So, what is it about breasts that makes North Americans SO obsessed with them as sexual objects? In the course of history many different parts of the female body have been fetishes for men, for example ankles, necks, and tiny feet (in China)... so WHY breast obsession in our age?
It seems to be linked to the fact that breasts are viewed very strongly as sexual body parts, and NOT seen as "baby feeders." In fact, at least some Americans are about to forget their natural function!
Nursing a newborn.
In the fall of 1993, one of the undergraduate students in my
'Women and Culture' course was totally flabbergasted to discover that the biological function of women's breasts was for feeding children. With obvious shock and disgust evident in her voice she asked,
'You mean women's breasts are like a cow's udder?' That a young woman could reach college without ever having even heard of women using their breasts to feed their children is a sad commentary on American culture.
Katherine Dettwyler as quoted in The Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE) report about Breastfeeding at Municipal Pools in Canada
If we can see breasts as the WONDERFUL means God created to feed and comfort babies, then the obsessions about them can disappear; men don't have to think that breast appearance somehow counts the most, and women don't have to obsessively worry about the size and shape of their breasts.
What about women who do not want to or cannot have children? How should they view their breasts?
Their breasts, as all women's, are essentially a "signal" or a reminder of how babies are fed. They are still like a "banner" that shows us what food babies get. Even if you are not going to ever breastfeed and use your breasts for that purpose, you can still appreciate the function of breasts, the wonders in breast milk, the efficient mechanism of how it all works (if you study a bit about it), and so on.
This obsession HURTS women and men in various ways that are not always obvious. For example: MEN become easy targets for pornographic advertisements that use breasts as the main enticement or keyword. Or, a woman may need to go braless for her breast health's sake, which then results in men ogling over her, making comments, and considering her only on a sexual level (see comment by Chris below).
But why does the American society view breasts primarily as sexual objects and not as baby feeders? Carolyn Latteier voiced it out this way:
"Well, I think it has partly to do with the fact that we don't
breastfeed very much. I mean, breastfeeding rates have improved, but most women don't breastfeed very much or very long or in public. So when we see a breast, we don't say, "Oh there are those magical milk-making things."
Carolyn Latteier in Berman & Berman's TV program "All about breasts"
Let's see how that might come about.
Bottle feeding story
Baby is fed from the bottle, so he doesn't get to know Mom's breast as a food source and as the best pacifier. Also, if Mom never undresses or uncovers her bosom in front of her child, the child never gets to see breasts. Parents, society, TV, and media show breasts to be something forbidden, something to be covered, yet exciting and sexual, preferably large and upright, and the child easily ends up believing that way, as well.
But what if the baby is breastfed?, you might say. After all, most women do breastfeed their babies at least in the hospital. But they don't do it for very long! Let's imagine what happens in the weaning process.
Baby is breast fed in the beginning. But, maybe Mom has problems with breastfeeding, can't find help, and has to start supplementing with a bottle. This reduces her milk supply, and soon the baby is weaned. Or maybe Mom goes to work at six weeks and weans the baby completely at this point (she could have continued nursing in the evening and morning!).
DON'T TAKE IT
AWAY FROM ME!
But for whatever reason, Mom weans the baby early on. But just because Mom quits nursing doesn't mean the baby wants to! The attachment and love for Mommy's breasts don't go away just like that. The baby loses its best source of food, yes, but it also loses one of its sources of comfort and security.
The babe is probably feeling along the lines, "Hey, don't take those away from me! Those soft sponges belong to me! You can't do that! Hey, nobody here cares about my feelings! PLEASE Mommy....."
This kind of early and forced weaning can hurt the baby emotionally. Deep inside the baby retains the feeling of wanting the breast. The baby still likes Mommy's breasts. He/she is still interested in Mommy's bosom and wants to touch it, cuddle the breast, feel close — and get the yummy milk (breast milk tastes quite sweet, sweeter than formula).
You can see this when weaned toddlers and babies are still interested in breasts and want to touch them. Unfortunately, many times the mother feels uneasy about it and maybe thinks it is "indecent" or "perverted" behavior. The father may feel the same and fear that his child (especially his son) is going to grow up to be "some kind of pervert." But that is not true! Little children don't think sexual things!
Then the mother tries to get her child to stop this "nipple twiddling" and breast cuddling. The child is probably taught that touching naked breasts is BAD, it is a "NO-NO". Now, if the mother never lets her children see bare breasts, it is no wonder that the child develops a curiosity towards breasts. The child stars thinking, "What is it about them? Wonder what they look like? Why do they keep them hidden?"
