As a nursing mom and a member of multiple breastfeeding support groups, I used to feel confused that while the public health community and many parent groups proudly proclaim that "breast is best" for babies, so many breastfeeding moms would report being shamed, harassed, and even discriminated against for actually choosing to nurse their kids. Once I started watching and re-watching many shows and movies through my new lens as a nursing mother, though, it started to make more sense. Sexist representations of breastfeeding in the media reinforce a lot of misinformation and stereotypes that cause people — particularly those who aren't targeted by the pro-breastfeeding messaging moms get through childbirth classes, healthcare professionals, etc. — to react negatively to breastfeeding.
Growing up in a sexist and sex-negative culture, we are all inundated with images and ideas that simultaneously stigmatize, sexualize, and objectify women's bodies. From storylines that slut-shame women for being sexual beings to commercials that use scantily-clad women as bait for male consumers (who are all presumed to be straight and cisgender); we're collectively taught that women who actually want or enjoy sex are bad, and that women's bodies exist solely to fulfill men's sexual desires. We're not humans of our own, with our own needs or reasons for being, we're just things for men to use as they please. Seriously.
Breastfeeding itself challenges that very idea, by reminding people that breasts not only have a purpose, but that purpose has absolutely nothing to do with straight men or sex. (I sincerely believe that's why some people, especially men, get so angry about seeing nursing moms in public.) Yet rather than letting breastfeeding stand as a reminder that women's bodies exist for other things besides satisfying the needs of men, many media portrayals of nursing moms distort the truth about breastfeeding to reinforce the idea that women and our bodies exist for straight men only. Children's biological realities, their agency in the act of breastfeeding, and women's agency both as mothers and as people who get to choose how to use our bodies, are all erased.
We need more moms, and more women in general, calling the shots at every level of the mass media. We need more people in the media and in public life speaking up to challenge nonsense like the following sexist messages that are, sadly, still prevalent. 'Cause I'm running out of patience for crap like this:
Anything That Revolves Around Whether Adult Men Find Breastfeeding Sexy
A classic example can be found on How I Met Your Mother, where, after shamefully spending a whole episode going on and on about various ways previously hot women become untouchably ugly (including pregnancy), Barney Stinson says that mothers can restore their hotness by breastfeeding. Ugh.
Ignoring all the other sexism rampant in the rest of the episode (and show in general), this representation of breastfeeding gets a mention because breastfeeding isn't sexual. Still, the constant sexualization of women's breasts, combined with the assumption that men can't control their sexual urges, is one of the main reasons nursing mothers get harassed in public. This messaging makes nursing mothers' and children's lives exponentially more difficult.
When Grown Men Are Shown Nursing
Do I even have to break this one down? Breastfeeding isn't sexual, yet we still see instances of grown male characters either coveting nursing mothers' breasts or actively breastfeeding, like Jim Carrey's character in Me, Myself & Irene. 'Cause heaven forbid the public actually see breasts in a context that isn't all about straight, cisgender men. Sigh.
The Relative Absence Of Non-Covered Nursing Moms
It's almost impossible to find an example of a mother nursing anywhere in movies, and especially television, unless she's under a conspicuous nursing cover that totally obscures her upper body and her baby. Now, moms should cover as much as they want, but when women are only ever shown nursing while covered up it reinforces the idea that there is something shameful about women's bodies, and creates a situation where women who don't or can't nurse under a cover are mistreated.
For instance, in Similac USA's ad campaign featuring various parenting "tribes" at the park, the nursing moms are all under covers. The absence of openly nursing mothers is a pretty glaring omission considering how common it is to see women's breasts in a sexual context. By leaving nursing mothers out, or covering them when they're shown, these media depictions reinforce the false idea that breasts are sex organs, and that their primary purpose is to serve straight men's sexual interests rather than young children's nutrition and immune systems.
When Uncovered Nursing Moms Are Censored
In the rare instances that nursing mothers are actually depicted without covers, particularly on television, they're often obscured by censor bars or mosaics. For example, when Gloria on Modern Family — whose breasts are often prominently displayed when not in use by a small child — is shown nursing her young son Joe, she's berated to cover up (grr!) and censored when she isn't. (The entire storyline in that episode is ridiculously sexist and sex negative in general. For example, there's a whole bit about assuming that her breastfeeding openly is leading to Manny's obsession with breasts. It's eventually clarified that that's not what's going on, but the episode is a mess overall.)
