Thursday, 19 August 2010

Breast Envy

In our 21st century world we see breasts all the time in newspapers, on the cover of albums, on the catwalk and the red carpet.  We can barely escape them!

A goodly amount of cleavage on display is deemed tolerable or even desirable by many, just so long as they are being used for aesthetic pleasure! However, even amongst the (so-called) ‘liberal’ media (those very same newspapers/ pop-stars/ celebrities), the sight of a breast being used to feed a child is referred to as ‘creepy’ (Mother and Baby magazine),  and images of feeding children are censored if they happen to show a glimpse of areola (Facebook).  Breastfeeding mothers are frequently called ‘bullies’ and ‘breastfeeding mafia’ because of their enthusiasm for, and commitment to, breastfeeding.

Here are just a handful of comments I found in recent media coverage of breastfeeding issues:
  • “'Gossip Girl' star Kelly Rutherford might not be uncomfortable talking about breast-feeding, but the rest of us are uncomfortable hearing about it!"~ NYPost Dec 2008
  • “In practice, you realise that most attempts to feed your baby in a public space will be met with subtle but palpable resistance. Older chaps roll their eyes, slick young businesswomen purse their mouths, teenagers look disgusted, waitresses anxious…. But it strikes me as ironic that many members of the public fret about British Muslims donning the hijab, yet happily condone the veiling of nursing mothers.” ~ Rowan Pelling, Daily Telegraph 2008
  • “A mother must know when her baby is due a feed, so she should do it before or after going out in public. Anyone else who got their breasts out, or a man who urinated in public, would surely be accused of lewd behaviour” ~ ‘Bombshell’, Dagenham ~ in online discussion @ March 2010
  • “peeing and pooping is natural too, so why don’t we start doing that publicly?” ~ Adrianne Curry (former America’s Next Top Model) on Twitter
Many seemingly confident, strong women struggle with the basic function of their own breasts after they have a baby.  Some struggle so much that they make the decision not to breastfeed even before they have their child.  They are keen to keep their breasts for sexual and visual assets only, even though they know that breastfeeding would benefit both themselves and their child.

In recent debates I have frequently seen breastfeeding compared to other bodily functions (such as sex, urination, and defecation) and whilst these comparisons to me are appalling, they are also very interesting.

You see, to compare breastfeeding to having a poo says a lot about how ‘shameful’ the whole thing has become, and I ask myself, how – and why has this happened?

Why is it so difficult for many people to see a woman breastfeeding?

There is a belief amongst a significant number of anthropologists and historians that at some point in our human history many civilisations were 'matriarchal'.  Almost every culture on Earth has some sort of ‘mother deity’ in it’s past.  Some matriarchal cultures even remain today including the famed Mosuo people (2, 3) in China, and tribes off New Guinea, in NE India, and in Peru. (4)

The earliest artwork supports the theory of a Goddess-culture in pre-history.

Three European Venus figurines from the ice-age of ca. 25,000 years ago. From left to right: Venus of Dolni-Vestonice, Czechia, burnt clay. Venus of Willendorf, Austria, Chalk. Venus of Les pugue, France, mammoth ivory ~

It seems that the female of the species was greatly revered in pre-history because of her capacity to (seemingly) create life spontaneously as the mechanics of reproduction were not yet fully understood.
Men were at worst completely unaware and at best unsure of their role in creating children.  All those thousands of years ago the only parent who could be reliably identified (particularly in cultures which were polygamist) was the mother.  Images of deities of the time show figurines with rounded stomachs, buttocks and breasts, venerating the differences between women and men.  Women had a high social standing with wealth and property frequently travelling down the maternal line. It is believed that this was the case even in many parts of Europe until approximately 4,000 years ago.

“In Western Europe, the first signs of Matriarchal societies emerged through figures like Venus, which, again, was interpreted by males as purely sexual through her large breasts and big belly. Unlike patriarchal cultures, these societies revered women due to their corresponding cycles with nature and their ability to give birth.” (5)
“In a time when survival of elements was a constant struggle, life seemed to be a miracle” (6)
"The progress from the maternal to the paternal conception of man forms the most important turning point in the history of the relations between the sexes” (7)
Religion, Myth and Mother Right’ ~ Johann Jakob Bachofen

It is estimated from surviving artwork, that at some during in the Neolithic period, (probably as mankind began farming animals as opposed to scavenging) the balance of power started to change.  More phallic images come into play and it becomes obvious that a shift is taking place. (8, 9)   Whilst it’s true that the female ‘goddess’ image did survive elsewhere for generations, the shift had clearly begun.

