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Selling Sex to Nursing Moms

Breastfeeding mothers have enough to think about without worrying that they’re not sufficiently sexy

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
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How the debate over breastfeeding is driving us crazy

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).

Orthodox women tend not to breastfeed in mixed company; those who do are careful to cover up with blankets and drapes. (Perhaps they’d appreciate another unnecessary product’s press release I got recently, for the Covillow, which combines a breastfeeding pillow and a poncho into one bulky, diaper-bag-space-consuming package!) For them, breastfeeding is still covered by the laws of tzniut, or modesty. But even with a drape or a blanket, very religious women may find nursing embarrassing and isolating. One Haredi mom blogged movingly about her revelation that she didn’t have to nurse while hiding in corners. “Anna T” wrote: “It had been months since I’ve been to synagogue because I didn’t feel comfortable nursing in the (mostly nearly empty) women’s section…I just went outside, crouched somewhere in a tiny spot of shade and nursed. The baby and I were stiflingly hot and I was crying because I felt so suffocated by always having to miss out on conversations and family celebrations. I felt as though I had spent the best part of the last months hidden away.” But seeing another mother nursing publicly in the dining hall inspired her to come out. She resolved that in the future, she’d be less ashamed.

I, on the other hand, am of the hippie school of Jew that has always believed that breastfeeding is not inherently immodest; those who see the act of feeding a baby as provocative need to get over themselves. (I’m talking to you, woman in the Friendly’s off I-95 in Connecticut who yelled at me to go nurse Maxine in the bathroom and tried to get the waitress to kick me out of the restaurant when I wouldn’t budge.) Nevertheless, you don’t have to be religiously observant to have mixed feelings about nursing. If you’re working and pumping, you may feel guilty for “shirking” at the office while also feeling sad about not being home with your baby. If you’re home and nursing full-time, you may feel anxious about not contributing financially to your family and nervous about your ability to rejoin the work force later. (And of course, if you’re not nursing at all, or having trouble nursing, well, there’s plenty you can feel miserable about on those fronts, too.)

The one additional pressure you don’t need when your baby is tiny is to feel presentational and self-objectification-y. Your hormones are doing a hora, you’re exhausted, you’re adjusting to the notion that a tiny person is utterly dependent on you and you may never have clean hair or go to the movies ever again. (Eventually you will. And then you’ll find entirely new things to worry about.) But it’s OK not to multitask for while. It’s OK to accept that you will not look like naked pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair. (Fine, that was a vintage reference. But look what happened to Demi Moore. She wasted the best years of her life with that skanky cheating Ashton Kutcher, so you might as well wear sweats and stay on the couch. I forget what point I was making here.) If strappy corsets and G-strings make you feel good, then rock out with your knockers out. If you prefer to nurse in a ratty oversized concert T-shirt from 1997, then that’s fine, too. Neither choice makes you more or less of a mother. (And not nursing at all, for whatever reason, does not invalidate you, either.) If products with twee names appeal to you and you want a (shudder) Hooter Hider to nurse under, amen to you. Just don’t be embarrassed to do what is legally protected in 44 states. And most of all, bear in mind that anyone trying to sell you anything—lingerie, formula, or ironic Frankie Says Relax repro T-shirts—is primarily motivated by selling, not your emotional welfare.

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As the Founder of Feel Your Boobies, I can assure you that there was nothing sexy about what I was doing when I “felt my boobies” and found a cancerous lump at age 33. I can also assure you that I was so thankful that 7 years later that I was still here to give birth to and breastfeed my son with the remaining breast on which I didn’t have surgery. I think you cast a wide net here in terms of how you categorize what society is trying to “sexualize” without truly knowing the people or stories behind some of what you lump into your criticisms.

    Hi Leigh–You explain that you weren’t feeling sexy or thinking about sexiness when you did a self-exam and found your cancer. Makes sense. What were you thinking and feeling, however, when you named the project “Feel Your Boobies” rather than something like, “Examine Your Breasts?”

      I was simply talking the way I talk and reminding my friends to do exactly what I was doing — not something clinical, but something I do daily because it’s natural, not sexual

        Different strokes, I guess. To me, there’s nothing natural about referring to my breasts as “boobies,” “titties” or “hooters.” Frankly, Leigh, if you want to call your company something lighthearted and ironic, that’s your prerogative, but you really shouldn’t act so scandalized when people “lump” you in (har, har) with a flurry of other groups with similarly silly names. Wasn’t that your point?

