Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Breasts might be sexy, but they're not "sexual".

Kendra wrote this post about breastfeeding.  I appreciated much of what she had to say because I have been attacked in the past by some self-proclaimed "lactivists" who look down on women who cover when breastfeeding (seemingly because by covering I'm somehow "setting the breastfeeding movement back" and bowing to the patriarchy...or something like that).  I'm a huge supporter of breastfeeding.  But I'm just more comfortable with a nursing cover.  Simple as that.  Mainly because I'm not very gifted at nursing discreetly and I'm not a fan of the looks I get when it's not discreet.  So, with all the articles and posts out there talking about why a woman shouldn't have to cover (which I do agree with, by the way), it's nice for there to be someone saying, "I cover too!" 

Kendra covers.  I cover. What I disagreed with Kendra's post is not her what but her why:
And when people shout, "Breasts aren't sexual!" I get kind of embarrassed, because, um, are you sure you're doing it right? And if women really thought breasts weren't sexual, or at least private, then they wouldn't wear shirts at all. But I do. I always wear a shirt in public. Every time.
I disagree because I don't think that breasts are "sexual" and I don't think that they should be presented as such. In her follow-up post, Kendra addresses the fact that whether breasts are sexual are not doesn't really have any bearing on whether she covers while nursing:
The comment section was overwhelmingly a discussion of whether breasts are rightly considered sexual. I was involved in that discussion. It was an interesting exercise. But, really, the more I've thought about it, the more it really doesn't have anything at all to do with what I'm talking about.
But, because she brought it up, and because I have copious thoughts on the topic, I thought that it was worth writing a post even to the point of breaking my self-imposed blogging break.  

Breast are not intrinsically sexual.  

Of course, our culture teaches that they are; our culture is wrong.  And in this instance (as in most cases where our culture is wrong), this thinking actually very detrimental, not just to breastfeeding but to the way women view their bodies as a whole.  I don't cover while nursing because I think breasts are sexual.  That's not why I wear a shirt either.  After all, I don't wear belly-baring shirts or bikinis and that's not because I think that stomachs are sexual.  I am a huge proponent of modesty but, at least to me, modesty does not mean covering up all body parts that might be considered sexual.  And I don't think that breastfeeding is really a modesty issue.  Is something that is inherently pure and good, like feeding your child, capable of being immodest?  I don't think so. (I'll write about what modesty does mean to me another time but for the sake of semi-brevity, we shall move onwards.)

By "breasts are not sexual", I don't mean that breasts can't be sexy or that they can't cause sexual pleasure; however, "sexual" is not interchangeable with "sexy" or "a body part that can cause sexual pleasure".  You see, legs and muscular arms and a smile can all be "sexy" without being "sexual".  People can derive sexual pleasure from kisses or a nibble on their earlobes (etc.) but lips and ears are not considered intrinsically "sexual".  Breasts, like these other body parts, have a purpose separate from sexual pleasure - to feed a baby - and the sexual pleasure is a bonus.

So why do breasts get labeled "sexual" when other body parts that can be "sexy" and induce sexual pleasure do not?  In part, the drastic decrease in breastfeeding and increase in formula feeding in the 20th century severed breasts from its natural function, to feed a child.  (Strikingly similar to how birth control has severed sex from its natural function of procreation, no? But I digress.)

But there is much more to the sexualization of breasts than just formula.  It has a great deal to do with the oversexualization of women and degradation of the female body in general.  Breasts are unique to women, so they must be sexual, right?  Perhaps part of this confusion comes from the fact that the most obvious body parts unique to men and women are sex organs.  But breasts are not sex organs.  Erogenous zones, yes.  Sex organs, no.  I don't often see men's nipples considered "sexual" or hear them asked to cover their nipples in public, yet many men are aroused by nipple stimulation.  Women are being singled out as "sexual" beings, with the parts unique to them - regardless of function - being labeled "sexual" as well.

Why did this happen?  How did this happen?  Pornography and ye olde "Sexual Revolution" seem to have a lot to do with this:
Nursing mothers were a common sight at this international gathering. What I found intriguing, however, was that women from “first-world” nations tended to drape themselves and sit off in a corner, while women from other nations seemed to have no qualms whatsoever about feeding their babies in full view of others. I remember one woman unabashedly roaming the crowd passing all manner of bishops and cardinals with her breast fully exposed while her child held on to it with both hands happily feeding. The only people flinching seemed to be those from the northern hemisphere.

Isn’t it interesting that the part of the world producing the most pornography and exporting it to the rest of the globe has seemed to lose all sense of the true meaning of the human breast? What a commentary on the sad state of our sexually wounded culture! Breasts have been so “pornified” that we can fall into thinking that even their proper use is shameful. In other words, we have been so conditioned to see a woman’s body through the prism of lust that we find it very difficult to recognize the purity and innocence of breast-feeding.
St. Paul hit the nail on the head when he said, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the impure nothing is pure” (Ti 1:15). It is a tragically impure world that labels the purity of a baby at the breast as “gross.” For those with the purity to see it, a nursing mother is one of the most precious, most beautiful, and most holy of all possible images of woman.
-Christopher West, "Nursing a Sexually Wounded Culture"

Why does it matter if breasts are labelled "sexual" or not?

