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Breastfeeding, Modesty, and Discrimination: Double Standards for Female Breast


The problem of breastfeeding is usually underestimated, at least in Western culture. Feminist studies often give up this question to medicine and maternity, which could be related to the negative perception of breastfeeding as unpaid reproductive labor (Boswell-Penc, 2006). In my experience, a negative attitude towards breastfeeding mothers was because of labeling them "patriarchal victims" who chose not to struggle for freedom. However, there's definitely a problem that should be addressed precisely by feminism – gender discrimination.

Western society has ambivalent attitudes towards woman's breasts and breastfeeding. Being sexualized only on women, breasts are seen in men as something familiar and appropriate to show. Women are precluded from having naked breasts in public, and their breasts are sexualized just because they belong to female - same-sized and same-structured male breasts are not sexual objects (Crawley et al., 2007). At the same time, breast that produces milk is seen as something disgusting, which makes public breastfeeding socially sanctioned, though formally welcomed and encouraged (Acker, 2009).

My personal experience perfectly fits the observations cited above. I fed both of my sons in an "on-demand" manner, and for me, that meant literally home imprisonment. My timid attempts to leave the house with the baby considering public breastfeeding ended up similarly – at one moment, I dropped everything and ran to her car with a puffing baby in my hands. So, as usual, my bite-sized research does not leave me indifferent. This time, I'll try to list the problem related with public breastfeeding and analyze which gender norms prevent women from being and feeding wherever they want.

Breastfeeding Intersection

Breastfeeding involves, besides gender, many other socioeconomic factors, such as race, age, family income, and level of education. Usually, breastfeeding was predicted in white, older, well-educated middle-class females (non-immigrants, I'd like to add) – in other words, the most privileged females. However, regardless of those demographics, all women experience worries about public breastfeeding. Mothers reported feeling embarrassed, condemned, and somewhat marginalized in public places; sometimes, they were suggested to feed or express milk in a bathroom so as not to confuse others (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Hamm, & White, 2003).

From the other side, income, race, and education have shown an impact on attitudes to breastfeeding – white college students were the most positive breastfeeding supporters; surprisingly, gender had not such an impact, male and female groups of support/discouragement were comparatively equal (Acker, 2009). The high level of women who do not approve public breastfeeding may be explained by the social pressure that women usually experience regarding childbirth and breastfeeding. For a long time, maternity was an obligatory part of female identity, and it seems that this matter is still challenging for females who choose not to give birth/breastfeed. Also, the disgust for breastfeeding from the side of women may be related to internalized sexual objectification, and thus naked breasts in a public place are marked as unacceptable (Johnston-Robledo, Wares, Fricker, & Pasek, 2007).

The unacceptability of public breastfeeding was mainly investigated in African-American communities. Participants identified breastfeeding in public as problematic basing on interpretations of others' reactions. Although the covered public breastfeeding was approved as socially appropriate, some participants discussed that the fact of breastfeeding could be embarrassing itself. The authors assume that feeling safe enough for breastfeeding is related to overall social support and positive relationships (Owens, Carter, Nordham, & Ford, 2018).

Another study investigated the socio-demographic aspect of urban primiparas. According to the data, breastfeeding intent was associated with positive breastfeeding attitudes, higher household incomes, immigrant status (being born outside the US), race/ethnicity (Afro-Caribbean showed the highest intent, and African American demonstrated the lowest), family status, partnership, ability to attend breastfeeding classes, greater years of education (Persad & Mensinger, 2008).

Public vs. Private

The public sphere traditionally belonged to males and supposed specific rules and activities – work, market, government, etc. At the same time, the private sphere and its norms were perceived as female – places of emotional sharing, family support, relational experience, care, and nurturing. Public spheres are still showing the traits of the men-created systems that exclude and degrade women or deny our existence, and the most frequent and rationalization for female exclusion from public networks is "maternal duty." Although public places are now open for women, since entering them, women are expected to play the male rules, and traditionally no site for breastfeeding is provided (Cook, 2016).

The public exclusion and discrimination of breastfeeding mothers led authorities to create legal protection. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act obligate employers with more than 50 employees to provide a private space and special breaks for hourly wage women. Unfortunately, while the laws afford women rights, for instance, to breastfeed in public, negative attitudes may still exist (Goldbas, 2015).

