I recently had the misfortune to stumble upon several posts on Instagram telling women how they should (or shouldn't) breastfeed in public, and I had to write a response because the posts upset me. I was doubly disappointed to see that the misinformed individuals were Christian and women, and were using Biblical references to oppress and shame breastfeeding mothers.
I need to respond to this, not in the hope that the the original posters will see it and have their opinions set straight but because the message they put out was so damaging. The message that they put out could put mothers off breastfeeding which could be damaging for her and her children. It is also a harmful message for society because it lays the blame for other people's sin firmly at the feet of a nursing mother and this in turn excuses people from personal responsibility and causes mothers to be shamed and condemned.
So here is my big problem; these people seem to think that it is a woman's responsibility to prevent a man from committing the sin of lust by looking at her breasts during breastfeeding.
This is absurd for three reasons.
First BREASTFEEDING IS NOT SEXUAL!
If a man sees a woman breastfeeding and is sexually aroused then what he has is a fetish (or worse). Women are not responsible for preventing men from becoming aroused by peculiar fetishes. If they were women would never wear sandals, walk a dog, or indeed have their own nose on view (yes these are actual fetishes)! Some people argue that breastfeeding should be a private act like going to the toilet or sexual intercourse, but this implies that breastfeeding is some how dirty or rude, this is a massive misunderstanding of what breastfeeding is, probably taken on board because of the way women's breasts and excretions have been talked about and portrayed in the media for the last few decades or so. Breast milk is sterile and hygienic, it is food, drink and comfort for a baby, it does not function for the arousal of men or the elimination of waste.
Second, breasts being sexually arousing is all about context. A breast or any other body part can be arousing to a man or not depending on the context. A breast that is feeding an infant is not sexual, it is fulfilling it's function of nourishing an infant; a breast in skimpy undies topped with pouting lips and a provocative pose are more likely to be.
Thirdly, the Bible does not say that it is a woman's responsibility to prevent a man from the sin of lust by covering themselves during breastfeeding. Breastfeeding, lust and modesty are never mentioned in the same verse. Breasts are mentioned several times in a sexual context but never combined with breastfeeding.
Some people quote Romans 14:13:
"Let us not therefore judge another any more: but judge this rather, than no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way"
to argue that breastfeeding in front of a man might be deliberately placing a "stumbling block" to cause him commit the sin of lust, and therefore be a sin for the woman, but as I have said earlier, breastfeeding is not sexual, so breastfeeding in front of a man is not tempting or provoking him to sin. It is simply feeding her child. That's right guys, breastfeeding isn't actually about you! Even if breastfeeding were sexual, it would no more be a woman's fault for arousing a man to lust than someone who has prepared a spread of delicious food is sinning because it might entice someone to commit the sin of greed, or a shop assistant selling jewellery might be committing a sin by luring a person to commit the sin of stealing! Because deliberately attempting to get the man to sin is not her intention when breastfeeding her baby. We have to be sensible about where tempting others to sin ends and our own personal responsibility begins, otherwise we might find an excuse to place the blame for our own sin on everyone else.
The purpose of breastfeeding is to feed and nourish and comfort an infant, no women breastfeeds with the express intent of luring a man to commit the sin of lust, so a woman openly breastfeeding is not committing a sin.
So if you are a man reading this and you're thinking "well hang on, I do find myself aroused by the sight of a woman breastfeeding her child," then may I suggest that what you need is some therapy, and not for the women to stay home or hide under a giant floral printed apron.
My final point in defence of women is that, when women first breastfeed they usually feel a sense of inhibition, simply because their breasts have previously always been sexual (thanks media for that powerful message,) and are used during intimacy, so this new function may cause her to feel shy about exposing her breasts in public to feed her baby. This is totally fine and normal and understandable, it's OK to not want another man looking at her breasts, and I am not saying that mothers should be making it obvious to everyone that they're breastfeeding. If a woman feels self conscious during public breastfeeding, there are ways for that mother to make herself feel more comfortable about breastfeeding in public, such as using a scarf or the top-over-top method, but she should be doing this for her own comfort, not to prevent her brother from sinning, which as I have made clear above is a ridiculous suggestion, and no Christian woman breastfeeding her child does this.
We must not shame women for exposing minuscule parts of their breasts during breastfeeding, or suggest that they only bottle feed when in public, or go to a different room, or wait till they get home to feed their babies. we must encourage women when they are working hard to breastfeed their baby, which is a God approved function, regardless of where they do it. We must not put restrictions, and rules upon a mother for how and when she should breastfeed, this could damage and end a mothers breastfeeding journey, and shame to anyone who does this. Oh, also, the Pope says it's all good, I'm not Catholic, but I'll take this endorsement!
To close, here are some of my favourite paintings of the most holy woman, Mary, the mother of Jesus, breastfeeding the infant Christ:
Virgin Mary Breastfeeding Jesus by Magdalena Walulik
The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration, by Giampietrino
The Virgin Nursing the Child, by Pompeo Batoni
Sagrada Família, by Josefa de Óbidos
“Virgin Mary and Jesus” by Guido Reni