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Maybe the Solution to Normalizing Public Breastfeeding Is Victoria’s Secret

The lingerie company once offered a nursing bra. What happened to it?

I lactated in a bathroom only once. It was a cross-country flight. My breasts, engorged after a long security line, could no longer wait. Watching myself in the mirror, I can recall thinking, Is this funny or just sad? When the turbulence came, I had one hand on a breast and another on the pump. Milk spilled. A comedy of errors, save for one thing: My baby son was on board, so what was I doing in the bathroom when I could have been breastfeeding him in my seat?

Another bathroom stall, another mother. This time she’s sitting on a toilet; a baby, latched and suckling, is in her arms. This is not Botticelli’s nursing Madonna. It’s all harsh fluorescent lights and grimy tile floors. “Would you eat here?” the ad asks. Or: “Table for two.” Criticized as obscene, the campaign—created by two University of North Texas students to promote a stalled Texas bill that would protect a woman’s right to breastfeed openly in public—unleashed yet another round of commentary about the “appropriate” place of nursing in public spaces.

Breastfeeding AdCourtesy When Nature Calls

Substance of the debate aside, the controversy raises important questions about how we talk about (and depict) public breastfeeding. Laws have had limited effect in changing regressive attitudes about public nursing. Perhaps commerce—and advertising—is where we need to change first.

The nursing-mom-harassed-in-public story—police officer tells nursing mom to cover up, nursing mom in Texas Victoria’s Secret told to go to an alley, nursing mom on American Airline’s flight given a blanket—is so frequent, it can’t be excused away as benign prudishness. 

Look no farther than the images of hyper-sexualized breasts that bombard us at every turn. The sexual breast sells everything from beer to cars to cologne. It dominates advertising. We have “breastaurants.” Yet this persistent objectification of women in advertising and commerce is rarely decried as obscene; ogling breasts, after all, is considered normal male behavior. So why is the maternal breast—when it appears in public for some purpose other than the male gaze—still jolting and scandalous? 

First, the obvious: We tend to react emotionally to anything not yet normalized in our culture. And despite the millions of dollars spent by the federal government to promote breastfeeding and the emergence of the public nurse-in as a legitimate form of political protest, nursing rates remain dismally low in the U.S. It took four years, public nurse-ins and an online petition by activists before Facebook stopped censoring photos of nursing moms. Instagram even censored breastfeeding yoga mom.

But legal fixes have had limited effect. Only 28 states exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. And in one survey, only 43 percent of respondents said they considered public breastfeeding a “right.” (No wonder advocates of public nursing often evoke a rhetoric of “rights.”) Courts have consistently rejected suits about “lactation discrimination” in the workplace. And even though the Affordable Care Act provides some long overdue help for nursing moms—namely, that employers offer time to nurse and a place other than a bathroom to do so—a soon-to-be published paper argues that it will do little to help low-income women. Instead, it is likely to create a “two-tiered system of breast feeding access, encouraging employers to grant generous accommodations to economically privileged women, while increasing the social pressure on low-income women to breast feed, without meaningfully improving their ability to do so” writes Nancy Ehrenreich, a professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

In other words, the law is one thing, but cultural attitudes matter, too.  And those remain sexist and regressive. Breastfeeding is “embarrassing,” said one-quarter of mothers who bottle feed in a recent survey. Breastfeeding on television? Inappropriate, say 72 percent of respondents in another survey. Nursing in public? Unacceptable, say 71 percent of fathers, even though their partners were, in fact, breastfeeding their children. As one researcher put it, “The ideal mother breastfeeds, but not if we have to see it.” Public breastfeeding is viewed far less favorably than private breastfeeding, according to a recent study by Michele Acker, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University.

It’s a double-bind for mothers, who must juggle complex representations of the public and the private: A good mother “should” breastfeed, yet the public taboo around breastfeeding in public persists. Ehrenreich notes the “distinct possibility that cultural attitudes toward lactation and women’s roles—perhaps operating unconsciously—have influenced the courts’ reasoning in the past.” In other words, to get a legal fix we need an attitude fix first.

“Perhaps if there were many public images of breastfeeding women in the media,” writes Acker, “seeing a woman breastfeeding at a restaurant would elicit a more positive response.” So maybe the more promising path to normalizing breastfeeding and the “maternal breast” in our culture isn’t through the courts, but commerce?

Yoga MomYoga Mom

Consider the nursing bra. It is usually white, cotton mostly; it unhooks from the front, a feat of industrial design with a built-in market. Yet the one company most closely associated with the bra, the one company that’s singlehandedly normalized the idea of floor-to-ceiling posters of women’s breasts pouring forth, buxom and voluptuous, in the town square known as the American shopping mall, does not sell a single nursing bra. Exploring why offers a new vantage on this long, troubling debate about public nursing.

In 1990, philosopher Iris Young wrote that breasts are a scandal for patriarchy because they disrupt the border between motherhood and sexuality. At Victoria’s Secret, this border stands as firm as a breast in a push-up bra. Even though the Columbus-based retailer quietly unveiled a nursing bra a few years ago, it was a short-lived offering.  A company spokesperson declined to discuss the bra’s failure or future any further. (For now, the decision to forego the nursing bra market hasn’t hurt sales, which topped $6.6 billion in 2013, up from just $112 million in 1984.)

Fantasy and lust, as embodied in its annual televised Fashion Show, define the Victoria’s Secret brand, but it is also an innovator in bra design, with new product launches a key part of its marketing efforts. Yet while Victoria’s Secret works on a bra with “improved nipple concealment,” other companies appear to be dominating innovation in the nursing bra category. There’s a patent application for a nursing bra that would hold a thin circular heating/cooling device to provide “relief from engorgement, plugged ducts, mastitis and other general nursing pain.” There’s even a patent for a device to connect a breast bump to nursing bra for “hands-free” pumping. 

In her book, Breastwork: Rethinking Breastfeeding, Alison Bartlett argues for the acceptance of breastfeeding as a potentially erotic experience, asking: “If it’s generally acceptable or even desirable in Western culture to have sexy breasts available for public viewing, what would be the effect on that set of values and meanings if we regarded lactating breasts as sexy?” Could a brand like Victoria’s Secret use its multi-million dollar advertising budget to disrupt the carefully constructed borders between the sexualized breast and the maternal breast? Millions of babies and their mothers might be better off for it. 

Image via

This piece has been updated.