Thanks to Feel Your Boobies tons of women, including myself, have thought to themselves “Maybe I should just check.” The name is nothing to be taken sexually, it’s a memorable reminder to women that self examination is important for breast cancer prevention. My cousin is now a mother of one with another on the way and happy to be able to breastfeed after her battle with cancer years ago. She found the lump thanks to feeling her boobies and I know I examine myself more frequently than I otherwise would if it weren’t for the knowledge I gained from her experience and FYB. As for the other breast cancer organizations their aim isn’t to oversexualize women it’s to come up with clever names that stick with people so that the cause stays relevant in their minds. I think you took an unnecessary jab at these organizations.

I for one, adore the “feel your boobies” shirts, the “save 2nd base” shirts and so on. My husband wears a pink “I Love Boobies” bracelet and ANYTHING that will stick with young women is helping, not hurting. Sexy breastfeeding stuff, and catchy FYB phrases are 2 completely different subjects.

WOW. Did you do any research at all on these organizations before you made your short-sided assumptions? BECAUSE OF these groups, many, many women were able to detect lumps themselves, and get diagnoses of breast cancer early on to get treated, when without them, it may not even have been found at all. Before you claim that these “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,” maybe you should so some actual research and ask women with breast cancer what they ACTUALLY think of these organizations. Instead, you’ve made broad assumptions about them base solely on their names. Their names have nothing to do with sexualization or seduction, and by no means are they dismissing women who don’t want to be “hotties” through this ordeal. They are simply about awareness, a reminder to women to do frequent and regular self-exams, because they DO save lives, which if you read any of the testimonials people have sent in, you would know that. Clearly, you haven’t noticed, but they do work. You’ve made completely unjust attacks on these organizations.

whoa, nelly.

i believe that the below commenters and ms. ingall all share a similar goal – systemic respect for the female body, in sickness and in health.

if i may be so bold, i believe ms. ingall’s main critique is less of these organizations themselves [the goals are clearly and unquestionably laudable], but with the reductionist rhetoric in the context of social pressures with regards to 24/7 sexuality. “save the ta-ta’s” alone is not only well and good, but entirely beneficial, promoting self-exams and general awareness.

however, when blended with the social obsession with women as sex objects, reductionist rhetoric could be problematic. suddenly young men wear rubber bracelets proclaiming that they love breasts and want to save them – NOT women. that reductionism vis-a-vis breasts seemed to be, at least to me, her critique.

at the end of the day, though, i am fairly certain we all agree on the desired outcome.

Glenda S. McKinney says:

It’s not like breasts have a switch so that they go from sexual to functional when you give birth! Nursing in public is obviously very different from going topless at the beach, so I was very comfortable doing one of those things–even though I’d never have done the other. I don’t understand is the author’s complaint that there’s lingerie for nursing moms, as though perhaps we have to choose between having health care and feeling sexy. Why shouldn’t nursing mothers have access to nice lingerie for the months or years that their breasts have dual purposes? Presumably, some nursing moms have a pre-existing relationship with an adult that they would like to maintain while forming this new relationship with a child….

    hm. don’t have kids, do you? because it is, oddly, like there is a switch, and my breasts are entirely different to me than they were in the misty far off “before times.” As I wait helplessly for my most recent child to wean, I cannot even conceive of being touched there by my husband. That’s TMI, and others may feel differently; I’m just saying your comment sounded sort of tin-eared, and your “presumably” is not presumable.

      Bracha Bennett says:

      @Amy: “hm. don’t have kids, do you?’ Seriously? Why be rude? There are some pregnant and nursing mothers who do like wearing nice underwear. I hear the point about not sexualizing breastfeeding, but that is no reason to get catty. @Glenda, I breastfed mine with a little blanket because that is what I believe in. Not everyone wants to look at someone else’s mammaries while they are out for coffee.

      mouskatel says:

      Where does she say she doesn’t have kids? She said she was very comfortable nursing in public but not going to a nude beach. If you can’t bear to have your breasts touched by your husband, that’s an issue you should take up in counseling, not by bashing another commenter on an internet board.

“Here’s something else that won’t help: Latch On NYC…” Oh, really? There’s research to support otherwise. Locking up formula so that breastfed babies who receive supplementation are receiving it because of a *medical* reason (as opposed to a reasons of nurses’ and doctors’ convenience) will certainly help those many nursing moms who have enough difficulty getting breastfeeding established without nipple preference and over-full-due-to-formula tummies messing things up.

I want to say I agree with your assessment on nursing wear, but some women do want to feel “sexy” (for themselves, not just their husbands) when they’re nursing. I know I do. Try finding a 38J bra that doesn’t make you look like a grandmother. It’s hard to do, and adding that level of frump, even if no one else sees it, to my life doesn’t really boost me up.

I do appreciate the information about Judaism and breastfeeding, and the quotes from Sarah Chana Radcliffe are wonderful.

