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Friday, July 31, 2009

Breast Implications #3: Cross-Cultural Breasts

In this installment of Breast Implications, I am looking at the cross-cultural examination of breasts that our group researched. In this section, we originally set out to look at how people in different cultures perceived and thought about breasts. But what we found is that there was a severe lack of research on this topic. As a result, breastfeeding in other cultures was focused on. I will discuss more about this decision after I give you the information that we had in our zine...


It is hard to fully discuss the cross-cultural interpretations of breasts for a couple reasons:

  1. The immense variation between cultures around the world
  2. Many cultures have a taboo around surrounding discussing breasts and/or sexuality
Keeping these factors in mind, the generalized information presented in this section does not represent all cultures around the world but a sampling of research. There is not a vast amount of research on the subject and a large amount of the research found pertains to African cultures, primarily Mali and Senegal in particular.

Research both stressed and denied the importance of breasts as sexual entities in different cultures, so it is unclear how these particular cultures feel about and see breasts because of the conflicting research.


The decisions to breastfeed and to breastfeed in public show some of how the culture perceives breasts. In Mali and Senegal, the prominence of breastfeeding shows the importance of the working breast.

In Mali, working, or lactating, breasts are not seen as sexual objects because of their connection to nurturing children (Dettwyler 175).

Women's decisions on whether or not to breastfeed are framed by attitudes towards their bodies and their breasts that may have nothing to do with breastfeeding (Van Esterik 2002, 262).
Breastfeeding is "a complex process shaped by social and cultural forces interacting with local environmental and political conditions." - Penny Van Esterik (2002, 258).

Breastfeeding creates a special bond between the mother and child as well as between all of the children that nurse from the same woman, even if they are not biological siblings. Choosing not to breastfeed is, essentially, deciding not to be related to her children (Dettwyler 179, 181).

In breastfeeding, the mother is passing on a part of herself as well as traditional values of the culture marking the child as human and a part of that culture (Wright et al 766).

Breast milk itself is a cultural product with cultural value. It is deeply connected to the woman's body and said to be "from the blood." Because of breast milk's conection to a woman's blood, semen is seen to cause the milk to spoil, so sex during pregnancy or breastfeeding is forbidden. If breast milk can be spoiled, either through contact with semen or other ways, it is a potential source of destruction as well as nurturance (Dettwyler 179; Van Esterik 2002, 261).


The westernization of developing countries shifts the emphasis from the working, nurturing breast to the sexual breast. With this shift, breastfeeding, and breastfeeding in public in particular, becomes less common because of the fear of others seeing part of a breast and the fear that breastfeeding will deform the breast. This is a result of interpreting breasts primarily as sex objects, which comes along with Westernization (Van Esterik 1989, 73, 74).

The effects of Westernization on the view of the breast made it easier for companies to promote breast milk substitutes. Only July 4, 1977, there was a boycott launched in the United States against the Nestle corporation prompted by the concern over the company's marketing of breast milk substitutes in developing countries. Switching from breastfeeding to baby formula has led to health problem and deaths among children in these countries (Van Esterik 1989).

This move away from breastfeeding towards baby formula shows a disconnect within cultures based on the transmission of culture that is associated with breastfeeding.

In the past (and still today to some degree), the use of bodies, especially breasts, of foreign women, usually African women, were used as a form of entertainment. This form of orientalism dehumanizes these women by objectifying them so that they are just seen for their breasts. This was done both in the name of entertainment and of research and science (Masquelier).


"The breasts of women not only symbolized the most fundamental social bond, that between mother and child, but they were also the means by which families were made since their beauty elicited the desires of the male for the female." - Ludmilla Jordanova (Van Esterik 2002, 263)

The lack of research concerning cross-cultural interpretations of breasts shows other cultures reluctance to discuss breasts as well as the taboo discussion topic within "the West." Because most of the research is done by people in "the West," primarily the United States, this lack of research is evident not only of the invisibility of breasts within "the West," but also in developing countries.

Additionally, the fact that the research was primarily focused on breastfeeding shows the importance of the nurturing role of the breast in these cultures. Even if breasts are sexualized in other cultures, which is unclear based on the research, it is clear that the working breast is of equal if not greater importance.


This research is definitely not perfect and not complete. But looking at the view of breastfeeding in other cultures can give us a little bit of a glimpse into how the culture feels about the breast. If breastfeeding is not taboo in public, it could signify an emphasis placed on the nurturing breast rather than the sexual breast. And the fact that breasts are becoming increasingly sexualized along with Westernization speaks to the view of breasts in "the West."


Works Cited
Dettwyler, Katherina A. "More Than Nutrition: Breastfeeding in Urban Mali." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 2 (1988): 172-83.
Van Esterik, Penny. Beyond the Breast-Bottle Controversy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Van Esterik, Penny. "Contemporary Trends in Infant Feeding Research." Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 257-78.
Wright, Anne L., Mark Bauer, Clarina Clark, Frank Morgan, and Kenneth Begish. "Cultural Interpretations and Intracultural Variability in Navajo Beliefs About Breastfeeding." American Ethnologist 20 (1993): 781-96.

Suggested Reading
Jones, Diana P. "Cultural Views of the Female Breast." The ABNF Journal (2004).
Whittemore, Robert, and Elizabeth A. Beverly. "Mandinka Mothers and Nurslings: Power and Reproduction." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 10 (1996): 45-62.


Clarissa said...

"Breastfeeding creates a special bond between the mother and child as well as between all of the children that nurse from the same woman, even if they are not biological siblings. Choosing not to breastfeed is, essentially, deciding not to be related to her children"

-What an incredibly chauvinistic statement that reduces a woman's role in her own children's lives to a purely biological function. In this sense, a woman who can't or chooses not to fulfill the physiologicaal function of breastfeeding is immediately disqualified as a mother. While bonding between a father and his children is always seen in spiritual and intellectual terms, the patriarchal worldview limits a mother's participation in the bonding process to the purely physiologiical realm.

Laura said...

I agree that this statement is limiting the relationship between mother and child. But what I was trying to show in this post were the views of breastfeeding in other cultures. This is what the research told me and how people in Mali or Senegal (I'll have to look back through my research and get back to you on which one) see breastfeeding as the way that women connect with their children thus emphasizing the role of the nurturing breast.

RhodeIsland Alissa said...

Oh hmm this is interesting stuff.

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