The Facebook/Breastfeeding Controversy: A Dad’s Perspective

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a controversy brewing about Facebook deleting photos of breastfeeding mothers.  The controversy stretches back almost 1 1/2 years ago.  Kelli Roman posted some photos of herself breastfeeding her child.  Those photos were deleted by Facebook because they claimed that nipples and/or areola could be seen.  In other words, they regarded all bare breast photos as sexual in nature even if a baby was attached to the breast.

There has been a lot written on the subject from the perspective of moms (either ones who have nursed or who are nursing).  To list a few:

I haven’t read much from the Dad point of view, so I thought I’d give mine.  My first attempts to write up my thoughts resulted in a rambling post.  Upon reflection, I realized that is because this subject touches on a number of subjects.  Therefore, I’m going to break this issue down into into four separate sections: The Sexuality Of The Female Breast, How Much Breast Is Too Much, Context In Content Blocking, and The Morality Of Breastfeeding In Public.

I. The Sexuality Of The Female Breast

Many of the comments I’ve read about the female breast seem to take one of two extremes.  On one side, the commenter (usually a woman) declares that the female breast’s only purpose is nursing.  On the other side, the commenter (usually a man) declares that the female breast is all sex-object and nothing else.  Sometimes, they will grant it a temporary stay for nursing purposes, but only if the breast is hidden away from view.  Neither of these are my entire view.  While, I, like most men, find a woman’s breast to be a sexual turn-on, I also realize that the female breast is designed to be more than mere eye candy decoration.  It is also dedicated to feeding infants.  I have no problem with body parts having dual roles.  A woman’s vagina has a sexual role and is quite instrumental in childbirth.  A male’s penis has both a sexual role and a waste disposal role.

In addition, the mere display of a body part isn’t enough to judge whether it is sexual or not.  The display of a breast in the course of showing women how to check for breast cancer should not be considered sexual.  The display of a female breast during a demonstration of proper bra fitting would not be sexual in nature either.  Thus, a photo of a woman’s breast is not necessarily a sexual image.

Society seems to dictate that the breast should be hidden away (even in instances of breastfeeding) because it is a sexual object.  This is a self-fulfilling statement, however.  It is mainly a sexual object *BECAUSE* it is hidden away.  Go back a century or two to when women wouldn’t be seen outside showing any ankle and ask people of that time why they thought a bared female ankle shouldn’t be seen.  I guarantee that the response would have been that the female ankle is sexually alluring and thus should be hidden away.  When ankles became common to see, legs became the alluring object.  When legs revealed themselves, the belly gained prominence.  As each body part showed up more and more in public life, it lost being seen solely as a sexual lure.  If women were to commonly walk around topless, the breast would lose much (if not all) of it’s role as a sexual lure.  Yes, there would be an increase in teenaged boys drooling on street corners in the short term, but after awhile, society would move on.

II. How Much Breast Is Too Much?

The crux of the matter, as far as Facebook is concerned, is whether the nipple and/or areola were shown.  But why those parts?  What is it about that area that turns an otherwise TV-worthy breast into an object to be shunned away?  Why is a woman in a barely-there bikini perfectly ok, but a slight hint of nipple/areola not?  And it’s not just a nipple/areola, but a female nipple/areola.  As a man, nobody would bat an eyelash if I posted topless photos of myself.  But show a female’s nipple/areola and a firestorm erupts.

This isn’t just limited to Facebook, but is a problem nation-wide.  WItness two incidents.  In 1999, Lil’ Kim showed up to the VMA music awards in an outfit that exposed her entire left breast, save for a piece of fabric that covered her nipple/areola. While this provided fodder for some late night comedians and some hushed whispers from some folks, it passed by without sparking a major incident.  The incident wasn’t even shown live so plenty of opportunity for censoring her exposed breast.

Flash forward to 2004.  Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson are finishing their halftime routine during the Super Bowl.  Justin reaches over and rips away part of Janet’s wardrobe which "malfunctions" and shows her nipple/areola.  As could be predicted, a huge firestorm of protest erupted calling for fines and investigations.  The amount of time between the revealed nipple/areola and Janet covering herself up? 9/16 of a second.  Yes, apparently, the female nipple and areola is so powerful that barely over half of a second of viewing it causes immeasurable harm to people.

I’m guessing that the people who protest the showing of nipples and areolas (for any purpose) think that any exhibition of those pieces of skin have latent sexual meanings.  However, ask your average guy and they’ll tell you that they aren’t turned on merely by a nipple, but by the entire breast.  If anything, Lil’ Kim’s wardrobe choice had more sexual potential than Janet’s minimal exposure.

