February 8, 2016
Breastfeeding Comic: Censorship of the Female Body
This comic by cartoonist David Horsey was featured in the LA Times a couple years ago and has since been widely used by activists to call attention to the double standard of censorship of female breasts in the media. It questions why people often deem it socially acceptable to have images of half-naked women in lingerie or swimwear exposing their breasts displayed all over shopping malls, but socially unacceptable for a mother to breastfeed her child in public. Society seems to hardly bat an eye at the first scenario, but often expresses discomfort towards the latter. While the obvious differences in censorship between the male and female body are problematic, this comic also points to a deeper underlying issue: society’s view of women’s bodies as inherently sexualized, and the implications of such a view.
In recent years, social media activism such as the “Free the Nipple” movement, with the support of celebrities like Miley Cyrus, has been spreading throughout the Internet to demonstrate the double standards between the censorship of the male and female bodies. Much of this movement initially began in response to the censorship policies of social media like Instagram, which consider the presence of a female nipple as nudity, but freely allow male nipples. Similarly controversial censorship policies involving other female body parts, such as pubic hair, have also been challenged. Interestingly, this idea that certain female body parts are explicit and must be censored is mainly a Western cultural phenomenon, especially an American one. Nudity censorship laws in many European countries are usually more lax, and in some non-Western cultures, women routinely walk around topless, or at least braless, without repercussions.
The cultural sexualization of the female body relates to the concept of social structure, which Barbara Risman discusses in relation to gender in her essay, “Gender as Structure.” Physiologically, female breasts differ from male breasts due to their biological function, but as a culture, we have been socialized to view them primarily as sexual objects. This is perhaps why people tend to accept publicly displayed images of women in Victoria Secret advertisements because the sexualization of women’s bodies is normalized, while arguing that breastfeeding makes people uncomfortable and therefore ought to be done in private. However, these generalizations only pertain to cisgender women. When we bring gender-nonconforming individuals into the picture, things become more complicated. For example, would the bodies of trans women be censored in the same way?
Evidently, society’s censorship of the female body presents an oversimplified perspective that applies primarily to sexualization through the heteronormative male gaze. Nevertheless, this type of “male gaze” permeates through mainstream media in numerous ways that influence societal norms. For instance, in addition to Instagram’s censorship of pictures of mothers breastfeeding, the social media site has also stirred up controversy for removing pictures of post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors. Many activists have blamed the “male gaze” for the clear discrepancy between the types of pictures that are allowed and the types of pictures that are banned on social media when it comes to the female body. Instagram models and celebrities like the Kardashians get away with provocative photos because they are intentionally sexually enticing to straight men, something that has become normalized in our society. The fact that we do not often question why such portrayals have become normalized and simply accept them as conventions also ties back to Adrienne Rich’s concept of compulsory heterosexuality and the biases that come with it.
Furthermore, as previously mentioned, there have also been social media movements challenging the censorship of other female body parts that do not necessarily pertain to the breastfeeding comic, but still speak volumes about the double standard in censorship. For instance, Instagram once again came under fire last year for removing artist Ruki Kaur’s picture of herself lying on a bed, fully and appropriately clothed, with a small period blood stain. She originally posted this in an effort to raise awareness against the stigma of menstruation, but reposted the picture to challenge Instagram’s censorship guidelines. Kaur asked why the “objectification and sexualization” of women is acceptable, but the depiction of something natural that helps “make humankind a possibility” is considered explicit. This example is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger issue, but it demonstrates how representations of the female body seem to get a pass when they are objectified for male pleasure, but are somehow considered taboo when they show a biological purpose – whether it is menstruation or breastfeeding. Likewise, Horsey’s comic strip illustrates how society’s view of women’s bodies have become so inherently sexualized that when they are taken out of a sexual context, people suddenly become uncomfortable, or even offended.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 1980: 631-660.
Risman, Barbara. “Gender as Structure.” 1998.