Why Breastfeeding in Public Is Taboo

A Sociologist Explains

A woman breastfeeds a baby in a children's book store. Breastfeeding in public is considered taboo by many.
Leilani Rogers (photosbylei.com)

Nearly weekly there is a news story about a woman being kicked out of an establishment for breastfeeding her baby. Restaurants, public pools, churches, art museums, courts of law, schools, and stores, including Target, American Girl Store, and ironically, Victoria’s Secret, are all sites of skirmishes over a woman’s right to nurse.

Breastfeeding anywhere, public or private, is a woman’s legal right in 49 states.

Idaho is the lone state without any laws enforcing a woman’s right to nurse. Yet, nursing women are regularly scolded, shamed, given the side-eye, harassed, embarrassed, and made to leave public and private spaces by those who find the practice inappropriate or believe it illegal.

When we consider this problem from the standpoint of rational thought, it makes absolutely no sense. Breastfeeding is a natural, necessary, and healthful part of human life. And, in the U.S., for these reasons, it almost universally protected by law. So, why does a cultural taboo on nursing in public exist in our society?

To dig into this question, let’s use the sociological perspective to examine the reasons people give for why they harass and shame nursing women. Specifically, let’s look for the underlying ideologies of the haters.

One need only examine a handful of accounts of confrontations or online comments to see a pattern.

In nearly all cases, the person who asks the woman to leave or harasses her suggests that what she is doing is indecent, scandalous, or lewd. Some do this subtly, by suggesting that she “would be more comfortable” if she were hidden from the view of others, or by telling a woman that she must “cover up” or leave.

Others are aggressive and overt, like the church official who derogatorily called a mother who nursed during services “a stripper.”

Beneath comments like these is the idea that breastfeeding should be hidden from the view of others; that it is a private act and should be kept as such. From a sociological standpoint, this underlying notion tells us a lot about how people see and understand women and their breasts: as sex objects.

Despite the fact that women’s breasts are biologically designed to nourish, they are universally framed as sex objects in our society. This is a frustratingly arbitrary designation based on gender, which becomes clear when one considers that it is illegal for women to bare their breasts (really, their nipples) in public, but men, who also have breast tissue on their chests, are allowed to walk around shirt-free.

We are a society awash in the sexualization of breasts. Their “sex appeal” is used to sell products, to make film and television appealing, and to entice people to men’s sporting events, among other things. Because of this, women are often made to feel that they are doing something sexual anytime some of their breast tissue is visible. Women with larger breasts, which are hard to comfortably wrangle and cover, know well the stress of trying to hide them from view in an effort to not be harassed or judged as we go about our daily lives.

In the U.S., breasts are always and forever sexual, whether we want them to be or not.

So, what can we learn about U.S. society by examining the sexualization of breasts? Some pretty damning and disturbing stuff, it turns out, because when women’s bodies are sexualized, they become sex objects. When women are sex objects, we are meant to be seen, handled, and used for pleasure at the discretion of men. We are meant to be passive recipients of sex acts, not agents who decide when and where to make use of our bodies.

Framing women this way denies us subjectivity—the recognition that we are people, and not objects—and takes away our rights to self-determination and freedom. Framing women as sex objects is an act of power, and so too is shaming women who nurse in public, because the real message delivered during these instances of harassment is this: “What you are doing is wrong, you are wrong to insist on doing it, and I am here to stop you.”

At the root of this social problem is the belief that women’s sexuality is dangerous and bad. Women's sexuality is framed as having the power to corrupt men and boys, and make them lose control (see the blame-the-victim ideology of our society-wide rape culture). It should be hidden from public view, and only expressed when invited or coerced by a man.

We as a society need to create a welcoming and comfortable climate for nursing mothers. To do so, this doctor recommends the following treatment: decouple the breast, and women's bodies in general, from sexuality, and stop framing women’s sexuality as a problem to be contained.

This post was written in support of National Breastfeeding Month.