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Psst. Your Culture is Showing: Breastfeeding Edition

We all (even sociologists) react to others, to ideas, to objects based on the culture we live in. In this post, Bridget Welch attempts to take a big cultural step back to look at boobs in a new light.

“Have you seen this? There’s a breastfeeding doll. What’s your opinion on that?” my husband says to me.

I pause in the act of getting dressed, look at him and say, “Eww…” Looking away, I raise a hand to stop him from leaving, “But… but why? Why eww? Just a second…”

My mind starts racing. Why did I say “eww”? I start debating everything I know about breastfeeding. It all goes through my mind in a flash. The health benefits, the moments of bonding with your child, my own experiences with my son. I also think about how children play. How it’s normal and even healthy for young children to playact caring for babies.

“But it’s just gross,” I think to myslef. I mean, you watch the video. What’s your reaction? Be truthful! Was it some form of EWW, ICK, GROSS! or THAT’S JUST WRONG?!?!? Would you buy it for your kid?

I then remember the TIME cover and how that made me feel. I remember how I thought, “Now that’s just wrong. That kid’s got to be three at least!” By now I question that as well. Why am I so against this? Why does age make such a difference?

I think about how we know that for about 99% of human history, breast milk was the primary or only source of nutrition for children up to two years old and that breastfeeding continued after this (supplemented with other foods) for years. In fact, biocultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler who has long studied breastfeeding reports that “age at weaning in modern humans” should “be between 2.5 and 7.0 years.” <<My internal dialogue (and yours?): “Seven years! SEVEN years! You have GOT to be kidding me!”>> That means, for 99% of human history, my gut reaction would have been abnormal, strange, and even downright laughable to other humans.

But we don’t need to go to the distance past to be made fun of for our reactions to breastfeeding. All we need to do is hop a plane and we can get ridiculed all we want.

I think about how MOST of the world breastfeeds much more openly and for longer periods of time than we do in the States (and some other “Western” nations). Just two of many examples: Ghanaians and Kenyans sanction women who DON’T breastfeed when their children are hungry (for women talking about breastfeeding around the world visit this cite).

The World Health Organization suggests that children should be breastfeed until “two years of age or beyond.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends: “exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by breastfeeding in combination with the introduction of complementary foods until at least 12 months of age, and continuation of breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.”

The reason is that it is healthier for the child. It decreases the likelihood of SIDS, obesity, ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and other issues throughout life! If mothers in the US breastfed longer the US would save about 1000 babies LIVES (not to mention billions of dollars).

“I know how good it is. How necessary and natural it is. So why would I find a breastfeeding doll or a mother feeding her toddler sick?” I wonder. And then I realize why — it’s because of the sexualization of the breast. This floors me. I mean I just wrote this post about not sexualizing kids (not my only post on the topic either!). And here I am uncomfortable because a girl is pretending to use her breast the way a mother does. I’m not the only one.

I am used to seeing little girls sexualized from a very young age. You don’t have to bring out the big guns of this debate. I don’t need to trump this point with a toddler dressed as the prostituted woman from Pretty Woman or as Dolly Parton or as Madonna — or even the weird products: like stripper poles, push-up bras, or even “virgin waxing” which is bikini waxes for little girls. Girls are bombarded with these types of images from TV, film, music, advertisement, sports, product, clothing, video games, internet content… everywhere you turn from a very young age (have you SEEN some of these video game characters????) We shouldn’t be even a iota surprised when we find a link between this sexualization and low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, sexual abuse and assault …

I came to the conclusion that my reaction to the breastfeeding doll was ethnocentric — or reflected by bias towards my own cultural practices believing they are the correct way to be/think/act.

Stepping back and thinking about the breastfeeding doll objectively, I realized that it was a GOOD product. It encouraged young girls to model healthy mothering behavior (rather than purchasing the scantily clad dolls which many girls have been shown to prefer as a result of the a fore mentioned sexualization issues and modeling unhealthy sexual behavior).

Our fascination with the breast is not practiced everywhere. In many cultures, a breast is just a breast — it’s for feeding small children. While I’m not saying that all women should tear open their shirts and bare the girls to the world (we still do live in the US), I am suggesting that we (and I) need to be able to separate the biological function from the sexual fixation. After all, pretending to breastfeed is not reenacting a sexual act its reenacting a healthy biological one. Indeed, an act that the US needs to support to a greater extent then we currently do for the health of our children. Breastfeeding baby may be one step in the right direction.

I turn to my husband and finally say, “Okay, yeah. It’s probably a good thing.”

Dig Deeper

1. What is ethnocentrism? Explain how my (and your?) reactions to the breastfeeding baby is ethnocentric.

2. Recently French senators have worked to ban child beauty contests. Do you support their actions?

3. American attitudes towards breastfeeding are maladaptive (bad for the survival of our citizens). Explain this. Can you think of other cultural elements the US has that are maladaptive?

4. Anthropologists and Sociologists argue that we should be “cultural relativists” — that is that we should examine cultures NOT based on our own ethnocentric beliefs, but rather from the beliefs, ideas, workings of the other culture. How was this blog post a practice of cultural relativism even though I was examining my own culture?