Confused by Breasts

O, The Horror!

In my final term of nursing school, I rotated through Labour & Delivery, where I waded through a flood of boggy fundi and pre-eclampsia; but I learned how to teach first time mothers the art of breastfeeding. One of my patients, however, was having none of it.

“I don’t believe in that shit,” she said. Being a good would-be nurse, I asked her to elaborate her feelings. “These babies,” she said, pointing to her breasts, “are for my boyfriend.”

I was thinking of this patient when I read about artist Karen Hansen, whose images portraying breastfeeding Facebook deleted last April. Facebook, evidently, believes breastfeeding is obscene and offensive. Six months later, Facebook relented, and restored her account, sans one breastfeeding photo; the art work remains.

Permitted by Facebook

Clearly, Facebook’s operators derived their knowledge of breasts from some combination of National Geographic and Penthouse, circa 1971, which is to say, Facebook’s adolescents are both prurient and priggish. Their attitude is stupid and wrong, for many reasons I need not enumerate, but principally because this is a corporation with global reach sending the message that breastfeeding is somehow “dirty” and abnormal. But Facebook also reflects a deep cultural ambivalence and ambiguity about breasts and breastfeeding, where breasts are hypersexualized in the public domain (until, apparently, areolae are shown) but showing breasts in a utterly nonsexual way is taboo.

One thing I did notice was that Karen Hansen’s art is (consciously) well within the ancient tradition of depicting the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ Child, right to the visual punning of aureola/areola. So to be clear: Facebook will allow all manner of pictures of breasts, as long as they 1) are suitably sexual, but show no nipple and 2) depict the Virgin and Child.

Permitted: Bouts. Virgin and Child. (1465)

According to Facebook, it would seem, breasts are either for whores or for Madonnas. There is no middle ground — and in 2010, after years and decades of public education about the benefits of breastfeeding, activist campaigns against the manufacturers of formula, scientific studies listing the benefits of breastfeeding from everything from increasing the intelligence of the child to decreasing the risk of breast cancer in the mother, this is, well, astonishing.


[H/T: The Galloping Beaver]


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  1. #1 by Nicki on Monday 04 October 2010 - 1337

    Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? I am a firefighter/emt (as I told you earlier). My son was 3 months old when I joined the fire department. It was always the case that he would be nursing and I would get a call (we can respond from home while on duty overnight). I mentioned it to my team members that we ONLY get calls when he is hungry. The next time my team was on duty, my chief said to me (jokingly), “Don’t nurse your kid tonight. We only get calls when he is breastfeeding.” An older lady in the dept. pulled me aside and told me that I should press sexual harrassement charges for mentioning how I breastfeed in front of other members. I told her that nursing is not sexual in nature and I was not offended but if my nursing offended her, then she should feel free to press charges against me or she could just walk away. She walked away. Me: 1; Ignorant b—h: 0!

  2. #2 by Boris on Monday 04 October 2010 - 1452

    “I don’t believe in that shit,” she said. Being a good would-be nurse, I asked her to elaborate her feelings. “These babies,” she said, pointing to her breasts, “are for my boyfriend.”
    A gazillion years of evolution to develop and fine tune the absolutely amazing system of mammalian reproduction and its mechanism of providing vital nutrients for, and bonding with, our offspring casually dismissed with an “I don’t believe in that shit.” Astounding.

  3. #3 by The Nerdy Nurse on Monday 04 October 2010 - 1457

    The ignorance of the mentioned patient is astonishing and upsetting, and i’d put it in the same category as people who smoke throughout their pregnancy.

  4. #4 by Jenn Jilks on Monday 04 October 2010 - 2024

    I agree with the Madonna/whore precept. But you can blame it on ignorance, rather than stupidity. The young men who run FB grew up on video games and we know what they teach.

    Your ignorant patient was only living what she learned. I imagine she was not breastfed. It comes more easily to those who have seen it done, and are familiar with it.

    Our daughter’s midwife was the best educator for pregnant women ever. I’m so glad that they now help with aftercare, with house calls, as well as during the pregnancy. This gives nurses more time to do what they need to do, for those with more serious concerns.

  5. #5 by wilomis on Monday 04 October 2010 - 2213

    ahhh breast feeding… I was actually quite the breast feeding coach (as great as a student can be) when I was in Nursing School.

    Realization: I can actually say “when I was in school,” or “back when I was a Student Nurse”… AWESOME.

    Anyway, the question I have is as follows: Once you upload something to Facebook, it becomes their property, so do Karen’s breasts belong to Facebook now?

    I am all in favor of letting the little guys and gals breastfeed in public.

    The more dangerous issue I have seen are crazy husbands that get envious over the children sucking on the breasts… Some men need help.

    • #6 by torontoemerg on Tuesday 05 October 2010 - 1005

      I think FB employees have a secret file of “deleted” images. :)

  6. #7 by art doctor on Monday 04 October 2010 - 2329

    From what I recall in Art History, the painting is depicting Christ as a man. Though a baby is painted, he sits in a way that a man would sit. His features are refined, and he looks out at the viewer, as if in-control, versus at his mother in the first photograph.

    As an adopted child, I never had the chance to be breast fed. I was adopted at 5 days old. In retrospect, I don’t think the milk was good anyways—probably very sour—like my birth mother who has much guilt and anguish still, after I have accepted the fact that I was adopted.

    Nevertheless, I wonder what would have been different?

    I think breast feeding is a sacred experience and it needs to be the mother’s decision. If I am fortunate to have a child/ children, I will definitely consider breast feeding, and will take the course too if-necessary. I think it is a beautiful experience.

    • #8 by torontoemerg on Tuesday 05 October 2010 - 1004

      The iconography is fascinating. Showing the Christ Child as breastfeeding also tended to reinforce one of the central aspects of Christian doctrine, i.e. the humanity of Jesus.

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