Breastfeeding is a mother's first foray into learning to read, trust, and respond to her child's cues. The infant, likewise, develops a strong emotional security as he learns to trust that his needs will be quickly and appropriately responded to. The more sensitive a mother becomes to her child's cues, the better the child becomes at giving those cues. This is the beginning of communication and connection between mother and child. As connection grows, the mother/child relationship becomes increasingly natural and instinctive, resulting in a foundational mutual trust and sensitivity upon which the relationship will continue to build.
Yet too often the misguided and misconstrued notion of modesty that permeates much of the church hides breastfeeding women away in back rooms, or at the very least under a blanket, suggesting that breastfeeding is somehow dirty, shameful, or inappropriate for public. Has so much of the church so easily succumbed to our culture's misconstruction that breasts are primarily sexual?
Many women, including myself, are fortunate to belong to a church that accepts and even affirms the natural role breasts play in nourishing our children. Too many others, however, experience the opposite, asked to remove themselves to a private place because the act of breastfeeding might "cause a man to stumble" or because "children shouldn't see that."
This is what happens when the focus of modesty becomes merely covering up our bodies. It reduces men to slavering dogs and women to tantalizing temptresses, affirming our culture's message that breasts are primarily sexual.
Such messages are demeaning, insulting, and damaging.
They are demeaning to women who are made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Hidden away in back rooms or asked to cover up, many find themselves discouraged, berated, shamed, and even compared to strippers. Some women are made to feel so uncomfortable that the breastfeeding relationship itself becomes threatened. Other women lose out as well without the example of mothers nursing in their presence, particularly because breastfeeding is a right-brained activity that is best learned by imitation rather than instruction. Breastfeeding will never be considered normative if it is never seen. Have we become so afraid of our God-designed bodies that we fear "causing a man to stumble" by feeding our babies?
They are insulting to men who are treated as uncontrollable beasts at the mercy of their sexual impulses. When breastfeeding is suggested to be immodest, the implication is that a man is unable to control his thoughts at the mere glimpse of a piece of a woman's skin as her child latches on. Taught to fear both their desires and women's bodies, the body paradoxically becomes the focus. Rather than encouraging responsibility, compassion, and self-control, the source of discomfort (a woman breastfeeding her child) is removed, and so the cycle continues.
They are damaging to our sons and daughters of all ages who lose the opportunity to see breastfeeding as a natural, God-designed method of feeding babies. We deny children and young adults the chance to witness breasts being used for their primary purpose, leaving them at the mercy of secular culture where they soon learn to view breasts as sexual objects. And thus the cycle is perpetuated: breasts are shameful and breastfeeding is to be hidden away.
They are damaging to the church body who loses the richness of the breastfeeding imagery used throughout Scripture. (See, for example, Genesis 49:25, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 60:16, Isaiah 66:10-11, and Psalm 22:9.) While Song of Solomon acknowledges the breasts' beauty and sexual nature (as well as that of the lips, face, hair, neck, arms, legs, and more), it is the picture of breasts as a source of loving nourishment and sustenance that takes center stage throughout Scripture. The Hebrew El Shaddai can be literally translated as "God of many breasts". When breastfeeding is treated as a necessary evil, tucked away for fear of the breasts' secondary sexual nature, the totality of the breastfeeding relationship between mother and child is not witnessed: the baby's full-bodied eagerness as he reaches for the breast, the bonding and responsiveness between the pair as they gaze at each other, the baby's utter satisfaction afterwards. That imagery is part of the whole and to miss it is to miss the full picture of the relationship between God and His children.
But what about modesty?
Scripture affirms modesty in the sense of godly character rather than the superficial beauty of outward adornment and expensive attire (1 Timothy 2: 8-10). Such modesty seeks to live a life that gives glory to God rather than to Self (much as the sacrificial and worshipful aspects of breastfeeding do).
When we reduce modesty to merely a way of dress, however, we lose the depth of the true meaning of modesty. Modesty is primarily an internal attitude, an inner sense of humbleness, comportment, character, and self-control that goes far deeper than the superficial level too many in the church hold to. The focus on clothing - sleeve length, skirt length, neckline, and so on - rather than the heart is a shameful distortion and reduction of that deeper, internal modesty.
Tracy beautifully describes her devastating experience with this nuance in her piece Perverting Modesty:
"With this attempt to dress me by this new definition of modestly, my genuine modesty of person was replaced with a fixation on a superficial modesty of shoulders and knees being covered...This modesty fetish has perverted the idea of true humbleness into a niche clothing market."Of course, there is room for thoughtful respect of others. However, there is a difference between being discrete and hiding the act of breastfeeding entirely. There is no need to expose oneself more than necessary, but neither should a woman feel compelled to drape a blanket over her baby or move to another room. These things are welcome options, certainly, for those who feel most comfortable nursing in that manner, but the expectation of such a thing should have no place in our society. The distortion of what modesty means is reflected in every suggestion that feeding a hungry baby is immodest or improper.
The church is not the only place that routinely shames women for breastfeeding in public. Stores, restaurants, and other public areas are often likewise squeamish, ordering women to leave despite laws throughout Canada and most of the United States that protect a woman's right to breastfeed in any public area. Yet it is the church, mindful of the purity, goodness, and appropriateness of God's creations, that should be leading culture in this regard, not following along behind it.
The 20th annual World Breastfeeding Week takes place from August 1-7, 2012. This year's focus is "understanding the past, planning for the future."
Join the Natural Parents Network in celebrating World Breastfeeding Week with their annual WBW blog hop!