I have not been able to forget the news story that recently kicked off the new school year for the nation: that American University assistant anthropology professor Adrienne Pine breast-fed her feverish, fitful baby in the classroom in order to avoid cancelling the first day of class. A debate about the appropriateness of this brief, covered act—of which the class of grown adults was forewarned—erupted immediately in the national news media after the school paper reported that some students were offended. The topic of a woman’s last-resort need to breast feed her child in (semi-)public ignited the ethical dynamite of “appropriateness” much more quickly and fiercely than say, Brett Favre texting pictures of his penis as an aggressive sexual solicitation to uninterested women in the professional setting of his own workplace – the NFL football field and field house. Boys will be boys, right? But for some reason the non-threatening, natural, and necessary human instinct for breast feeding really tweaks people’s personal sensitivities.
Ironically, the class Pine was teaching was an anthropology class entitled “Sex, Gender & Culture.” Hmm, a class about the science of human nature, our biological characteristics and social customs with a focus on the norms and anomalies of sex and gender, what might that mean? Maybe the natural-human-condition-squeamish should not sign up. One student’s reaction to the convergence of these topics and his own presence in the class led him to tweet of the incident: “Sex, gender and culture professor, total feminist, walks in with her baby, midway through class breast feeding time #wtf”. WTF, you ask? WTF that you got into American University without understanding simple human anatomy and biology 101! Instead, the student, reported to be an 18-year-old male, felt so accosted and confronted as to characterize a woman responding to the most fundamental aspect of sustaining human life as a “feminist” act, later telling The Washington Post, “I was kind of appalled.”
While many news reports and blogs have rightly claimed the moral of the story as the importance of access to emergency childcare, or the persistence of a double-standard within the personal-professional juggling act requirements of women and men, I see something else equally troubling: the empty chasm between the shaming of the female body and the sexualization of the female body as physically, practically and spiritually debilitating to women and girls. This is not the first time openness about breast feeding has caused controversy, and there is more than – ahem – meets the eye when it comes to the ridiculous ferocity of reactions.
On the one hand, functional breasts are culturally shamed into closed-up rooms; on the other hand, sexualized breasts are culturally demanded to be exposed. Women are often shamed for behaving according to our nature and the physiological requirements of our female embodiment in any setting outside of a closed up room, alone, where many say breast feeding belongs. Call me crass, but I’ll call it hypocritical – here is what I would like to know: functional breasts in discrete action to benefit a hungry baby offended that 18-year-old male student, but how appalled is he by sexualized breasts? What role do de-personalized images and fantasy-caliber re-creations of breasts play for the average male on a daily basis? How much time does the average 18-year-old male spend with sexualized breasts in a closed up room, alone? How much space and money and time and human capital do we spend overtly offering sexualized breasts to young (and old) men in public? Here is the truth revealed in the Pine controversy: the natural breast function carried out by the women who own and utilize them for their own practical purposes is shunned, but sexualized breasts used to cater to men’s desires and erotic needs are heartily socially accepted…even demanded…in public.
We all (even small children) see the larger-than-life, sexualized version of breasts every day, multiple times a day, all over the place — in advertisements on TV and in print, on billboards, in movies, in video games targeted to teenaged boys, on magazine covers at the grocery store checkout counter or plastered around the news stand, even in kids’ cartoons. We see sexualized breasts painted seductively with faux string bikinis in Sports Illustrated and bouncing around on cheerleaders in skimpy tops on the sidelines of the sporting events that little boys (and little girls) watch with wide-eyed, impressed reverence every week during football and basketball season. Sexualized breasts are used for entertainment, for vicarious sexual satisfaction, for hefty economic profit, for lucrative marketing ploys. They are hoisted up and padded to the impossible standards of the male sexual fantasy ideal and smushed together provocatively in every front store window of Victoria’s Secret for all to see, in every mall across America, and hey…no one seems “appalled”!
Hundreds of thousands of girls and women in the U.S. use their paychecks or savings to undergo a very serious and painful surgical procedure to get breast implants made of materials that endanger our health and have to be surgically removed and re-inserted every 10 years – such is the socially recognized and rewarded power of the sexualized and exposed breast. The commodified, consumerized breast is in high demand and available on-demand (online and mobile porn ensures a steady supply, if the mainstream stock is not enough). But the natural, functional, real-time, female-owned and female-controlled breast is controversial, condemned, grotesque, offensive, shameful, appalling. And somehow, also “feminist”.
This is a problem.
And not just because of the loss of physical and practical ownership and use of our bodies and breasts. You wouldn’t guess it if you were an alien come to Earth to see how most Americans live, but women of all faiths and religions also actually have a deep spiritual stake in our bodies. We are embodied spirits and souls. My Christian faith tells me that my body is a temple, a spiritual home where God dwells, a miracle of utility and creativity, and the only sacred vessel via which I experience all aspects of being alive. I have all my experiences via my body (and its organs like my brain, nervous system and heart), even — and especially — spiritual experiences of worship, prayer, praise, gratitude, joy, contemplation, meditation. My body is where I discover, know, and play out my connection to nature, my love of God and others, my conceptualization of who I am on every level. (If you are interested in more, one small place to start is “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief”.)