So why did this change occur?

One of fundamental changes which took place at this point in time was a move from 'hunter-gatherer' living to the more settled farming practices.  Higher rates of infant mortality are noted from this period which may be linked to the farming of animal milk, especially when it replaced breast milk in the diets of young children.

“It is very likely that early weaning was a major cause of child death. As we know from history, and from what is currently happening in the developing world, death in non-breastfed or prematurely weaned infants is not due to intrinsic ill health but usually diarrhoea and respiratory infections […] Moreover, early cessation and even earlier supplementation leads quickly to further pregnancy” (10)
Ann Sinnott ~ ‘Breastfeeding Older Children’ Chpt 11.

Sustained breastfeeding afforded our ancestors protection from a life-time of childbearing by giving women a break, in what would otherwise have been a constant cycle of pregnancy and birth.  Introducing alternative milk, and thereby encouraging earlier weaning of infants, led to women becoming increasingly vulnerable as they were likely to become pregnant again more quickly.  As a result, the balance of power began to shift in favour of the male since men were now acting as principal providers.

“Current researchers into ancient history, working in the fields of theology, archeology, art history, and mythology, are uncovering evidence that, starting around 3000 BCE, there occurred a transition in the predominant religious and political structures that governed humanity.  Matriarchal societies, which had worshiped goddesses of the earth and moon such as Innana, Ishtar, Isis, Demeter, and Artemis, gave way to patriarchal societies, which followed the solar gods and heroes such as Gilgamesh, Amen Ra, Zeus, Yahweh, and Apollo” (11)
 Demetra George ~ ‘Mysteries of the Dark Moon'

The predominant religion of the last two millennia is Christianity.

One of the most cutting remarks ever to have been thrown in the direction of the established Christian Church came from the remarkable Sojourner Truth (12) (an emancipated black slave) in 1851.

“And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him.  Man, where was your part?

How emasculating is that concept?

The psychoanalyist Karen Horney (1885 – 1952) also had some interesting theories, especially that which she described as ‘womb envy’ (13) .

“An important question for Horney is why men see women as they do. She contended that male envy of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, and of the breasts and suckling, gives rise to an unconscious tendency to devalue women[..].”

“..the threat of woman is not castration but humiliation; the threat is to his masculine self-regard. As he grows up, the male continues to have a deeply hidden anxiety about the size of his penis or his potency, an anxiety that has no counterpart for the female, who "performs her part by merely being".”
Horney hypothesised that:

“The "womb-envy" of the male must be stronger than the so-called "penis-envy" of the female, since men need to depreciate women more than women need to depreciate men.”
~ The collected works of Karen Horney (volume II). W.W. Norton Company, New York

This is not the first time I have heard this type of argument.  I have often seen it mooted that men may feel on some level inferior to women sexually in part because a woman is capable of multiple orgasms and the male (usually) only one at a time.  Prior to the invention of the DNA test, men never even knew whether they had fathered the child they were supporting.

The female of the species seems capable of endless pleasure whilst the energy of the male is quickly subdued by her hungry mouth-like orifice!  He is ‘spent’ whilst a woman is capable of continuing to have sex with multiple partners.  Women live longer, they multi-task with ease, they follow a ‘lunar cycle’ which even today is shrouded in mystery, they undergo enormous physical changes during pregnancy, endure the pain of childbirth and then have the ability to sustain a baby at the breast for months and years on end. 

The argument is that this contributes to a deeply-buried inferiority complex within men which has throughout modern history led to a diminution of all things maternal.

Since we now live within a patriarchal society, men have influenced popular press and government for centuries.  The degradation of women has affected every area of life and despite all the progress of the past hundred years, there is still a very long way to go before we can say we have true equality.

This has resulted in generations of women being raised outside of a ‘sisterhood’.  We no longer retreat to the ‘red tent’ monthly to share our stories and our wisdom.