Time had an interesting observation in their article Facebook’s War on Nipples.  They noted that Thomas Beatie, the woman who had a sex change operation, became a man, and then became pregnant, was allowed to show his (formerly her) nipples were perfectly fine to show on Facebook (not to mention in magazines and book covers).  This despite the fact that he still had female sex organs and was still able to deliver a baby.

Just like the presence of a breast doesn’t indicate that the image is sexual in nature, the mere existence of a female nipple/areola doesn’t mean that the photo is sexual in nature.  This leads to the next section.

III. Context In Content Blocking

I’m not a big fan of content blocking.  All too often, valid content will be swept up with the "undesireable" content and blocked.  Blocking all instances of the word "breast" for example, would block not only descriptions of sex acts involving breasts, but medical articles on breast cancer, and recipes involving chicken breasts.  Similarly, blocking all images involving a full female breast (even where "full" is defined as "showing the nipple or areola") will not only block photos that are sexual in nature, but also photos of breastfeeding mothers, medical instruction pamphlets, and artistic images that are not obscene.  Clearly, Facebook is applying their policy too rigidly and needs to consider the context behind the bared breast.

IV. The Morality Of Breastfeeding In Public

This is actually a side issue in some ways as Facebook does not appear to intend to comment on the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public.  However, the issue rising is inevitable given that breastfeeding photos are being banned.  Breastfeeding is regarded as the best feeding method for infants by nearly all medical professionals.

As long as a woman breastfeeds, she will encounter situations where her child is hungry while in a public place.  I’ve heard suggestions that women should just feed the kid prior to going out or leave the kid home.  Both of these suggestions ignore the reality of having children, however.  Infants need to feed every 2 or 3 hours.  So you could easily feed your child before you head out and still get caught in public needing to nurse.  As for leaving your child at home, this assumes that you have someone to watch your child.  Many people don’t have this luxury and leaving your infant home alone for a few hours is a sure way to get a visit from Child Protective Services.  (Rightfully so.)

So what are a breastfeeding mother’s options should she be caught out when her child needs feeding?  One option is to pump milk ahead of time.  The problem with this is that it requires advance planning that might not be available.  In addition, it imposes a "breast pump tax" on nursing mothers who want to go out in public.  This only leaves the option of a mother nursing her child in public.

I have heard some ridiculous assertions from the anti-public-breastfeeding crowd.  Everything from equating breastfeeding with public smoking (come back to me when breastmilk routinely squirts across the room and is somehow tied to cancer), claiming that the women just take off their shirts in public (I have yet to hear of one breastfeeding mother who takes off her entire shirt/bra in a public place to breastfeed), to even a statement that breastfeeding mother "getting their jollies" by nursing their kids (Oh, so my wife’s yelps when our sons bit down weren’t cries of pain… good to know).

The more reasonable (relatively speaking) people who oppose breastfeeding in public state that it isn’t something they want to see.  They would prefer that the woman take her child into the restroom to breastfeed or, failing that, nurse under her shirt.  There are problems with those suggestions, however.  Restrooms are dirty.  I don’t care how often the cleaning crew goes through there, they are inherently dirty.  I know I wouldn’t want to eat a meal sitting in a restroom stall.  Why should an infant eat his/her meal there?  As for "nursing under the shirt," this is impractical too.  There likely would not be enough room under a woman’s shirt to cram the infant’s head.  Either the woman’s shirt would rip or the infant would suffocate.  Neither of these is very desirable.

There’s a simple option available to the people who are uncomfortable seeing a woman nursing, however.  Don’t look.  Nobody is forcing these people to look at a woman breastfeeding.  Merely stating that you don’t like seeing something isn’t a reason to hide it.  I, for example, don’t like seeing people wearing skin-tight clothes.  It just doesn’t look attractive to me.  However, I’m not about to tell them how to dress.  They’re free to wear clothes as loose or as tight as they want.  I’ll just look the other way.  If someone doesn’t like the sight of a woman breastfeeding, that’s perfectly fine.  Just don’t look.

In the end, I think that Facebook needs to revise their policy to take into account the context behind the bared breast.  Yes, some bare breast photos will be sexual in nature.  Facebook wouldn’t get any argument from me if they blocked those.  Not that I have anything against sexual images, but if it is their policy to block sexual images, that’s what you need to work within.  A photo of a woman breastfeeding is not sexual in nature and so shouldn’t be removed.