Until your period returns the hormones of nursing suppress the hormones of your normal cycle. Once you ovulate you can become pregnant again. Although some women experience the return of their normal cycle when the baby is four months old, the majority have their period and normal sex drive return when the baby is eight months old at the same time that the consistancy of their milk changes.

    The amount of time it takes for one’s cycle to return while nursing varies *widely* and is influenced by things like whether or not you nurse a lot at night, pump during the day, give bottles/pacifiers, etc. Milk doesn’t change with the return of fertility (at least not permanently; some women’s milk changes slightly in taste at different points of their cycles) although it does undergo some changes in composition over time.

    It’s also important to note that the first “period” you have when your fertility returns may or may not be a real period in that you may not have ovulated beforehand, but you also might have, so nursing and not having had a period yet is *not* a reliable form of birth control.

    mouskatel says:

    Huh? I exclusively nursed all 4 of my kids for the first 8 months and my cycle always resumed directly after I went to the mikveh for the first time after the birth. Hormones vary widely.

ugh THANK YOU marjorie. I’m so tired of cutesy names for everything connected to childbirth and nursing. I feel most attractive in Glamourmom tanks, which help me to find the new version of me that’s emerging after the life-altering experience of having children, rather than insisting, Beverly-Hills-Matron-style, that I attempt to retain the exact same style I had before. I am so grateful that I dont have the sort of husband that I worry will lose interest in me if I don’t prance around in matching leopard-print undie sets. Spare me the old canard about “improving women’s self-esteem” or “inspiring confidence.” Summer’s Eve tried that one (http://jezebel.com/5622968/how-to-ask-for-a-raise-first-wash-your-vagina), and we were too smart for them.

I mean, sure, it’s great to have flattering bras in cute patterns, but I already know where to find them: Bravado. Not “boobvado,” not “bra-va-va-voomo,” not “Cosmo-vado.” Bravado. Google it.

There’s a great book about Jewish traditions and wisdom about breastfeeding called, “Straight from the Heart.” As a Chassidic mom who’s nursed 7 kids, I highly recommend it!

Just a note: the Shulchan Aruch codifies a two year MINIMUM for breastfeeding, with a maximum of four years for a healthy child and five for a child who is weak or sickly.

And I second “Straight From the Heart” as a great book on the subject of breastfeeding halacha.

    Bracha Bennett says:

    Not everyone follows the Shulchan Aruch, some follow the Mishna Brurah.

I don’t understand the “economics” of not breastfeeding…it is free…formula and bottles cost a lot of money. So I don’t get that excuse. I nursed my kids…and my daughter nursed hers. I don’t understand the fuss…in my own house…if someone was visiting…tucked a diaper or blanket around me and baby. If it was someone who I wanted to get rid of ….well…just picked up baby…started opening blouse. Off they went.
In those days…didn’t go out much anyway…so it was no problem. I never saw any problem with my daughter or any of her friends…who all nursed…and they travelled a great deal. I think it is in the nursing mother’s attitude…this is my baby…this is how I feed the baby…get used to it. So you don’t like it…turn away.

    mouskatel says:

    When you say breastfeeding is free, you’re saying that a woman’s time is worth nothing.

mouskatel says:

“And not the I-own-my-own-sexuality kind of sex; the I-am-an-object-see-me-giftwrapped kind of sex. ”

Why are these two “types” of sex mutually exclusive? What if a woman owns her own sexuality by giftwrapping herself for her lover because this makes her attraction that much more powerful?

And who are you to tell nursing women what will “really” make their lives better? Nothing cures mothering-induced depression and exhaustion better for me than a few good sex sessions with my husband. I can’t remember the last time a discussion of family leave policies brought me to orgasm the way my husband can.

Natalia Benshaw says:

As the founder of Mommylicious Maternity and coming from an Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish family from Jerusalem I strongly disagree that our company is selling sex as it relates to nursing. Your accusations are bold and have clearly have no valid research behind them and are flat out gross. Yes, we sell sexy lingerie, in fact tons of it to pregnant mothers who would like to feel sexy but if you take an accurate look at our nursing items we sell nursing items that would make a mom feel sexy, stylish and cute. We aren’t selling trying to portray nursing in a pornographic light. As a mother of 5 children I personally wanted to feel pretty in my undergarments, not like a milk cow in a bra up to my chin. The vast majority of women would agree that they like to feel beautiful especially after going through such a life and body changing experience such as giving birth. We sell many other beautiful pajamas that are also comfortable for mom along with a full line of apparel. Just because you are pregnant doesn’t mean a woman cannot retain her sense of style and feel glamourous. I know first hand that Orthodox and Hasidic still desire this as well. I guess people will write anything to get people to read.

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Selling Sex to Nursing Moms

Breastfeeding mothers have enough to think about without worrying that they’re not sufficiently sexy