Thursday, May 9, 2013

More Nudity Thoughts: What is Modest Breastfeeding?

Today I read this article by Amber Hines about being told to stop nursing in public. The comments are atrocious, as usual. But it just kept my thoughts going...

Most people's objections to nursing in public without a cover fall into these categories: 1) it is immodest and could provide a stumbling block to men (like a revival of the 2-piece debate), or 2) that's a bodily function private act, like going to the bathroom, or 3) if it makes someone uncomfortable, don't do it.

Arguments two and three are easily dismissed. Breastfeeding is eating, not eliminating, and the comparison of the two is unwarranted. The idea that we should refrain from something just because it makes someone uncomfortable is blatantly false - I wouldn't give a rats if me praying before meals made someone uncomfortable, etc. etc.

So it's back to the modesty question. Does breastfeeding, discreetly, but without a cover, violate the prohibition to Catholic people to be modest? Also, what part does culture play in this debate - to what degree is modesty a construct of culture, and how much should we try to change that culture, if indeed it needs changing?

NB: For those wondering why it would be such a big deal for women to wear a cover, I would like to say that some infants really don't tolerate covers. And if you're nursing older children, covers can become insanely attention-drawing as the child thrashes about or tries to play peek-a-boo with it. 

What is Modesty? 
As any good Catholic would, I looked first to the Catechism for an exploration of this subject! The Catechism has several things to say on modesty, but what I found most elucidating was: 

"2524    The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person." 
"2522    Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. (2492)

I think this gives us some direction in the conversation. What is most interesting to me here are the two bolded portions (which was my addition).

CCC 2524 tells us by the first sentence that the Church acknowledges some changing norms with culture, but does not make it an absolute pass - good. 
Then we read that teaching modesty (and we must realize that our actions are always teaching someone something, especially for those of us with little ones about) is primarily about "awakening in them respect for the human person." Hmmm. 

When we are nursing, there are two humans involved, both due respect. The mother (that's us reading, I assume) and the baby (if you're capable of reading this, I'd love to meet you). I do wonder if nursing, discreetly, will teach young children and adolescents to respect mothers and babies. I think for young women, it certainly would - probably a big reason why young women fear motherhood and all that entails (including nursing) is because they do not see it. Nursing is a wonderful way to show the beauty of God's design for mothers and babies. 

But what about for boys? I know certainly that male adolescents might feel rather uncomfortable. But perhaps (and I'm just exploring this here) it might be good for them. The fact is that everywhere they go, adolescent boys are bombarded with distorted images of women - women who are airbrushed, wearing very impractical clothing, in unnatural positions, beckoning, always beckoning. Nearly every image of a woman they see implies sex...but rarely babies. So he is encouraged in his visual encounters to think of sex as the contraceptive culture wants him to - as a very fun recreational activity having no consequences, let alone no true joy beyond the fleeting pleasure it promises. 
Perhaps, to a degree, a nursing mother might show a different picture and awaken in him respect for women and children. 

The bold portion of CCC 2522 adds, perhaps, a chastening word to CCC 2524. "[Modesty] keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet." (emphasis mine) Hmmm. I readily agree that a nursing mother may be risking unhealthy curiosity by nursing without a cover in front of an adolescent boy. I am called to mind the moment when I realized my nephew could no longer join me and all my nieces in the dressing room - he was realizing there was a difference between his body and ours,  and was curious about it. This curiosity was not bad, but it was not appropriate to draw it out more than necessary. There needed to be a veil there. 
It is not unhealthy for children to be curious about how babies are fed by their mothers. It is unhealthy for an adolescent boy to want to catch more than a glimpse of a young mother's breasts. 

What I think this gives us is a guideline. Wherever I may be inviting unhealthy curiosity, I should use a cover. But just what is unhealthy is mine to judge. For instance, I nursed without a cover at the beach the other week. I did so because it was quite warm and because my child's sunhat is so large, I did not feel I was being exposed. The crowd around us was mostly families or older people, and those who did notice what I was doing did not seem very interested in it at all. 

