A recent cover of TIME Magazine shows a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son. Apparently this is supposed to shock me. It certainly seems to have shocked the culturemakers in the media, who can’t stop talking about how controversial and provocative it is. Even The View, a show of, for, and by women (trust me: most men would rather have a testicle removed with a dirty steak knife than watch it) chose to blur out the cover when they did a discussion about it. The question I have is, why? Why does this image bother people? Does it bother people? And if it does, what does that say about our culture?
There’s little doubt in my mind that TIME purposely chose an image that would garner people’s attention (and sell magazines). Just look at it and it’s obvious. The woman on the cover is one hot mama, the vast majority of her left breast is showing, and the kid she’s nursing in the picture is clearly old enough to be on a tee-ball team. But in much the same way as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this image can only be considered provocative if there’s something within us that such an image could provoke.
As a culture, we’re not used to seeing women nurse their children. If we see it, we think they should “at least be” covered up. Ideally, we would have them run off to some private place somewhere, like a bathroom, a dressing room, or the grass behind the shed.
We’re especially not used to seeing women nurse children as old as three. In fact, many of us have ideas about nursing having certain boundaries. We think kids should stop doing it once they’re old enough to ask for it, or at the who-came-up-with-it age of one. The truth of the matter is these boundaries are based on nothing remotely human or natural, and are altogether cultural. The World Health Organization recommends children breastfeed at least two years, and in many countries around the world—where children routinely nurse for three or four years, and nobody bats an eyelash—that recommendation is actually conservative.
So why doesn’t that happen here?
America has decided that the female breast is nothing more than nature’s sex toy. And because it’s nature’s sex toy, any woman who allows us to see one—or the hint of one, or even the suggestion of a hint of one—while nursing must obviously be doing something voyeuristic. This is like the modern day equivalent of saying that women on their period are possessed by the devil. The decision to breastfeed is cemented during the first days of a child’s life. I may be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure in those first few days after giving birth, sex is just about the last thing on any new mother’s mind. To assume that breastfeeding becomes something sexual in the weeks or months or even years that follow is outlandish. Some women choose to bottle-feed their babies; does that become sexual after six months, too?
The other problem is that our culture has other ideas of what a kid should eat. When they’re newborns, doctors and hospitals are all too eager to push baby formula, tempting new moms away from the hard work of nursing (and make no mistake: it is hard work) before they’ve even given it a chance. And once those kids are old enough for solid foods, the switch is made from Enfamil and Similac to Chicken McNuggets packaged with toys served by six-foot clowns. We talk so much about health in this country, so much about our children being overweight. Are we really perplexed as to why it’s like that? The bombardment begins the day a kid is born, often just hours after it comes out from its womb.
The cover of TIME flies in the face of all of this, in the face of the horrible food culture we’ve designed for our children (and ourselves), and the face of our shame—which is grossly misplaced—over women nursing as nature intended. When we see this cover, we are looking in a mirror. But instead of seeing what we are, which is artificial, we see what we’re supposed to be, which is natural. And it disgusts us. We call it extreme. Because why search our souls, why make changes, when being offended is so easy and compelling?
There is nothing weird about a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son. There is nothing weird about breastfeeding, period. Around the world, the fact that we find it weird would be considered the weirdest thing of all. But I’m not surprised the media doesn’t want us to see it this way. Because the moment we realize breasts are for feeding children, not selling cars, movie tickets, or copies of TIME Magazine, a lot of people in the media—the people who profit off of selling sex—will be screwed.
Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture, available now for Kindle and Nook, as well as in paperback. Send him mail at email@example.com.