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Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Diane Glass | Breast-feeding in public: natural or embarrassing?

Syndicated Columnist

Breasts are indecent on nursing mothers but focal points on the cover of Maxim magazine. Despite the many pro-mother breast-feeding rights that women retain, public expectation calls for modesty. The results of this disconnect are angry mothers: They hold a strike. Then the retailer gets a lesson on the intended use of nipples.

This year's story has a delicious, ironic twist. The retailer was Victoria's Secret. I guess when you're trying to sell gravity-defying breasts as a sexual commodity, having a pair hanging down takes away from the whole push-up bra fandango.

But don't confuse this issue about breast-feeding rights. Even Victoria's Secret knows this is a ridiculous diversion, which is why the store clerk was quickly reprimanded. This issue is about a woman's breasts, a body part eroticized to such a distorted degree that its intended use is no longer viewed as natural; it's perverse.

A Victoria's Secret shopper denied the right to nurse her child in public view is a glaring reminder of how the intended use of a body part can be so misrepresented that being seen in its natural state is a public affront and a Freudian embarrassment. As a result, nursing mothers must consider prurient male gazes while feeding their infants.

This is sick.

It's unfortunate that some women today feel embarrassed to breast-feed because of all the publicity, says Kara Weilding, a La Leche League leader, who counsels new mothers on the art of breast-feeding. "But this attitude comes from our attitude toward women's bodies. Americans just aren't accustomed to seeing breasts in a natural situation. Janet Jackson flashes a breast and it becomes a huge controversy," Weilding says.

But American social convention encourages objectification instead of curbing sexual vulgarity. Instead of addressing this problem, we make women feel self-conscious and ashamed of breast-feeding their babies. But mothers are just doing what they need to do for their children, Weilding explains. "Our babies' needs come first."

Harvard-educated Diane Glass (dglass@ajc.com) is a writer and freethinker with a B.A. and M.A. in comparative religion.

2006, Diane Glass

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