We should not behave as if breastfeeding is anything to be ashamed of; indeed, it is not. But for some people, notably boys-on-the-verge-of-becoming-men, they may not yet have fully internalized our teachings. It is a difficult time for young boys, to control their hormones and their eyes, to tame their curiosity and imaginations. It may be most charitable around them to be more discreet, to use a cover. I certainly do so around my young nephews - I'm still giving a witness of the beauty of the bond between mother and baby. They know what I'm doing under my cover. They also learn to avert their eyes, say when the baby is done feeding and I'm struggling to get everything covered back up under my nursing cover! They learn that they can have a conversation with me while I'm nursing and then maybe offer to take the baby once she's finished, so that I can cover back up. Honestly, I've had some very tender moments with these sweet boys, who love my daughter so much and try so hard to be loving to she and I whenever we visit (which is all too infrequently!).

These are my thoughts on nursing with modesty, anyway. It is certainly an individual determination based on the circumstances, your own comfort level, and your own sense of appropriateness. The best guide, then, is to honor the spirit of the law and ensure we always respect the dignity of all persons - not only ourselves and our children, but those around us as well.


  1. There are appropriate places to breast feed and non appropriate. In a room full of fourth graders on a field trip not ok. On the dance floor at a wedding? Breast feeling discretly as needed is ok. But so many women do it as a statement, just as you shouldn't have to cover up, you shouldn't make it a statement. And by the time your child is old enough to lift up your shirt and say mommy I'm hungry, it's time to take them off the boob.

    1. Hi Anonymous -
      I think we have to be careful about making our personal comfort zones rules for everyone. Although you find it inappropriate to nurse in a room full of 4th graders or on a wedding dance floor, I know I would be fine with it - especially because I can nurse my daughter in her carrier, the Boba, and everyone just thinks she's asleep!
      The only places I would find it inappropriate to nurse are places that it's inappropriate to bring babies in the first place. For me, if my baby is allowed to be someplace, then I feel ok nursing there (usually). But again, that's just me - I don't think this should be the norm for anyone else.
      Also, as to how old your child should be, I think you are again imposing your personal opinion as a rule for all women. The Church makes no such demands; therefore, I think each family must make their own decisions about when to stop nursing.
      The point of this post wasn't to give absolute answers - it's to try to think with the Church and apply modesty to this area of our lives. We must be careful about making something into a rule that the Church has left to prudential judgment; in doing so, we may begin (unintentionally) to fashion our own church with its own commandments and see as necessary that which is only our preference.

      Thanks for commenting,

  2. I think people who get weird about breastfeeding must be covering up a lot of other weirdness inside of them. I mean come on, how much more natural can it get? If you're uncomfortable with seeing women breastfeed, maybe move to Manhattan or Amsterdam, where they're not having any babies. It's also a sign of real immaturity and selfishness to put your personal hangups or opinions ahead of the comfort and health of a baby. But then, that's kind of something our culture specializes in right now, huh?

    1. I'm not sure if it's weirdness per se, or just what our culture puts out there about women's bodies. It's okay to show it off if you're a sex object BUT OMGOSH WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO THAT BABY...y'know?
      Even we as women can begin to internalize the message that it's only okay to bare our body if it's for a sexual purpose or whatever bullcrap 'empowerment' message they're selling these days.

  3. I have no problem with people Brest feeding in public. But there are people who do I to express themselves rather than just the purpose of nursing. I am totally comfortable with my body and feel no weirdness inside of me. But your baby is not a political statement to prove you have a right so you do it in a non discreet maner. And at a formal wedding it is not appropriate . Being that you are catholic I think you of all people would understand a formal wedding with proper etiquette. This happened in my family who is very religious, and it was not appropriate.

    1. I think I see where you're coming from - there are women who seem to be trying to make a statement sometimes. But honestly, I think that's more rare.
      As to the formal wedding question, you are missing the point. Neither your opinion or mine is mandated by our faith; the Church leaves it to our judgment. For me, if it's a kid-friendly wedding, then nursing might happen! For you, it's a no-go. And that's just fine.

  4. I don't use a cover but I do use the baby and my shirt to keep myself covered. I don't nurse beyond a year, so I don't know about nursing toddlers, but I don't object to those who do. For me, personally, being modest is about my virtue regardless of what anyone else thinks or feels. I don't like having that part of myself significantly visible to others, the only exceptions being my husband and my 5 young daughters. I feel comfortable nursing almost anywhere, though there are exceptions, but that is because I am comfortable with myself and my own discretion.

