The Tale of Two Breast: From Religious Symbol to Secular Object by Cynthia Garrity Bond
I am less concerned with the legitimacy or morality of public breast-feeding . . . rather I am asking what contributes to this strange binary of, on the one hand, social acceptability of near-porn-like images of breast used in advertising, i.e. Victoria Secret, while on the other hand, internal conflicts some feel when viewing a baby/child feeding at the breast?
Beyond the “war on women” initiated by the Republican party on women’s reproductive rights, the issue of women’s breast, or more specifically, the nursing breast, has been making itself know in the media. The recent Time magazine cover of Jamie Lynne Grumet breast-feeding her three-year-old son produced a flood of
controversy centering on “attachment parenting,” which promotes, among other things, breast-feeding beyond infancy. Parent magazine recently profiled two military mothers breastfeeding in public while in uniform. For some, this perceived breach in social decorum is akin to urinating and defecating openly while wearing your uniform. Responding to the outcry, Air Force spokesperson Captain Rose Richeson states, “Airmen (sic) should be mindful of their dress and appearance and present a professional image at all times while in uniform.” In other words, it is suggested nursing military mothers pump and bottle-feed their babies when wearing their uniform in public spaces. And finally, Hadley Barrows of Minnesota was asked to leave the library by a security guard because her nursing in public was a form of “indecent exposure.” In this post I am less concerned with the legitimacy or morality of public nursing (although I have no issue with it), instead I am asking what contributes to this strange binary of, on the one hand, social acceptability of near-porn-like images of breast used in advertising, i.e. Victoria Secret, while on the other hand, internal conflicts some feel when viewing a baby/child feeding at the breast? Drawing from the work of Margaret Miles and her text, A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750, social attitudes and the public display of women’s breast can best be understood when the breast is viewed as a coded symbol that informs, through artistic representation, complex patterns of discourse.
To that end, Miles begins her study through the work of theologian Paul Tillich in which he states, “The symbol gives rise to thought,” used to highlight the efficacious nature of a symbol where it “opens up levels of reality that are otherwise closed, unlock[ing] elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality.” In other words, symbols as opposed to signs, direct us to a particular reality that we do not fully grasp. Add to this, Tillich argues, is the inherent lack of stability found in symbols, “like living beings [symbols] grow and die when …they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”
Through the 13th and 14th centuries, religious paintings depicting the Virgin Mother, exposing a single breast while nursing baby Jesus, took on a theological or religious pedagogy that affirmed human bodies in what Miles refers to as “locations of, and symbols for, Christian truths.” Additionally, a medieval audience had no difficulty viewing the revealed breast as both/and, meaning society understood the symbolic function because of its bodily function as witnessed in the home or marketplace. By the 16th century the breast was losing its religious, symbolic power by becoming what Miles defines as the secularized breast. The hegemony of the Catholic Church as it encountered the Protestant Reformation, accompanied by dissemination of information via the printing press, shifted power away from the church to secular authorities. What began to emerge in the late medieval and early modern era were dualistic representations of female bodies as either “good” or “bad,” the former portrayed by the Virgin Mary or female saints, the latter as sexually charged images of either Eve or witches. You might say a paradigm shift occurred with the emergence of the secular breast. No longer associated with maternal nurturing of the infant and as symbolic representation of Divine care and providence, the secular breast was relocated within the erotica of sin and forbidden pleasure. By the 17th century the secular breast found representation in medical anatomies and due in apart to the printing press, illustrated pornographic literature now made accessible to the masses. Miles convincingly argues the status of women depreciated as Europe moved into the early modern era where early capitalism, guilds, and an emerging male only medical profession laid claim to knowledge of the female body and its reproductive capacity.
What is obvious in both the religious and secular breast is that it was controlled and constructed by and large by men. Miles ask the question whether it is possible to “revision a symbolic breast owned by women, a breast capable of functioning as a symbol of woman’s subjectivity?” This would include, but would not be limited to the breast as site of infant nourishment absent objectification. Here in lies our modern dilemma, a woman’s breast has been so sexually codified that its pornographic representation has become locked into our collective unconscious as normative, while the nursing breast signifies a misplaced erotica. How many of us are uncomfortable with a toddler feeding at the breast? Why is this practice considered taboo? Who determines how old a child must be before they are weaned from the breast?
The Time magazine cover in question generated much debate between my two adult daughters (both degreed in Women’s Studies) and myself. I was surprised and even mystified at their level of discomfort at viewing a toddler at his mother’s breast. And they are not alone. I imagine every nursing mother has experienced the censoring gaze of disapproval when engaged in public breast-feeding. I agree with Miles when she laments modernity has suffered a great loss with the retirement of the religious breast as literal nourishment for the body as well as symbolic food for the soul. I find the following words of Miles to be both prophetic and hopeful when she states, “But the breast, perceived as subject and symbol of a woman’s life and experience, is always beautiful, to her own eye, and to the other’s loving eye.” The goals then is to make this mark of subjectivity and beauty extended to the public act of the nursing breast.
Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminism. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.