the surrounding community that ascribes to a normative view of breast coverage continue to struggle to separate breasts from the private sphere and will continue to project a sexual lens onto her breasts even in the most non-sexual situations. 

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