Modesty and Sexualization

The studies are consentient in approval of the ambivalent perception of the female breast in Western culture – from one side, it is a sexual object that is to be attractive to men, and from another party, it is a particular organ for feeding babies. The conflict between functionality and attractiveness is increased by "beauty standards" that claim the bigger breasts are more attractive, and frequently happening to change of the breast shape due to lactation – the "boobs" get bigger but become non-sexual (Boswell-Penc, 2006; Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Hamm, & White, 2003).

On the opposite side, there's a concept of modesty, which may play a role in avoiding breastfeeding. Modesty may be a cultural factor associated with reduced breastfeeding initiation and duration rates because mothers may initially choose not to breastfeed due to concerns regarding modesty. This point is supported in society – for instance, there's a variety of scarfs and covers for breastfeeding that are aimed to make it more "appropriate." Scholars find the correlation between feeling free to breastfeed in public and breastfeeding duration (Moran, 1999). Paradoxically, modesty was also claimed as a tool against sexual objectification and for self-protection. Feminists argue that such an approach is just an attempt to use feminist discourse for further limitation of female capacities (Hahner & Varda, 2012).

Disgusting or Just Female?

Among non-sexual factors that form attitudes towards breastfeeding, specialists name body-related specific emotions, such as shame and guilt. Guilt and shame are frequently associated with bodily functions and fluids, and especially those which are connected to a) female body b) reproduction. As was mentioned before, the only fact that the bathroom is usually suggested as a place for breastfeeding approves the collective disgust towards both breast milk and breastfeeding. The association of guilt and shame with bodily functions makes scholars assume that people with high levels of guilt or shame may have negative perceptions of breastfeeding mothers (Forbes, Adams-Curtis, Hamm, & White, 2003).

At the same time, research on social attitudes towards breastfeeding shows an explicit connection between negative perceptions and sexism. Since breastfeeding is something that belongs only to women, it has a high chance of getting a negative label from both hostile and benevolent sexists. The difference is that hostile sexists might express their disgust and negative attitude openly, while benevolent sexist might instead show avoiding of "specific female matters" (Acker, 2009).


The system of prejudice against breastfeeding seems to be a chain consisting of multiple links, both simple (like sexism) and complex (like lack of feminist support). Public breastfeeding is somewhat similar to homosexuality, when public opinion magnanimously allows minorities to do what they want, but do not "stick out." Also, it seems that, though breastfeeding is formally supported and promoted by authorities and specialists, the society remains poorly informed on that issue.


Acker, M. (2009). Breast is best...but not everywhere: Ambivalent sexism and attitudes toward private and public breastfeeding. Sex Roles, 61(7-8), 476-490. doi:

Boswell-Penc, M. (2006). Tainted milk: Breastmilk, feminisms, and the politics of environmental degradation. Retrieved from

Cook, A. B. (2016). Breastfeeding in public: Disgust and discomfort in the bodiless public sphere. Politics & Gender, 12(4), 677-699. doi:

Crawley, S. L., et al. (2007). Gendering Bodies. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ProQuest Ebook Central

Forbes, G. B., Adams-Curtis, L., Hamm, N. R., & White, K. B. (2003). Perceptions of the woman who breastfeeds: The role of erotophobia, sexism, and attitudinal variables. Sex Roles, 49(7), 379-388. doi:

Goldbas, A. (2015). Breastfeeding: What's law got to do with it? International Journal of Childbirth Education, 30(4), 21-24. Retrieved from

Hahner, L. A., & Varda, S. J. (2012). Modesty and feminisms: Conversations on aesthetics and resistance. Feminist Formations, 24(3), 22-42. Retrieved from

Johnston-Robledo, I., Wares, S., Fricker, J., & Pasek, L. (2007). Indecent exposure: Self-objectification and young women's attitudes toward breastfeeding. Sex Roles, 56(7-8), doi:

Moran, M. (1999). Analysis and application of the concept of modesty to breastfeeding. The Journal of Perinatal Education, 8(4), 19-26. doi:

Owens, N., Carter, S. K., Nordham, C. J., & Ford, J. A. (2018). Neutralizing the maternal breast: Accounts of public breastfeeding by African American mothers. Journal of Family Issues, 39(2), 430-450.

Persad, M. D., & Mensinger, J. L. (2008). Maternal breastfeeding attitudes: Association with breastfeeding intent and socio-demographics among urban primiparas. Journal of Community Health, 33(2), 53-60. doi:

Saha, P. (2002). Breastfeeding and sexuality: Professional advice literature from the 1970s to the present. Health Education and Behavior, 29(1), 61-72.

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