We no longer deliver our own babies, we take on the male name when we marry and we accept lower wages and fear to ‘rock the boat’ when it comes to maternity and breastfeeding rights at work.  Small wonder then, that some women find it easier to deny their demonstrably female breastfeeding role than to engage in it.

Women often state a desire to let their partners feed their baby as a reason for formula feeding.  Nourishment of small babies was, until the last century, a female preserve.  It no longer is, usually to the detriment of the child.

Compared to a breast full of milk, the male nipples seem a bit pointless, impotent.

“Males are left with vestigial nipples, a reminder that life begins for all of us as proto-females, and some of us are fated to become more masculinized than others.” (14)
 ~ Louis A. Berman

Yes, it’s possible to see why, on the psychoanalyist’s couch a man might admit to some issues regarding a breastfeeding breast.  I found one man admit (in an online discussion at that:

“As a man with a new baby - and two preceeding babies - I'd like to say that I am still slightly freaked out by the sight of public breastfeeding. I recognize this as my problem and not the mother's

If only everyone were so self-aware!

But why – why should the sight of public breastfeeding upset a woman, and even a woman who has herself breast fed?  Surely this seems absurd?

This quote (from a mother who breastfed both her children for three months) came in response to a debate on public breastfeeding on a newspaper website in August 2010.

“I believe that a mother can only feed her baby well in surroundings that allow her to be quiet and comfortable, and I am not comfortable with seeing mothers breastfeeding in public”

When a woman, who herself has breastfed, finds the sight of another mother doing the same thing difficult, something strange is going on.  This is obviously not rational thinking, but it is not uncommon.  There must be a reason why some women feel this way. 

I believe that in order to survive in what is still a male-dominated world, women become accustomed to hiding aspects of their womanhood from quite early in life.  When I was a young woman I found going to the check-out with sanitary towels embarrassing.  Why on earth should I have felt that?  I am female, I have periods (which are a demonstration of my fertility), and yet I grew up feeling that this was somehow shameful.

Other cultures throughout history have delighted in a young woman’s transition to fertility. In early human cultures where it was a rare event (due to constant pregnancy or breastfeeding) it was even more celebrated, often in women-only ceremonies. (15, 16)

Not now though – as the advert says, ‘why stop when your period starts?’

We carry on as normal and pretend menstruation doesn’t exist.  We tell white lies to our friends and employers when we suffer from period pain because we don’t want to admit the true reason for our absence.  We grow up hiding the aspects of our femininity which don’t fit with the prevailing climate and we embrace those traits most likely to make us more appealing and less threatening to the status-quo.

I believe that true equality between the sexes can only come about when we all celebrate and venerate our differences.  By adapting to exist within the ‘man’s world’ we deprived them of elements of their masculinity and lost touch with elements of our own femininity.

Men and women are not the same.  Both genders have their strengths and weaknesses and neither one is superior to the other.

As women, as mothers, as partners and fathers, we need to realise that our true strength lies in recognising our true strengths.

Public breastfeeding is a visible reminder of the power of the female.  It recalls within us the incredible mysteries of life, some of which remain mysteries to us even in the C21st.  Being brought face-to-face with a breast (even discreetly) reminds us of what we have lost.

So what remains of these lost ‘goddesses’?  Well, quite a lot actually.  Their power and strength remains intact within each one of us, it’s just a question of allowing it to be seen.  It’s in our mitochondrial DNA.  That part of our genetic make-up which is passed solely down the female line.

“Some molecular biologists say that, aeons ago, the mitochondrion was a free-living organism with its own DNA and possessed the secret of generating lots of energy. It invaded single celled nucleated organisms and has stayed on ever since, dividing, like yeast, by binary fission. Males…. cannot pass it on to their children. [... ] Ultimately every person alive today has inherited their mitochondrial DNA from one single great-great-great…. Grandmother, nearly 200,000 years ago” (17)
~ Stephen Oppenheimer

Quite a number of women, right here on this blog, have chosen to display and celebrate the most obvious manifestation of their womanhood in a way which seems (even to some breastfeeding advocates) pretty ‘in your face’.  Why have they done this?  Because they have recognised that we need to re-balance.  We need to remove the shame from the breast and start to appreciate it for more than just its aesthetic beauty, just as our ancestors did.