While the child is growing up, everything around her touts that breasts are forbidden, a taboo. We know that taboos just encourage curiosity. On top of that, the media presents breasts not only as forbidden but something exciting and sexual, which starts arousing sexual feelings especially in boys. Girls at least get to see their own breasts and often times Mom's too, which lessens this curiosity/excitement factor.
So, what started as innocent curiosity and love towards Mommy's breasts can be turned into sexual feelings in boys, whereas young girls start (often obsessively) worrying about the sexual attractiveness of their breasts. They worry about their breast size and shape, nipple size and shape, stretch marks, sagginess — about every aspect of their breasts, and quite often start wishing for breast implants, assuming that breasts need to be big to be attractive.
When breasts are not considered a taboo, the obsessions towards them disappear. This is a Zulu woman from South Africa.
Photo credit: Pe_Wu. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
A weaned child still interested in breasts?
So what should you do if your already weaned child wants to touch mom's breasts and is very curious about them? Here's what to do: explain in the child's level of understanding what those pieces of flesh are for. Explain to him/her: "These are the milk bottles you drank from as a tiny baby. They are called breasts." Or, "These are like milk bottles. Milk comes out of them when babies suckle and they're called breasts." Show the child a few photos of nursing (from the Internet, for example). Give him/her a biology lesson (on her terms)!
GIVE ME SOME MILK!
The WORST thing to do is to make a big fuss, to declare breasts a no-no and something totally forbidden (taboo). It's simple enough to tell the child what they are, and do so in a no-nonsense style, just sort of "no big deal", normal type of thing. That should satisfy the child's curiosity.
After a while, such curiosity will probably pass and something else will take its place... just don't make it any big deal. But IF the child keeps wanting to touch and cuddle for a long time, you can explain that "These are the milk bottles but they are my body parts and you don't have to touch me here all the time." You can offer a reason such as "...the nipple is so sensitive." But first make sure you've given the explanations.
So are breasts sexual?
This is a question that cannot be answered in a short space. Breasts are part of the "whole package" that makes a woman. They aren't sexual in the sense that merely looking at them in some everyday context (such as BREASTFEEDING) shouldn't make men instantly think about sex! Yet they are sexual in the sense that they are a female body part, and the whole female is sexually attractive to men.
We are not saying that men can't appreciate and admire women's breasts (as feminine and beautiful body parts), or that a man and a woman can't enjoy touching each other's bodies during their intimate relationship. We are saying breasts are not supposed to be an immediate "turn-on," or in other words a special obsession point for men.
The advertisements and media images play to the idea that men are supposed to be "all ready" the instant they get a flash of a breast. That, we feel, is UNHEALTHY! However, breasts are a part of our femininity as women, and men can be, and ARE drawn to the whole female. It is indeed the whole woman, the entire feminine being who kindles and fans the flame of sexual desire for men.
On this website we aim to fight back against this sad trend where breasts are "elevated" into objects of automatic "turn-on" for men. Keep in mind, though, that this is NOT men's fault, because they have been culturally conditioned to see breasts that way.
So let breasts be like legs, hips, neck, face, and all the other body parts of a female—part of the whole female (and it's the whole that is sexually attractive to men). Breasts tie in with maternity: they signal that the woman is mature, capable of bearing and nursing children. They also REMIND us of their precious life-giving part in child-rearing. Perhaps YOU yourself were once nourished by those magnificent organs!
Some people mention to us Song of Solomon, which mentions breasts in a sexual context. People say that proves breasts are supposed to be "sexual." Keep in mind Song of Solomon CLEARLY places breasts on the same level as other body parts, such as the teeth, neck, and hair. Think of breasts both as "ornaments" (pretty) and as "magnificent" (because of their function—the process of milk production and breastfeeding is QUITE intricate). Song of Solomon definitely gives the picture of the WHOLE FEMALE as being attractive... (including breasts) but it does not in any way show breasts as some focal "ogle" point.
The LESS women breastfeed, the LESS people get to see the real purpose of breasts. At the same time media everywhere touts the view of female breasts as sexual. That in turn makes it harder for women to breastfeed, since many of the reasons for not breastfeeding are linked to the sexualization of breasts.
So the less women breastfeed, the harder it becomes for women to breastfeed. We have a cycle that self-promotes the view that the main purpose of female breasts is for something else than feeding babies!