Sexy breasts are for the men, lactating, stretch-marked breasts are for the women

The great breast debate, including but not limited to Page Three, breastfeeding in public, lads' mags, contains a frustrating lack of acknowledgement of female sexual agency.

Earlier this week Philips Avent, a leading manufacturer of breast pumps, sterilisers and baby bottles, hosted a #breastdebate on twitter. You’d be forgiven if, even as an owner of breasts, you’re already feeling less than impressed. First, there’s always something suspect when a profit-making company puts on their “sympathetic” face and tries to convince consumers it’s only there to help. Second, while I do believe these issues are important, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re all now suffering from breast debate fatigue. If it’s not breastfeeding in public, it’s Page Three, if it’s not Page Three, it’s the Convoy of Cleavage. Breasts, breasts, as far as the eye can see. And the more we talk about them, the less real your own can start to feel.

To be fair to the hosts of this particular breast debate, even they admitted “seems our debate isn’t such a ‘debate’ after all”. Most contributors were hugely in favour of having the freedom to breastfeed wherever they needed to and wanted employers to be more supportive of women who continue breastfeeding after having returned to work. Woo-hoo! Of course, this is very much a self-selecting group. Usually Twitter isn’t such a welcoming place for breastfeeding mothers, there being a coterie of tweeters eager to share their horror at having spotted a nursing mother out in broad daylight.

For some, the mere sight of babe on tit is just too much:

The only site of milk (soy) I expected to see this morning was in my cereal. Breastfeeding on the train?? Not cool

So this woman was breast feeding her baby when I clocked in at work. We made eye contact. It was the most uncomfortable situation. #awkward

A woman on my Facebook posted a picture of her breast feeding her kid. I didn’t think I had boundaries but I might have just found them.

What is it with young mothers and the need to expose their stretch marked boobs when breastfeeding their 5-year-olds?

Hey lady breastfeeding in public. I know you’ve gotta feed your baby, but damn! You had to whip out your milk bags in the check out line?

These were all from one hour. I’m not sure what’s worst: the stretchmarks, the shame of meeting someone’s eye, the fact that the most offensive thing someone’s seen on Facebook is a woman feeing her baby, or perhaps just the lack of coolness that’s being imposed on a train carriage. I suppose with the last one we can at least credit the tweeter with knowing what breastfeeding’s for (the clue’s in the “feeding” bit).  Anyhow, I hope these guardians of public hygiene and moral propriety aren’t too traumatised. After all, if you can’t handle the sight of some breast, this isn’t the society for you.

It infuriates me that while, on the one hand, we are debating the rights and wrongs of sexual objectification in the form of Page Three, on the other the active choice to use one’s breasts to feed an infant is positioned as transgressive and socially embarrassing. While we may question the impact of the image in a particular context, the choice to bare one’s breasts for money is just that, a choice. Meanwhile baring one’s breasts to feed a baby or young child is portrayed as inconsiderate and even narcissistic, a “need to expose”. What a strange reading of female psychology, based, it would appear, on the relative attractiveness of one’s breasts (the less “acceptable” their appearance, the more you’re a wilful show-off, babe or no babe).

The thing that really depresses me in all this is the lack of acknowledgement of female sexual agency. Whatever one is doing with one’s breasts this seems to be the one constant. Sexy breasts are for the men, tucked away with the news and sport. Lactating, stretch-marked breasts are for the women, for feeding our young (good) and/or for making some offensive proto-feminist statement on trains or in workplaces (bad). And yet this isn’t necessarily how we experience our bodies at all. For some of us, whatever they’re being used for, whatever they look like, breasts remain sexual, even if you’re lactating, even if they’re engorged, even if you’ve just accidentally squired some foremilk into your little one’s eye. They’re breasts but they’re also tits.

Much as I’m behind it, there are times when I feel that the pro-breastfeeding in public lobby veers a little too close to saying “it’s just food”, as though the only alternative is some misguided male objectification which leads to breasts being seen in the “wrong” way. And yet to me this is just as damaging the hyper-objectification of Page Three. The more we sanitised our representation of the nursing mother, perfectly absorbed in her role as feeder, the less space we give women to engage with their own bodies and the sheer complexity of experiencing parts of it as both nurturing and, well, rude.

The more certain men reduce women to disjointed body parts – pretending to serve up sexual organs on a plate – the more we start to perceive said body parts as weapons of protest, as the Convoy of Cleavage shows (regardless of whether or not it is meant purely as satire). I worry this can create a form of alienation, and even guilt. As a feminist and an owner of breasts, I would have to say I do find breasts sexual – even, in the right contexts, my own. Particularly when you are breastfeeding, this can be quite jarring. I remember feeling terrified that if I accidentally achieved let-down during sex this would mean I was a bad mother. I also remember feeling guilty when my midwife told me that the best way to get the milk flowing when expressing was to look at a photo of your baby, whereas for me the most effective thing seemed to be thinking of rather different scenarios. I don’t know how this all works – whether I am a strange example, whether distorted cultural messages about the female body mean even I don’t see breasts in the “right” way. What I do know is that our current way of handling the “breast debate” seems to suggest women, and mothers in particular, are too busy handling male sexual responses to have any responses of their own. This isn’t fair.

The price of being able to show one’s breasts in public should not be desexualisation. There needs to be an acknowledgement that real sexuality is more complex than what is offered up to the heterosexual male gaze in the Sun, Nuts and Zoo. Page Three models aren’t just sexual agents in their own right; so too are those of us with babies at our breasts. So perhaps, to a certain extent, our presence in the middle of a crowded cafe, reddened areola on show, will continue to provoke a strange mix of responses. We can, however, move beyond either sanitised idealisation or objectifying hostility.


A woman breastfeeding her baby during a blackout in the maternity unit at St Andrews Hospital, Dollis Hill, in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.