Are Working Breasts Offensive?

Is Alyssa Milano hoping to become the public face of breastfeeding? And do we need one? If that was Milano’s plan, the actress is well on her way. In the last few weeks, she has shared two photos of her breastfeeding new daughter Elizabella on Instagram.

The more recent snap has Milano essentially re-enacting Gisele Bundchen’s tastefully elegant breastfeeding photo. We see Milano in the make-up chair, getting glamorous for work, while also attending to her baby.

The first picture Milano shared in late October was a heartwarming snap of mother and baby relaxing at home. Yahoo News responded by posting the picture with the headline “New Mother Alyssa Milano Posts Breastfeeding Picture—Are You Shocked?” I wasn’t really sure why.

Are we expected to clutch our pearls because a mother is breastfeeding, a famous mother is breastfeeding, or because Milano demonstrates that contra Kim Kardashian, a woman’s breasts need not be sexualized? On that last note: Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to ask fans why they make such a big deal about her breastfeeding selfies, but are OK with seeing the E! star flaunt her nude figure. She tweeted, “Wait! I don’t get it. No disrespect to Kim but… people are offended by my breastfeeding selfies & are fine with her (amazing) booty cover?”

While I wasn’t clamoring to see either mother’s breasts and would have advised Milano to strategically cover more of herself in both pictures, I still prefer Milano’s sweetly nursing her daughter to Kardashian’s greasy, gratuitous nudity. Why? Because I support Milano’s breastfeeding and her demonstrated solidarity with other breastfeeding mothers. The interesting thing is, I’m learning, my view is not necessarily common.

According to a 2013 survey of world opinion, 63 percent of American women say it is “generally acceptable” for a mother to breastfeed in public, but a surprisingly large 26 percent of American women believe it is “generally unacceptable.” Interestingly, American men are slightly more accepting. 71 percent of them support my right to feed my (hungry, and likely crying) daughter publicly, while only 22 percent of them find it unacceptable.

Why are some people so offended by the simple act of feeding a baby? It is, after all, the very act for which nature designed our breasts.

New mothers breastfeed every day, everywhere. In fact, in 2011, the most recent year for which we have data, 79 percent of American mothers breastfed their babies for some period of time. Breastfeeding is healthy, both for mothers and babies.

How can our culture encourage mothers to breastfeed if we also insist that it is somehow dirty? That’s a hypocritical trap and likely helps to explain why “only 25 percent of employed women with children under the age of one combine working and breastfeeding for at least a month.” By the six-month mark, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that only 49 percent of American mothers are still breastfeeding.

In this sense, Milano, like Bundchen before her, offers a public service with her breastfeeding portraits. Accustomed to being photographed and ogled by strangers, the comely mothers have put themselves where many parenting mouths are. Believing “breast is best” for their families, they are poster women for integrating breastfeeding into daily life.

And why shouldn’t we? There is nothing more primal or beautiful than the close connection a mother shares with her baby. Breastfeeding helps to cement that bond through countless hours of close physical contact. There’s something wonderful about being able to naturally nourish your own child, as well as the attendant snuggling. Alyssa Milano must agree, given the Milan Kundera passage she chose to caption her at-home breastfeeding photo: “Ah, the joy of suckling! She lovingly watched the fishlike motions of the toothless mouth and she imagined that with her milk there flowed into her little son her deepest thoughts, concepts, and dreams.”

Milano looks relaxed and completely at ease in her pictures. Like the second-time mom she is, she’s multitasking, feeding her daughter while also living her life fully, both personally and professionally.

It’s not surprising that Milano’s first photo garnered over 28,000 likes in four days. In spite of some public discomfort, a dedicated corps of breastfeeding supporters remains. Americans also like photographic evidence that celebrities are like us. There’s something very relatable and appealing about women who can afford the best in childcare—including paying others to feed those children—opting to breastfeed, stepping deep into the muck and joy of motherhood. We should encourage more of this to reduce the stigma that still surrounds public breastfeeding.

If mothers choose not to breastfeed, that’s certainly their business, and we should always offer empathy to those who would breastfeed but cannot. However, no one should ever be mistreated for feeding a hungry child. Breastfeeding mothers should be welcome to feed their babies wherever they are when that baby is hungry. Breastfeeding should simply be woven into the fabric of a new mother’s life.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis advised parents in the Sistine Chapel, “’If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice,’ he said, smiling. ‘Because they are the most important people here.’” If a pious man like the Pope can welcome working breasts at the Vatican, surely Americans can handle beautiful women like Alyssa Milano demonstrating that breasts are not simply ornamental. They are, in fact, life sustaining.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer and communications strategist in Washington, DC, as well as a staff writer for the cultural blog Acculturated and a contributing writer for the parenting blog Kveller.

Photo Credit: Health Same

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