Because "sexual" often goes hand-in-hand with "shameful".  It upsets me when people insist that breasts are sexual because that thinking produces shame and perpetuates a disordered view of the female body that emerged from disordered sexuality.  If we had a healthier, balanced view of sex and sexuality in our culture, it probably wouldn't matter if breasts were called sexual.  Then again, if we had a healthier view of sexuality, we probably wouldn't think of breasts as sexual.  But, in this society of sexual extremes, in which sex is no longer sacred, anything sexual has become tainted.  Something as natural, normal, and loving as feeding a child becomes conditional - "Breasts are good only in the context of feeding a child and only if the woman is properly covered and only if the child is under a certain age, etc." The truth is that breasts are inherently good as a rule and the improper uses of breasts (such as pornography) are the exception to the rule.

This disordered view of sexuality and sex hurts women.  It teaches them that their breasts are impure body parts and that, as the person attached to these body parts, they too are something "less than".  They have to cover up out of shame (instead of modesty being more an issue of dignity and cultural standards).  They have to prove that they can be pure and good in spite of the body they have, instead of treating their bodies with the dignity that is inherent to it.

When it comes specifically to breastfeeding, the insistence that breasts are sexual does much harm.  Many women are unable to breastfeed their children (completely unable to breastfeed them, not just in public) because the belief that breasts are sexual is so ingrained that they cannot feed their child as God intended without feeling like the act is shameful, dirty, and sexual.  They cannot not separate society's messages of the sexualized breast from its beautiful, natural purpose.  This goes far beyond a stranger telling a woman it's indecent to breastfeed in public.  It's society telling a woman that her body parts are themselves indecent, at least in certain contexts.  Many women can separate breasts as sexual objects and breasts as functional body parts, but others cannot.  And they shouldn't have to. Breastfeeding can be difficult enough without introducing the additional questions of its modesty, appropriateness, or goodness.

I'm not suggesting that you can't enjoy breasts in a sexual way without it being pornographic or wrong.  Of course not!  But just like the main purposes of the lips are non-sexual, and therefore they are not innately "sexual" body parts, so too is the breasts' main purpose non-sexual and therefore they are not innately "sexual".

I also am not trying to encourage women to walk about topless.  We have cultural norms in our society relative to dress and modesty, but that is truly a separate issue than that of the function and dignity of the female breast.  Cultural norms can be a good thing, but they change over time (often very swiftly) and aren't necessarily founded in a deeper truth.  In our society, cultural norms of modesty have been trending toward revealing more skin while at the same time cultural norms regarding breastfeeding insist we show less skin or nurse only behind closed doors.  I find that to be incredibly revealing (no pun intended).  The issue is not, "If women can wear string bikinis, why can't I nurse in public?"  What we wear in other situations, in fact, has no bearing on breastfeeding.  The true issue is that nursing has always been seen as a good, positive, modest act, yet we have less freedom to nurse in public than we did a century ago.  Breastfeeding is always good (and should always be treated as such); cultural norms come and go.

What I am trying to do is to call attention to the words we use and the way we talk about our bodies, because they do matter.  They inform our subconscious and make lasting impressions on our perceptions of ourselves and others.

Want to read more of my breast(feeding) thoughts? Here you go: Nursing in Church, Yay or Nay? and Breastfeeding, Guilt and Letting Go of Control

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

To the Mom of Five Children (Close in Age)

Hey, you! Yeah, you - the mother of five young children close in age.  I see families like yours everywhere.  In the pews before us at Mass.  At the grocery store.  In the park.  I always try to meet your eyes, but when you see me looking, you usually look away.  I can’t be sure why, but I imagine that it’s because you’ve seen one too many disapproving looks.

Your large family is counter-cultural.  You make people uncomfortable because you embrace the very things that society teaches us to fear: children.  Life.  People wonder if you’re crazy.  Or you’re Catholic.  Or if you own a television.  I don’t.  Your children are beautiful blessings.  It seems perfectly sane that you would welcome more of them. 

Let me tell exactly what I see when I see your family...continue reading at A Knotted Life

My friend, Bonnie, has been taking a bit of a blogging break while moving and has had a ton of guests posts in the interim.  I strongly suggest you poke through the posts over the last few weeks because there are several really great pieces.  I also love the posts Bonnie has written about pregnancy loss.  Oh, and if you don't already know about her son's (alleged) miracle through the intercession of Venerable Fulton Sheen, you can get caught up here or read the (very) recent exciting news about the case here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wedding Vows Dissected: Honor Each Other

Amanda, blogger at Worthy of Agape, is currently on her honeymoon (commence that lovey dovey sigh) and got a great group of bloggers  together to write a series based on wedding vows.  You can find me over there today discussing "honor each other":
Do you honor your spouse? I assume that the verb “to honor” is not one you use in daily conversation. Perhaps you’ve never even used that phrase outside your wedding vows. You’re much more likely to say, “I love my husband,” or “I respect my wife”. One of the Ten Commandments tells us to “Honor your father and mother.” Clearly to honor is something special, something set apart and reserved for those sacred relationships that hold the most importance in our lives, our society, and our faith. So what does it mean to honor someone?...continue reading at Worthy of Agape

And while we're talking honeymoons, I wrote about my own a while back.  I can't believe that was almost four years ago!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Catholic Pregnancy Loss Ebook: Submissions Wanted

Hi all! I'm interrupting my blogging break to announce a new project I'm taking on.  I'm putting together an ebook on pregnancy loss especially for Catholic women.  It will include chapters of various women's personal accounts and experiences, as well as topical chapters such as:
  • how to commemorate your baby
  • pregnancy after loss
  • physical healing after miscarriage
  • how to respond to hurtful comments 
  • prayers
  • profiles of Saints who are special intercessors of pregnancy and loss
  • reflections on specific scriptures
  • etc.

If you would like to contribute, please contact me for more details.  Feel free to pass this information on to others who you think may be interested in contributing. The deadline for first drafts is August 1st.