Breastfeeding and Following Jesus- uninviting “modesty” to the breastfeeding discussion

Maria lactans 17th century Antwerp

What is a woman to do?  You’re walking along, minding your own business with your husband and 2.5 kids at the mall when *BAM* female human breasts are thrust in your face.

Ok, not exactly thrust in your face.  But one breast is indeed thrust into a baby’s face.  Not your baby’s face, mind you.  Uh-uh.  This complete stranger has whipped her tit out and stuck it in her baby’s mouth.

She’s breastfeeding.  In public.  Ugh.

I’ve always wanted there to be a sound effect when I whip my breast out but alas, I can’t quite make my mammary glands whip really.  What would it sound like when a breast is whipped out?  Whoosh?  FFFt?  Whap?  SSSHHHHK?  Flub-a-lub-a-lub?  Just wondering.

Aren’t there covers for this?  Nobody wants to see that.  Can’t. She. Go. do. that. in. the. bathroom?

She could, yes, but just as tired as that suggestion is so is this reply: would you want to eat your dinner in the bathroom?

If you answer yes, go right on ahead.  However, until health departments regularly approve restaurants to set up customer dining with the toilets, I’m not feeding my babies there.

Doesn’t she have any decency?  Fine, feed your baby in public without being shamed into the bathroom but, for gosh sake, have some self respect and exercise some modesty!  Your body is for your husband alone and you don’t want to share it with the whole world.  I mean, good grief, there are other women’s husbands out, teenage boys, perverts… they can’t help themselves!  Hormones render their ability to not objectify women with the slightest sight of skin or shape and in a mere moment they will be overcome by their sexual urges!  The collective low view of the males of our species is that they are nothing more than animals that lose all control at the sight of a human female mammary gland.  The scary female feeding her baby will entice them like the harlot on the street corner in Proverbs.  Run, run away before all the men stumble, jealous of the child feeding at his mother’s breast.  And some women even do that IN CHURCH!

Remember when God said: “Thou Shalt Be Modest When Feeding Your Baby”?

And then proceeded to define “modest” as “having a light blanket, breastfeeding apron, or use the bathroom to feed child.”

Yeah, me neither.

maria lactans

And before you dare compare breastfeeding in public to urinating, defecating, copulating, masturbating, or really ANYTHING OTHER THAN EATING in public, go read this.  That argument is even more tired than the bathroom suggestion and not at all as clever as many seem to think.  It’s old, it’s done, it’s ridiculous, and it’s irrelevant.  Drop it.

“Fine, breastfeeding in public is fine but it must be done discreetly!” I hear this all the time.  Being discreet is to avoid offending someone and as much as we like to focus on the BREAST part of BREASTfeeding, this is an infant or small child’s meal we’re talking about.  Discreet hardly seems to apply.

I follow Jesus, I would identify myself as a Christian, and while my faith is a huge part of my life I don’t typically bring it up here.  This post, however, I’m writing because of my faith.

I grew up hearing a lot, and I really do mean A LOT about modesty.  In fact, I wasn’t allowed to wear pants, make-up, short skirts, bathing suits without a cover, shorts, etc.  All in “deference” to my “brothers in Christ” for fear of making them stumble.  So I get the modesty thing.  I was totally indoctrinated with the idea that as a female, it was my responsibility to make sure men never lusted over me.  Completely inundated with the message that there was something so vile and perverted about my body it would make these helpless male creatures fall into sin and it would be all my fault for reducing these otherwise intelligent beings into Pavlo’s salivating dog, modesty was my one safety net in combating the evilness of my own flesh.  Yet I don’t cover to breastfeed and I’m not going to ever again.  I haven’t since my 3rd daughter and now I have baby #6.

It’s not that I don’t care about my brothers, because I do.  I just care about my baby more.  And I don’t believe men are so helpless.  Just as I would never put the responsibility of me feeding or not feeding my baby the biologically normal way (AKA: as God designed) upon my brothers, so I will not take the responsibility for them seeing me and other women as human beings rather than sex objects on my shoulders.  Or chest.  Or my baby’s head.  Covering the natural, non-sexual function of the female breasts contributes to the dehumanization women.  Instead of her personhood being valid and feeding her baby acceptable, forcing a woman to cover or hide feeding her baby values her sexual appeal over the personhood of both her child and herself.  A man’s sexual desire (or possible sexual desire) then trumps a baby feeding and both the man and woman devalued as people, become nothing more than sex object and sexual desire.  Because I care about my brothers, my sisters, and my daughters, I’m not going to participate in the dehumanization of either sex.  Men aren’t dogs and they can be responsible for their own thoughts and actions.  As can I.

Sure, the Bible has a lot to say about modesty, things like not braiding hair, keeping a woman’s head covered, wearing gold… you know, all that stuff most Christians are following religiously.  Or not.  I won’t go into all that here but suffice it to say that in the context of when Scripture was written things were a little different.  Or a lot different.  But did you know that the Bible has a lot to say about breasts and breastfeeding?  Mamapsalmist breaks it down for us:

In my effort to double check my theories against the bible and God’s theories, I did some research.  The bible has a LOT of references to breasts.  A lot.  They’re all over the place.  Most often, the word breast is an anatomical reference.  The right breast for a sacrifice or the growth of breasts to symbolize puberty.  Then, there are the sexual references.  All seven of them.  Four in Song of Solomon, one in Proverbs, two in Ezekiel.  How many times does the bible reference breasts in the context of breastfeeding?  14.  Plus 10 other references to nursing and drinking mother’s milk.  Twenty-four times the bible references breastfeeding without shame.   Without hesitation.  Without hiding it under a blanket or in another room.

