Last year, I wrote two posts about breastfeeding in public that brought up a lot of strong opinions. I honestly appreciated hearing different viewpoints, and most of them I felt quite comfortable addressing in the comments of those posts. But there was one recurring theme that I thought merited a post of its own:
What role does modesty play in breastfeeding?
Let’s define modesty first. The simplest definition I found that fits this discussion is “propriety of dress, speech, or conduct.” Propriety refers to “behavior that is socially or morally correct.” (I would argue that “socially correct” and “morally correct” can be two vastly different things, but I’ll leave that alone for now.)
I staunchly believe that moms should be able to breastfeed whenever and wherever their babies are hungry without having to put a blanket over their baby’s head. That being said, I actually am a fan of modesty. I’m not an exhibitionist in any way. I believe that our bodies are beautiful, but not meant to be paraded around as objects to be ogled. Modesty is something we’ve taught our kids through example and discussions about clothing choices and behavior. It’s a virtue we value in our home.
However, when it comes to breastfeeding, the notion of modesty falls into a unique camp for me. Here’s why:
1) MODESTY IS SUBJECTIVE
While modesty in general is subjective, people’s opinions about breastfeeding and modesty are ALL OVER THE PLACE. Here is a sampling gleaned from comments on those earlier posts:
– Breastfeeding is something private and intimate between a mom and a baby, and therefore inappropriate to do anywhere other than the privacy of your own home.
– Breastfeeding outside the home should only be done in designated nursing areas, or in the bathroom, or in your car, where no one else can see it.
– Breastfeeding in public is fine, but only if mom uses a blanket or nursing cover.
– Breastfeeding in public without a cover is fine, unless you’re showing any part of your breast.
– Breastfeeding in public without a cover is fine, and if you happen to show some breast for a second or two, no big deal. But at least try to be discreet.
– Breastfeeding is beautiful and women shouldn’t feel the need to make any attempt to cover anything at all, ever.
Naturally, there are variations within each of those opinions as well, depending on where you breastfeed (maybe in a mall it’s okay, but not in a restaurant where people are eating), who you’re around (breastfeeding in front of other moms is okay, but not in front of a teenage boy), and how you breastfeed (making an obvious effort to be discreet vs. making a display of yourself).
I’m not going to comment on those opinions, but rather ask the question: How is a mom supposed to process and act on all of these conflicting standards of modesty? Does she cater to the most extreme opinions to make sure she doesn’t offend anyone? Does she go with the middle road and hope no one is bothered?
The fact that it’s so obviously subjective means that nothing a nursing mom chooses to do will be acceptable to everyone. In my mind, that means moms should do what is right for her and her baby and not worry about what others think. If people don’t want to see a mom breastfeeding, they don’t have to look.
2) MODESTY DEPENDS ON FUNCTION AND CONTEXT
People try to compare breastfeeding in public with all kinds of things, from going topless in public to peeing in public (ugh). But the fact that a mom is feeding her baby makes those comparisons moot. When it comes to modesty and appropriateness, the context and function of what you’re doing makes all the difference.
Let me offer a couple of illustrations.
When you’re at the beach, it’s appropriate to be wearing a swimsuit. You don’t need to go to any great lengths to cover up because the place and activity you’re engaged in makes wearing a swimsuit totally appropriate attire.
On the other hand, wearing a swimsuit at a corporate meeting or a formal dinner would be immodest and inappropriate. Even the most conservative styles of swimwear would still be improper in a board room or fancy restaurant.
Now clearly there is great debate about the modesty of various swimsuit styles. But since those debates are almost always about women, let’s shift things a bit and take a peek at the male Speedo.
Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of Speedos. I find them tacky, and frankly, I don’t care to see that much of a man’s package. But even so, I recognize the role of context in how I view a man in a Speedo. If a man were walking around a shopping mall in nothing but a Speedo, that would be immodest, inappropriate, and just plain weird because it would be out of context.
On the beach, a Speedo is arguably appropriate, though I still raise an internal eyebrow when I see one. Even in the context of a beach, Speedos are a bit immodest for my personal taste, but I just avert my eyes. A Speedo, while ugly, is not out of place at the beach.
However, when I’m watching competitive diving, I don’t give the modesty of a Speedo a second thought. The function of the Speedo in a diving event negates the the notion of modesty. I don’t watch the men walk up to the diving platform and think, “Man, he really should cover himself up or choose another kind of swimsuit.” In the context of what he’s doing, wearing a Speedo is 100% acceptable.
That’s the same way I see breastfeeding in public. The context is a baby being fed. If mom happens to show a little breast while doing so, I don’t consider it immodest because she’s performing a specific function that falls outside of other kinds of exposure. The function and context of breastfeeding make a little breast skin or even a quick nipple flash not a big deal, just as the function and context of diving make seeing a man in a Speedo not a big deal.
3) YOU CAN UPHOLD MODESTY AS A BREASTFEEDING BYSTANDER BY LOOKING AWAY
I was tossing around some of these thoughts about modesty and breastfeeding with a male friend the other day. His response was that it’s silly that people get all weird about this. He felt that moms should be able to breastfeed wherever they feel comfortable and that if people don’t like it, they don’t have to look.
This friend has been around a lot of nursing moms, and he admitted that there are occasionally times when it can feel a bit awkward to have a woman breastfeeding right in front of him. But in those instances, he just discreetly moves a bit so that she’s not directly in his line of sight. No big deal.
He pointed out that it’s unfair to put the total onus on nursing moms to make sure everyone is comfortable. Then he said something that blew my mind: If modesty is really a concern for us personally, we can protect a mother’s modesty by not looking at her when she’s breastfeeding.
In all of these years of thinking, talking, and writing about breastfeeding, I’d never looked at it that way. But he’s right. Why do we expect nursing moms to meet impossibly arbitrary standards of modesty, when we can uphold our own sense of modesty—as well as protect a mother’s—simply by changing our line of sight when it becomes uncomfortable for us?
(I have to add a caveat at this point that yes, there are some “extreme” breastfeeders out there who make a point of overexposing themselves in an attempt to dare people to say something. But they are few and far between. It’s actually very likely that you’ve seen a lot more women breastfeed in public than you’re aware of, because most women aren’t out to make a show of it—they just want to feed/comfort their babies.)
My last thought on modesty—and what compelled me to write about this topic—is that I don’t want women to be afraid to breastfeed in public because they’re worried about people seeing them as immodest. I’m a fan of modesty, truly. As I said, I’m actually quite modest in the way I dress and behave, so I’m not out to argue that modesty is an outdated notion.
But modesty is subjective. It depends on context and function. And cover or no cover, there’s nothing inherently immodest about breastfeeding—in private or in public.
(Hey! Check out this $19 online breastfeeding class from certified lactation educator Stacey Stewart that tells you everything you need to know about how to successfully breastfeed your baby. Learn more from my affiliate link here.)