It’s the most natural thing in the world. Everybody’s done it. Breastfeeding, that is. The majority of 7.5 billion homo sapiens have been breastfed and at least 200 million are still ‘on the breast’. Yet, most of us will be hard put to recall real-life memories of the mammary gland being put to use as nature intended.
The sparsity of breastfeeding images in the media, until very recently, was weird. After all, governments the world over promote breastmilk as the healthiest diet for newborns. India is no exception. The ministries of Health & Family Welfare and Women & Child Development advertise the advantages of breastmilk on a regular basis.
Needless to say, the mammary gland itself is never exposed in such ads; it is discreetly hidden by the baby’s head or draped in so many folds of the pallu that the little one needs a GPS to find the nipple. The sole exception is ads featuring tribal women, who are allowed to expose the entire breast. Their tribal identity somehow makes it alright. The wonderfully aesthetic cover of Grihalakshmi magazine this March, featuring model Gilu Joseph with a baby at her breast, was thus a breakthrough. It was widely applauded as transcendentally beautiful, and the only provocative thing about it was the caption: ‘Don’t stare, we need to breastfeed’.
The moral police chuntered over the ‘indecent’ portrayal and promptly went to court. Fortunately, the Kerala High Court wasted no time in throwing the complaint out. It found the image unexceptionable. If there was vulgarity, it lay in the eye of the beholder! Several decades ago, Raj Kapoor depicted Mandakini breastfeeding her baby on a train in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The image was regarded as salacious and automatically put the film in the ‘adult’ category. We may not have come a long way since then, but at least we’ve taken baby steps.
In the same spirit as Gilu Joseph, model Mara Martin breastfed on the catwalk in Miami yesterday, carrying her baby and her baby-weight with immense poise. Cheers erupted as she jiggled past a rail-thin competitor in a swimsuit contest, rocking a gold bikini and flashing a 60-watt smile. Earlier this year, the clothing company, GAP, was congratulated for featuring a model breastfeeding in an advertisement.
Women politicians are leading the charge in Parliaments. Australian MP Larissa Waters and Canadian MP Karina Gould breastfed in Parliament – the former while addressing the House – making headlines the world over. In the US, President Donald Trump came in for a lot of flak when a newspaper accused him of meddling in a UN resolution promoting breastfeeding, leading to speculation that he was aligned with the infant formula industry. He made haste to deny the allegation.
In UK, the debate over breastfeeding in the House of Commons has spanned two decades, even as a study concluded that a third of British women are embarrassed to breastfeed in public. That’s even more true of Indian women. To this day, new mothers in India are warned that breastfeeding, even at home, is a private act. Baby and breast must be cloaked in the pallu of the sari, dupatta or shawl, lest the ‘evil eye’ is cast on them. Milk may dry up or the baby may fall ill, family matriarchs caution.
Yet, when construction or farm workers feed their babies, no one bats an eyelid. The mother makes a cloth sling to carry the baby against her back as she works; when it needs to feed, she slides it to the front, without missing a beat. An efficient rather than exhibitionist procedure for delivering nutrition.
The sexualisation of the breast makes it alright to expose cleavage but attach a baby to the breast and it’s suddenly a cause of embarrassment. Men can urinate in public, but god forbid a woman breastfeeds. What’s more, a nulliparous (childless) woman’s breast is regarded as far more aesthetic and appealing than that of a woman who has breastfed. The male breast fixation has proved lucrative for the beauty industry: the size of the breast implants market is estimated at three billion dollars.
Anthropologists tell us that not all societies sexualise the breast. Some researchers found that among aboriginal communities, the male breast fetish is perceived as puerile. Women are the only apes who have prominent breasts; in other species, breasts are inflated only during the suckling phase.
Many theories have been forwarded to explain why breasts are a permanent feature of pubsescent and post-pubescent female homo sapiens. Some scientists speculate that full breasts signal fertility and thus, serve to attract mates. Others theorise that breasts encourage face-to-face sex, which results in bonding and ensures the male sticks around to look after the offspring. Author Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape) suggested that breasts mimic the round, flushed buttocks of female apes.
Whatever the evolutionary advantage of the female breast, celebrated in the Bible (Song of Solomon) as “two fawns, twins of a gazelle”, its main purpose is nutrition. Breastfeeding in public should not offend anyone, except perhaps the infant formula industry.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.