Yet popular culture, normalized male fetish, and the media advertising machine that makes trillions off the insatiable female-body-and-breast-consumption phenomenon constantly tries to steal it from me. When my body (whether personally or in a collective sense of female experience) seems to belong to the men and the popular culture who either approve or disapprove of it—in all the forms that women are rated publically on a scale of desirability normalized and measured by the sexualized breast—I no longer feel my body is mine. It becomes hard to remember that I am a real, live human being living in this female body, because so many vocal, opinionated others (whether in the media or on the streets of NYC) do not recognize that I am a real, live human being living in this female body. I learn to detach from my body out of fear, doubt, self-consciousness and embarrassment. When boys and men throughout the years of my childhood (yes, childhood!) and womanhood have said to me and my female friends that they are either definitive “ass men” or “boob men” and hence favor women with the largest/best of either, the judgment on my worth and my status as a “body part object” has been made clear to me. I learn to see my body as a constant disappointment. I am forced to deal with it as a consistent incitement of crude exclamations. When I walk down the street in New York City and see beer ads that use images and word plays on breasts to illicit product sales from men, I realize that in the society in which I am expected to function successfully, I am diminished into a game of “have or have nots” and “you’re either sexualized or inconsequential and ignored” that turns my embodied experience into demoralizing, confusing code meant to trigger male (purchase) power. Money makes the world go ‘round, and sexualized breasts apparently make men spend money.
Given the mind-spirit-body connection, how can women have a truly healthy spiritual life when our bodies are riddled with doubt, self-consciousness, fear, judgment, disappointment, and demoralizing references? We may try to separate spiritual experience from bodily experience, but then we are split into splinters and only certain compartments of ourselves are able to engage spiritually. I have to applaud Adrienne Pine for being a strong, secure woman who sees herself as a cohesive whole, both a professor and a mother, unafraid and unashamed to be both at once when needed. Most of us are much more frightened and fragmented into “appropriate” parts.
Interestingly, in the Bible, the bosom or breast of all humans is where spiritual elements of life are said to be nurtured and manifested, and the bosom of God is where spiritual seekers are sent for comfort, wholeness, and restoration.For instance, Luke 6:38 implies that the bosom is the location where God will impart good things to people:
“Give, and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom.” (No, this does not refer to bra cup size.)
Isaiah 40 describes how a shepherd protects and cares for the sheep:
“He feeds his flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in his arms and carrying them in his bosom…”
John 1:18 says:
“No one has seen God; the only-begotten son, who is in the bosom of the father; he has declared him,” indicating that Jesus being in the bosom of God was ultimately one with God.
To experience God, then, is to lie on the breast of God, to burrow in, to connect there at that point of powerful love. The bosom imagery is one of few overtly female characteristics of God portrayed in the Bible, a Mother God, and the breast is used to make creator and created into one being that is at once fully loved and love itself.
Aha! This is what women were created to do with their children, too, just as God does. Is it the purity of the love and the power to bring life exemplified in the breast that disturbs our culture so, makes it suspicious and condemning of the breast? Or is it really the irrational fear of seeing a flash of nipple or watching nature take its course in an anthropology class? Either way, this is why it is essentially blasphemy to call the natural purpose of women’s breasts appalling and especially egregious to do so while simultaneously exploiting them for profit and de-personalized pleasure.
In fact, the social fear of pure, powerful, unifying, unadulterated love — like that of God — is probably a factor in why society oppresses the breast into a sexualized object that is rendered unable to simply connect and nourish as intended. Lust is so much easier to handle, so much easier to satisfy, such a simpler expectation than real, deep, transforming love. In an odd back-handed way, the cultural kidnapping of the female bosom into sexual servitude proves there is scary power in them: healing, nourishing, comforting, warming, protecting, loving, and yes–selective, personal, mutual, life-affirming and empowered sexual connection. Culture has tried to control breasts by subverting them into either shame or social-consumer-fantasy sex, but Femmevangelicals, only we women ourselves can ensure we have the ability to enjoy empowering, holy female embodiment. Only we can take the real power back, own it, and use it to make ourselves –and men, and children, and society—whole and unified. It’s a power that can change the world when respected for what it really is, but we must respect the power ourselves first.
Prayer: God, give me the strength and conviction to reject the shaming and sexualization of my body that diminishes my spirit. I come to you for oneness, wholeness and confirmation of my natural, embodied holiness.
Adrienne Pine, American University at http://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/pine.cfm
J. Rabbit by anawarakaalley at http://media.photobucket.com/image/jessica%20rabbit%20cartoon/anwarakaalley/jessica-rabbit.jpg?o=5