    1. I think this is how a lot of women feel about it!
      I have a question, though - do you think you would feel differently about nursing in front of your family if you had boys? I'm genuinely curious since I only have the one now so I don't have experience nursing in front of other kids.

    2. I don't think I would simply because I wouldn't mind doing it when they were little and, given the rate at which we are having children (they are 7, 5, almost 4, 2 and 4 months) they would, in theory, see it repeatedly as they grew up and so I think it would feel natural to us both. At this point though, any boy I might have probably wouldn't see me nurse as a teenager even if only based on how many fertile years I have left. :)

    3. Haha! Understandable - I'm hoping to have maaaany more years of fertility left, and we don't know if we'll be dominated by girls yet - as your house is blessed to be! I guess I'll find that balance when the time comes.
      I've never met a mom who feels odd breastfeeding around her other kids, boy or girl, so that seems to be the norm.

  5. I cam across this post yesterday and there was a comment that was really worth reading. Here is the comment and link:
    ""Sexuality" is the quality of being either male or female.

    Women have breasts that are able to nourish a child. Men don't. Breastfeeding is, therefore, an inherently "sexual" capability. In other words, it differentiates one sex from another.

    The essential difference between the sexes points to our complementarity, and our complementarity points to the fact that we are called to sexual unity. This is the logic built into our sexual -- male and female -- bodies.

    So yes, it's perfectly "natural" that that which differentiates us helps to attract one sex to the other. It's perfectly "natural" that there would be an element of awe, an element of attractive beauty attached to what is "other" or outside of our own experience of life. "I'm made for you. You're made for me. We see this in our bodies. We belong together."

    But that logic of complementarity, in the mystery of its imago dei, does not simply feed one into the other, as if it were a matter of filling a mutual void. No, the logic of complementarity that we read in our bodies necessarily pours outward in new fruitfulness, increasing wonder upon wonder.

    Thus, when men (or women) make the argument that mothers ought to cover up when breastfeeding "because their breasts are sexual," my heart aches for the vision they lack.

    By reducing "sexual" to "that-which-arouses-me," they have reduced complementarity to an exchange of self-serving use, and have severed its fruitfulness. In saying the "erotic" value of the breasts trumps the nurturing, self-donative value, they have shown their ignorance of the meaning of "sexual" in the first place, and in doing so have shown their poverty. And those who insist upon this poverty, as if it is "just how God designed men," are missing out -- not just on the full beauty of the sexuality of women, but in the dignity of the sexuality of men.

    That child breastfeeding is the crown of our sexual complementarity -- a gift that completes the sexual logic of our bodies and showcases it in all its glory. That child is a reminder to a man that a woman is his equal in dignity, not his object of pleasure or his toy. That child reminds man that together he and she have poured their lives out to one another for neither simply his sake nor hers, but for that of another.

    A man who is truly attracted to the full sexuality of a woman should see in the act of breastfeeding the epitome of her sexuality -- and his response should be awe, gratitude, and respect. It should be the same awe and gratitude with which a father watches his wife gently tend to any of their child's other needs with the special grace bestowed upon her.

    It should never be a jealous, "I wish I were in the child's place," nor an uneasy battle with an interior desire to "have" or "own" her, nor disapproval or disgust. The latter, sadly, are too often the reality for those who make the argument that women ought hide themselves away while breastfeeding. They are the mark of a man who wants to keep woman for himself.

    Yes. Breastfeeding is sexual. It is something only she can do. And we should thank her for it, as it is a reminder that we all exist for the good of the other."

    1. I went back and found this comment. WOW. Who is that woman!?! That's incredible! Thank you so much for sharing! I think I'll make it it's own post! :)

    2. It is a great comment. Although I'd already shared the article on Facebook, I went back and reshared it quoting that comment. Yeah, I wish I knew who it was, but it is well said. I thought it was well timed with your post. Glad you liked it! :)

  6. Thanks for examining some of these issues more closely. I really liked your thoughts about unhealthy curiosity.


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