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.

Categories: Catholic Church, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Mariology, Military, Motherhood

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11 replies

  1. The problem with the two servicemembers posing in uniform is that there is a very strict regulation prohibiting members from appearing in uniform to promote civilian causes, or using their image in uniform to promote civilian causes. I’m very glad that it looks like these two women will not be punished, but the reg exists for extremely important reasons. Imagine the next Christian Dominionist rally swarming with people in uniforms and featuring spiritual warfare led by evangelical chaplains. Imagine door-to-door electioneering by soldiers in uniform. The reg is neutral and prohibits even seemingly innocuous things like this picture, not because of content, but to keep the military from being used to promote other causes.

    The spokesperson’s comments are rather weaselly, but I would bet that he simply didn’t want to take a position on the issue when he was explaining why these two women couldn’t use their images to take a position on the issue. I don’t read those words as a demand against breast-feeding at all. Falling back on something official-sounding but basically meaningless like that is a way of saying “no comment.”

    The military could have handled it better, but they didn’t do too badly. The public brouhaha about it, and the negative comments from others, are what’s deeply troubling.


  2. I like that–airmen [sic.] should not expose their breasts. What’s the difference between the BVM and her one exposed and holy breast and any woman or airman who chooses to expose part of one breast? What’s a mother to do?


  3. Literata, thanks for your explanation. What you say makes a lot of sense.


  4. @Liberata, Yes, thank you for bringing to the forefront the strict rules governing men and women in uniform. I should have included some of the very specific regulations that are not gender specific such as no cell-phone usage, eating in public, pumping gas, or public handholding. According to the Parent magazine article the Army did not have a female version of the combat uniform until 2010. I suspect this speaks more to the internal struggle the military is wrestling with regarding women actually in the military. Now add to this the component of breast-feeding and you have an entirely new set of issues, which is the point, especially for those nursing women on the job while in the military.


    • Hi Cynthie, thanks for your reply. I’m Literata with two t’s.

      I absolutely agree that there are ongoing struggles in the military to include women and that those intersect with issues of motherhood and nursing.

      I think you’re a little misinformed about some of those regs, though. I’m not in the military, and I’m not an expert, but my spouse is an active duty officer with a long career and we were discussing this. People in uniform are certainly allowed to pump gas and use cell phones. Eating, drinking (including alcohol), and smoking are not allowed while walking in uniform, but are perfectly fine otherwise. There may be some other regs about specific ceremonial uniforms.

      The regs on public display of affection are not strictly enforced depending on setting, which does raise issues of discriminatory enforcement, but they’re not hard-and-fast rules. But those rules are all about “professional image,” while the rule on not using uniforms to promote causes is aimed at political ends.

      The issues of nursing and uniforms and all sorts of other things in the military can certainly be critiqued on feminist grounds. But the one small part of this that those two women were not supposed to use that picture in the particular way they did is not, to me, a feminist issue. As I said before, all kinds of responses to it are, just not the official military one.


  5. Hi Cynhie —

    Thanks for this articulate post. (And thanks, Literata, for making the military experience more transparent for those of us who are ignorant of it.) I wrote my dissertation on motherhood in Nazi propaganda, so I’ve thought about these issues. I found it especially enlightening that the secularization of the so-called Renaissance led to the breast’s taboo status as we now experience it, adding one more datum against this period from a feminist perspective.

    I think your daughters’ ambivalent reactions to the Time cover may have less to do with the sexual coding of the breast in our culture than you may think. The first time I saw a mother nursing a three-year-old (29 years ago, right after finishing my dissertation), I was struck by how odd it looked to me. I don’t think that I had a negative reaction back then (I was teaching in the Women’s Studies Program at the time), but it was strange to me and, as a result, open to question. I wondered about this particular mother-child relationship, especially since I had experienced breastfeeding as a highly pleasurable, if not erotic thing; I wondered about how the mother had the chutzpah to breastfeed her toddler in public (because I knew it was taboo); I wondered if I would have continued to nurse my daughter if she hadn’t stopped breastfeeding at a year old. I don’t think I censured this unknown woman in my mind, but the sight of her nursing her daughter certainly brought up ambivalent feelings in me, despite having breastfed in public myself, having been a feminist for 15 years at the time, and being a professional feminist in my work. I think as women we identify more easily with other women, so we put ourselves in their place, and doing so causes us to question ourselves as much as the other woman.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about these topics again. It’s been a while since my dissertation.

    Love and light,


  6. Just off the Yahoo news: The woman who organized an awareness campaign that came under fire for featuring two airmen breastfeeding while in uniform has been fired from her civilian job as an X-ray technician, her lawyer tells Yahoo! Shine.