You should read her entire post because it is rather amazing.

In a recent thread on The Leaky B@@b Facebook page, in response to accusations that women that don’t cover while feeding their baby are immodest, Cindy MacDougall, Times Colonist writer, articulated how she, as a Christian finds such accusations to be offensive not only to her but indeed even to Mary, the Mother of Jesus:

Mary immodest cindy macdougal comment

maria lactanas cindy macdougal comments

christian bfing cindy macdougal copy

Side note, it looks like all the artists that depicted Mary as breastfeeding the Christ child had actually seen open breastfeed quite a bit and used actual breastfeeding dyads for their models, their depictions are very realistic.  Also worth noting, before you mention that breastfeeding in public is “ok” as long as the child is under a certain age, many of these depictions show a much older Jesus at the breast, well into toddlerhood and even early childhood.

go ahead, tell the Mother of God to be modest

Does modesty even have a place at the table in conversations about breastfeeding?

Modesty is a pesky business really.  Definitions of modesty appear to be fluid at best, cultures and subcultures, and even families can’t agree.  Is modesty a burqua?  Or a one piece bathing suit?  Perhaps it’s hiding the shape of the body?  The amount of skin?  Or just specific skin?  A head scarf?  Just cover cleavage?  Shoulders?  Elbows?  Collar bones?  Belly buttons?  Two fingers below the collar bone?  The knee?  Two inches above the knee?  Or to the fingertips?  Ankles?  Skirts and dresses only?  Some female body parts or all of them?  Is immodest a bikini?  Pants?  Or something sparkly?  Making eye contact with a man?  What makes something modest or immodest?  Is it what’s showing?  The intent?  And who determines that?  Cultural standards?  How someone else thinks of that article of clothing and what you have showing?

Who gets to decide?

Modesty according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary online:

Modesty webster


Modest according to the Oxford Dictionary online:

Modesty oxford dictionary

According to 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul describes modesty this way “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”  Decency and propriety, not adorned with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.  Is it indecent or improper to feed a baby?  In her Q Ideas article “Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means”, Rahcel Held Evans points out that in Scripture, the emphasis on modesty is more related to materialism than sexual impulses:

“…nearly all of the Bible’s instructions regarding modest clothing refer not to sexuality, but rather materialism (Isaiah 3:16-23, 1 Timothy 2:9-12, 1 Peter 3:3). Writers in both the Old Testament and New Testament express grave concern when the people of God flaunt their wealth by buying expensive clothes and jewelry while many of their neighbors suffered in poverty. (Ironically, I’ve heard dozens of sermons about keeping my legs and my cleavage out of sight, but not one about ensuring my jewelry was not acquired through unjust or exploitive trade practices—which would be much more in keeping with biblical teachings on modesty.)

Held Evans goes on:

When Jesus warns that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he uses the same word found in the Ten Commandments to refer to a person who “covets” his neighbor’s property. Lust takes attraction and turns it into the coveting of a woman’s body as though it were property.  The farm equipment and livestock of the neighbor in the Bible isn’t responsible for the neighbor’s coveting.  And men are responsible for their own thoughts and actions when this happens; they don’t get to blame it on what a woman is wearing.

And probably not on a baby eating either.

Is feeding a baby really a conversation that modesty needs to be invited to?  How is a woman feeding her baby, immodest?  If someone struggles to control their thoughts and actions, should their struggle supersede that of a small child’s need for food and comfort and should the burden of that individual’s possible struggle be the responsibility of that small child and that mother?  Where do we break the chain of shaming the mother feeding her child?  And could we be using “modesty” as a way to continue objectifying women in general and what responsibility do we have for how that impacts the infants in our community by communicating shame about the way their mothers feed them?

Perhaps modesty needs to be more about how we demonstrate our wealth, successes, opportunities, possessions, how we spend our money talents, and time than it does how women dress or feed their children.

Held Evans challenges us:

…biblical modesty isn’t about managing the sexual impulses of other people; it’s about cultivating humility, propriety and deference within ourselves.

Every Sunday I sit in church and often my youngest needs to nurse.  As part of my worship, I give her my breast exactly as I believe God created me to do, without leaving the worship space because I belong there and so does my daughter.  Why should we be ostracized for feeding the most vulnerable and dependent in our community?  There is nothing sexually provocative about feeding her, my daughter has a need and I meet it as I am able, as I am designed.  I am confident God is pleased by it and I believe that with exposure my brothers and sisters in this family can handle it as well.  Over time we can turn the tide that objectified women and instilled a fear that somehow breastfeeding would cause others to stumble and perpetuated the attitude of women as a lesser part of the community.  In time perhaps we will stop seeing “modesty” as being a discussion aimed at women to hold them responsible for how their male peers think and treat them and instead work towards being modest in all areas.

It’s time to “modesty” was uninvited to the conversation of breastfeeding, it just gets in the way and confuses things.  Moms just need to feed their babies, covered, uncovered, in private, or with a bottle without dealing with the responsibility that someone may objectify them and without having their decency, propriety, even their modesty questioned by how they are caring for their children.

Not sure how to handle yourself when you see a woman breastfeeding?  Try some modesty.  Remember she’s a person first, nurturing another person.  Try to cultivate humility, propriety, and deference within and look her in the eyes or if you can’t trust yourself with that, look away and remember that maybe, this isn’t about you.

And be grateful she’s not blessing you with a shower of her milk as a modest act of worship.