When breasts are propped high in Victoria’s Secret ads or the pages of King magazine, or an A-list star wears a dress cut to her navel or maybe a R-related movie shows women flashing them freely, few people seem to have a problem. Maybe some advocacy groups for teenage girls and their self-esteem, maybe some feminists. But overall, there’s rarely a peep about a set being flashed across a TV or movie screen or in a magazine ad. As a culture, we consider breasts tantalizing, alluring and sexy, and they are shown constantly in varying degrees of modesty to none at all.
But attracting attention, turning people on or serving as a backdrop to shilling products that rarely have anything to do with bras is not the primary function of boobs. A quick refresher: The biological purpose of breasts is to feed babies. That some find those same breasts alluring does not negate their primary purpose.
So why am I telling you this?
Because last week, a picture that was posted on Instagram by Ashley Nicole, a new mother and girlfriend of Miami Dolphins’ Phillip Wheeler, went viral. Nicole, a svelte model, posed for a picture with her baby latched to her nipple, breast-feeding. What was exposed of her breast was akin to what we’ve all seen in a lingerie ad. The caption read, “Was on the way out the door but then mommy duty called … Everything stops for him! #breastisbest #natureisbeautiful."
It was a sweet mother-child bonding moment and a nice endorsement for breast-feeding to black moms and would-be moms, especially when black mothers are underrepresented when it comes to breast-feeding. Research finds that just 54 percent of black mothers attempt breast-feeding, while the national average is 73 percent. Experts say that one of the reasons black women fall behind in breast-feeding is that women just don’t see women who look like them doing it.
“You don’t desire something you don’t see,” Micky Jones of La Leche League, an organization that encourages moms to breast-feed, told USA Today. “In the black community, you don’t see a lot of black women breast-feeding.”
Nicole, whether she intended to or not, could have been making a statement and a difference. But many found the picture “vulgar,” “attention-whoring,” “inappropriate” or “disgusting.” The backlash for the picture got so bad that Wheeler came to his girlfriend’s defense, telling TMZ, “I wish everybody would just leave it alone.”
He also noted how the reaction to his girlfriend’s picture was much different from the praise heaped on supermodel and NFL wife Gisele Bündchen when she posted a picture of herself breast-feeding her daughter as her glam squad pampered her. Wheeler didn’t understand why his girlfriend wasn’t receiving the same love.
To be fair, Mrs. Tom Brady did get her fair share of criticism. However, much of the negative feedback Bündchen received was about the lack or realism depicted in the photo—I mean, how many working mothers have a glam squad to make them more beautiful?—than the appropriateness of the image. Nicole’s criticism seems to be largely about decorum or the lack thereof.
“I think breast-feeding could be done in a tactful way,” wrote a male commenter, summing up the view of the naysayers. “Personally I would prefer my child’s mother to not breast-feed publicly, but that's just me. I would want her to take our child to a private place same as she would if the child needed his/her diaper changed. Why does it have to be public?”
To which I wonder, why shouldn’t it be public? It’s natural and normal and putting breasts to their biologically intended use. What’s the problem here?
As a society, we—or at least our doctors—have agreed that breast-feeding children is best for the health of the child. There are multiple national initiatives to get women to breast-feed more since the United States lags behind the rest of the world in doing so. Breast-feeding moms hear a battle cry, take action and are met with “don’t do that in public!” as if they were masturbating. People do understand that the child is eating, not becoming aroused, right? Um, right?
I don't understand. Is it really so hideous to see a breast being used for something other than being sexy? Do breasts at actual work pose a societal danger of which, despite having had them for more than 20 years, I am as yet unaware?
I have no “skin” in this game. I am not responsible for any babies. But I understand that a mother feeding her baby is a natural and completely civilized use of the human body. If you don’t like it, avert your eyes or click the convenient little “X” button in your browser or just keep scrolling past on Instagram. And that’s especially for the hypocrites who walk by men’s magazine covers and never give any real thought to the overexposure of breasts there just for titillation but want to overthink breast-feeding.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.