This week, I heard a bunch of controversy about the picture of two military moms breastfeeding their kids. It’s a beautiful picture really, so what’s all the fuss?
Firstly, I often speak of humans being symbolic creatures. Here’s what I mean. We react very strongly to symbols. Pictures, like the one in question are a perfect example of several symbols in conflict inside our minds. The most obvious first symbol is that of the military uniform. The uniform “means” patriotism, strength, safety, defense, etc. Like any symbol, each person will have their own experience of what that symbol means to them. However, the general consensus is that a military uniform is sanctified.
Then there’s the secondary symbol, of a person behind the uniform. With the shirt of the uniform rolled up, and the facade of the uniform lifted, the very real, flesh and blood, alive and vibrant human behind the symbol shines through. The appearances of impenetrable power of the uniform instantly evaporates. The idea behind the uniform is to wipe individual identity away, but the shirt rolled up, revealing nakedness underneath, calls attention to the very real, vulnerable human behind the mask.
Then there’s the third symbol - breasts. The fullness and roundness of the one mom’s breast are undeniable. They are undeniably female, feminine, nurturing. There’s no question - that soldier is yet another intense and strong symbol: She is a nursing mommy. This is a stark contrast to the symbol of the killing machine that a soldier in uniform typically evokes.
Here’s where things get very interesting. Our minds have to make sense of all of this, and it’s very hard. Each symbol is fighting for limited resource inside the brain, and if we don’t understand what’s happening, it can be very irritating to the individual.
Because our feelings about each of these symbols runs so deeply, the one with the most powerful pull wins out. And that’s our sense of morality around nudity. It’s most firmly entrenched in our unconscious, emotional responses. Unabashed nudity and breast exposure triggers this deeply moral part of the brain that says, “Nudity is bad. You should be ashamed.” Shame is a standard first moral/emotional reaction when it comes to nudity in our culture.
The secondary moral conflict is with the supposed sanctity of the uniform - and that unabashed naked breast nursing - defiles sanctity. The media frenzy is really about the question: Do semi-exposed breasts defile the military uniform? Implied is that there’s something dirty, disgusting, unnatural, and perhaps even un-godly about semi-naked, lactating breasts. That nudity is shameful and should be done in private.
This argument really illustrates is just how badly we feel about nakedness and our bodies from the get-go. What appears to be a discussion about is this “OK” or not is really a discussion about how we perceive nakedness, motherhood, female sexuality, and breasts.
Here’s the bottom line. A uniform is a symbol. Nudity is a symbol. Breasts are a symbol. Nursing is a symbol. Likening breast feeding in an uniform to shitting in/on your uniform tells us a sad truth about America: We are really messed up when it comes to our beautiful, naked bodies.