Once again, by obscuring women's breasts only when they're used for a functional reason, this kind of representation reinforces the sexist idea that breasts — and women more generally — are sex objects.
When Expressed Breast Milk Magically Appears
When I first gave birth to my son, I spent a lot of those early, do-nothing-but-rest-and-nurse days endlessly watching shows on Netflix. One of my favorites was Breaking Bad, which nevertheless committed one of my least favorite sexist breastfeeding sins: showing pumped breastmilk without any nod to the labor-intensive process required to produce it.
It's nice to see breast pumps featured as part of life for parents of new children, but when breast milk just appears without anyone at least mentioning how challenging expressing milk can be, it erases the immense physical labor that goes into it, and creates unreasonable and false expectations for moms in the real world.
When Breastfeeding Is Presented As An Inconvenience To Dads
There are many ways to bond with a baby that have nothing to do with feeding them, including; changing them, bathing them, rocking them, singing to them, cuddling them, and more. Of course, you wouldn't know that if you listened to dads on shows like Sex And The City, where Steve gets excited when Miranda switches their son Brady to formula so he can take part in feeding.
Of course feeding a baby can be fun, and moms who want to share this load should do so. However, the idea that dads can't bond with babies if they can't feed them is shockingly common, and it undermines many women's ability to make an unfettered choice about whether or not to breastfeed.
When Nursing Mothers’ Breasts Are Portrayed As Disgusting
Not to pick on Sex And The City again but, well, they're also guilty of another sexist breastfeeding sin: treating nursing moms' breasts as if they're gross. When Miranda nurses Brady in front of Carrie, Carrie recoils in horror when she first sees Miranda's maternity-enlarged breasts.
While I must give SATC some credit for even depicting early nursing struggles, having the main character — who is held up as a style and beauty icon in her own right — look at functional breasts like she's watching a car crash sends a clear and sexist message to viewers: breastfeeding is ugly and shameful and it "ruins" your body.
When Human Milk Is Presented As Gross
As a kid, one of the first times I actually remember hearing or seeing anything about breastfeeding was in one of my favorite movies, Look Who's Talking. Unfortunately, seeing John Travolta's character James Ubriacco do a spit take when he accidentally drinks breast milk taught me that human milk was "nasty," a lesson I later had to unlearn as an adult.
Fortunately for my son I did so before he was born, but thanks to lots of other media depictions like these, many other women and/or their families don't, leading them to either make uninformed feeding choices or to be stigmatized by their loved ones if they choose to nurse.
When Nursing Mothers Are Portrayed As Frivolous, Selfish, Or Crazy
Though the dominant discourse around breastfeeding babies is that it's a selfless and important thing for mothers to do (which is slightly sexist in itself, in that it marginalizes formula-feeding moms and downplays the benefits of breastfeeding to mothers, who are just as important as their babies), that messaging is frequently flipped on its head when those babies become young children. Despite the fact that the biologically normal age of weaning frequently happens anywhere between ages two and seven, in our society, women who let our children nurse until they self-wean are frequently considered as selfish, crazy, or worse; stereotypes heartily reinforced by the media.
For instance, Desperate Housewives' Lynette Scavo actively sabotages a colleague's nursing relationship with her five-year-old son, who is revealed to be nursing solely because it helps her stay thin without working out (adding a dose of fatphobia to this already sexist depiction). Don't even get me started on Lysa from Game of Thrones.
When Breastfeeding Is Completely Absent In A New Baby Storyline
Part of the reason why it was so amazing that The Office included Pam breastfeeding (and overcoming early nursing issues, though I could have done without the drab, ugly nursing cover) is because most of the time, new baby storylines on television shows and in movies don't reference breastfeeding at all.
By openly omitting nursing, the media is erasing it as a choice mothers get to make, and forfeit an opportunity to offer the public some insight into how women make that choice. After grossly misrepresenting childbirth for cheap laughs and drama (ugh), the part where moms could be skin-to-skin with their babies, or figuring out how to latch, or anything else is just glossed over. At last, this seems to be changing, something that can't happen fast enough if you ask me.