The next time you breastfeed in public, congratulate yourself for embracing - and enabling others to open themselves up to – something very old, and very important.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of god. Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. '
 ~ Marianne Williamson

7. ‘Religion, Myth and Mother Right’ ~ Johann Jakob Bachofen
10. Ann Sinnott ~ ‘Breastfeeding Older Children’ Chpt 11.
11. Demetra George ~ ‘Mysteries of the Dark Moon’


  1. Thank you for this Anne. Very interesting. I really enjoyed reading it. xx

  2. I enjoyed the whole of the ORIGINS chapter of Breastfeeding Older Childrem - Ann Sinnott that covers the above in such fine detail and I bookmarked it to read again, this article is absolutely wonderful and thought provoking good call! Adrianne Curry (former next top model) was the 1st america's next top model and never got any work afterward.... she's skanky... :p
    Stella Tait
    Breastfeedng mother to 25mo Son

  3. Extremely well written and very interesting. Thank you, Anne.

    Sheena Hatton

  4. Very interesting, I agree! Society is jealous and afraid of women. Even I, a woman, was amazed at the strength and seemingly miraculous power I had to grow my son within my body, give birth to him, and then to be able to produce miraculous nourishment designed just for him. It truely is magical and should be celebrated!

  5. Thank you for a well-written, thought-out, and researched article! I am new to your blog, but I look forward to reading more.

  6. Celebration of womanhood... when I get my period, which just happened to start today, I reffer to myself as "Queen of the Blood Princesses" a few of my girlfriends are adopting the term as well. I ache, I bleed, but it's not shameful.

  7. Thanks for the beautiful post. I love a good celebration of womanhood, and that quote at the end is so great, and so applicable!

  8. Thanks for an extremely informative and well written post. Cannot wait to read more articles in this subject.

  9. I wish I was still feeding so I could make a public demonstration of my goddess within. I somehow think my children might object now though as they are now 25 and 23 respectively ;-)

  10. Great article. I wish I had your strength. I hate breastfeeding in public because I am overweight and I don't want people to see my belly and stretchmarks. Plus being overweight I have large breasts and I honestly don't want people gawking at me. Feeling this way stresses me out and that in turn stresses my daughter and she doesn't eat as well unless I feel comfortable. I do agree that society needs to change and make things much more accomodative to breastfeeding women. I realize my problems with it our my own and I do support any mother brave enough to nurse in public. I wish I had that courage.

  11. @Katie - when I was a new breastfeeding mum I was 4 stone heavier than I am now and my belly was covered (really - covered!) in dark purple stretch marks after pregnancy - faded a bit now thankfully! I used a 'bump band' to hide my wobbly bits, but feeding in public was (for a long time) really hard anyway because my daughter would just scream and scream because of silent reflux! I can really relate to what you're saying. I think it's important to remind ourselves that all of these things are actually NORMAL when you've had a baby... We are presented with a sugar-coated version of motherhood in the media which only presents a tiny slice of reality. I hope you will gain confidence in your body through realising that it is currently fulfilling it's HIGHEST potential - that is to carry, birth and feed, a child! :)

  12. Just found this article today. Really interesting and well researched - great food for thought.

  13. I remember, with horror, of the time that I was feeding my first-born in McDonalds. I was descreet and nobody would have any idea if they hadn't have purposefully 'looked'.

    A member of the management team came over, told me I was upsetting customers who were trying to eat and could I go and feed my baby in the toilets, please. Suffice to say, I have never, ever given McDonalds the benefit of my custom again!

    Thank you for the article. It really helps to undertsand society's reasons for shunning what is such a lovingly natural and peaceful experience for mum and baby, and I personally, am always touched to see it happen as I really miss it. My 'babies' are now 20, 18 and 12.

  14. LOVED this post. Thoughtfully written, well researched and supported, and right on the money! LOVE!

  15. That's really given me food for thought. I am getting stick for 'still feeding' my fifteen month old and I feel all empowered now. Ta x

  16. I love this! Especially how it not only focuses on breastfeeding but everything about being a woman. I love the quote at the end too.


I LOVE to hear from you, so please leave any comments or feedback below. Just a polite reminder though - if you're rude or abusive your comment will be deleted.