    Crystal Scott, an Army veteran, military spouse, and the program director of the Mom2Mom breastfeeding awareness group at Fairchild Air Force Base, was terminated by Schryver Medical, a provider of X-rays, EKGs, ultrasounds, and other medical digital imaging services, on June 1.

    Here is the link:


  7. I agree that service personnel should not be promoting political or religious causes while in uniform. I do not view breastfeeding as a cause. It is simply part of a service woman’s life. Thanks for a great post, Cynthie.


  8. Thanks for this post Cynthie! And what a great discussion here— its really given me a lot to think about…
    I have to admit, while I continue to interrogate my view of this, the breastfeeding of toddlers does often make me uncomfortable– though not of infants. In my yoga teacher training, women were encouraged and instructed to breastfeed their children as long as possible, up to age five; and indeed, many sisters in my community did/ do breastfeed their toddlers. And I still have difficulty with it, despite very much wanting to support these women’s choices to feed their children as they see fit.
    I know some of my difficulty is because of parenting ideas/ taboos passed to me by my own mother; and some of my resistance is definitely based in my own yes, fear, of being a mother– of needing to be there for my child in every way– and probably fear of my own body (of its *abject* qualities). I love children, but am a bit scared of babies because of their dependency on the parent. I’ve never been a “baby person,” who coos, coddles or is otherwise strongly is attracted to our tiniest humans…. which in turn, has often lead me into a shamed place of somehow not being “woman enough” or not being someone who is “fit” for motherhood.
    Also I find it difficult when whether to breastfeed or not is no longer a choice. When my mother had me, bottles were “what good mothers do.” When my sister had her son, breastfeeding was considered “what good mothers do.” Well, my mother simply could not produce enough milk to feed my twin and I, so we were bottle fed. My older sister tied to breastfeed, but it was also difficult for her– something she felt very ashamed about, so she kept trying. One day her son vomited blood, which they later found out at the hospital was her blood– she was internally bleeding because of injury during the breastfeeding process.
    The construction of the breast’s significance by men, as you write about, is a very shame evoking definitional space— and I am definitely still struggling to take that space back as I wrestle with this issue.
    Thank you again for this post!


  9. @Sara,
    Thank you for your honest reflection concerning motherhood. I really relate about not having the “mother” lobe before having children. When I was 21 I explained to my OB-GYN that I was certain I did not want children and therefore would like to have my tubes tied! The reality is I felt very, very conflicted about having children, which he was sympathetic to, but given my age and singleness, refused. I share this experience with you because the notion or idea of motherhood comes with a litany of “should’s,” as you expressed by your inability to feel any connection to infants or young children.

    I went on to marry and have 3 children under very different circumstances. With my first I labored from Wednesday night to Friday afternoon, resulting in an emergency C-Section. While I was fortunate to have 2 different mid-wives, what was said to me in recovery remains with me, even after 32 years. One of the mid-wife’s wanted to console me, asking if I was OK because I was not able to deliver vaginally, as if my C-section was a lesser form of birthing. While her intention was one of compassion, the seeds were planted that I had already failed my daughter even before bringing her home. Breast feeding was, for me, a nightmare. I never had enough milk, my baby was losing too much weight, and I felt such failure over not enjoying the nursing process. I stuck with it for the 6 months I was off of work, having to supplement with formula. But time, two more children, and the willingness of close women sharing their own doubts and conflicts over mothering, helped me to give myself a strong dose of grace about my own shortcomings and gifts.

    While breast-feeding was not the greatest experience, I witnessed a good friend nurse her child until the age of 4. Maybe because I was around so much when this took place, I can’t recall having negative reactions to being in her company when nursing. For me the issue is our ambivalence or outright objection to a toddler at the breast. I’m very curious where this level of discomfort comes from, which is to say I’m not judging others reaction per se, I’m simply very curious about the outcry.

    I hope you will find a measure of grace for yourself and the ambivalence you feel over children and motherhood. It’s never an either/or experience, but one that continues to take on different realities. In the end, you want those realities to be yours and not an ideal cooked-up by others.


  10. America is so hypocritical. We produce and consume the most porn on the planet, yet jump in the air when a woman does the most basic act of feeding her child. The Puritan view of the body as dirty is insane. We ARE biology…and if we do have spirits given by God, then She created breasts to produce milk to feed offspring. Scripture says all things God created are ‘good’. Have we really evolved, if we are so squeemish about boobs? Europeans show boobs and nobody goes nuts. America has put such a price on boobs that they have been turned into sexual money makers instead of just a part of a womans femininity.


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