Lactating intolerance – get over it, America!

Maybe it’s because I was a breast-fed baby myself.

Or, more unlikely, maybe it’s because of my considerable maturity and sophistication.

Whatever, I can’t see anything remotely offensive or sexually explicit about a woman suckling an infant in public, and I find it difficult to fathom why other people do.

But, boy, do they.

A lot of the same folks who, I’d bet, find nothing untoward about a Cosmo cover showing a model’s silicone-enhanced mammary glands very nearly in their bulging entirety, or the revealing shots in the annual “swimsuit issue” of Sports Illustrated, become downright horrified at a tasteful picture that is far less revealing and titillating (to make a bad pun).

This odd dichotomy was revealed recently by public reaction to the August issue of Babytalk, a free magazine that contains articles relevant to new parents. The cover photo shows the profile of a nursing baby and a discreet portion of the mother’s breast, a rather artful and cuddly image of bonding and nurturing. No nipple or lips are visible, mind you, just a cute little face pressed against the pearly orb of his mother’s right-hand dairy bar.

Not what I’m drawn to when seeking the lewd and lascivious, but apparently just the ticket for those more readily stirred.

The cover picture elicited more than 700 letters, Babytalk editor Susan Kane told the Associated Press, and a subsequent poll of more than 4,000 readers, presumably the vast majority of them young mothers, showed that more than a quarter disapproved of this serene vision.

“There’s a huge Puritanical streak in Americans,” Kane said, “and there’s a squeamishness about seeing a body part – even part of a body part.” (Which would seem to be contradicted by the appeal of myriad magazine covers anyone can eyeball while standing in the supermarket line.)

One letter writer called the cover “gross,” while another recounted that she “immediately turned the magazine face-down.”

And yet another priggish soul said she was gravely concerned about her 13-year-old son seeing this suggestive sight.

“I shredded it,” said Gayle Ash, a mother of three kids who themselves were breast-fed. “A breast is a breast – it’s a sexual thing. He didn’t need to see that.”

Ash said she is “totally supportive” of breastfeeding, but doesn’t like the “flashing” involved in public meals. “I don’t want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn’t want to see.” (In my experience, most 13-year-old boys couldn’t even imagine not wanting to “accidentally” see any female breast, and most husbands have an only slightly less enthusiastic attitude.)

But these readers’ prudish position is one that permeates our otherwise sex-crazed society, and is typified by an anecdote Barbara Walters related on her women’s chat show “The View” last summer.

Walters, once considered a women’slibber type, recounted that while she and her hairdresser were traveling on an airplane, a mother sitting next to them began breastfeeding her infant.

“It made me very nervous,” she said. “She didn’t cover the baby with a blanket – it made us uncomfortable.”

Her lame comments sparked a demonstration by 150 “lactivists” (breastfeeding mothers who strongly resent such Views) outside the ABC studio in New York where the show is taped, leading Walters to an even more foolish statement.

“We are surprised that it warrants a protest,” she told the New York Daily News. “We are totally supportive if an individual wants to breastfeed.” (Even though it makes her and her hairdresser “very nervous” and “uncomfortable,” they will try to bear up.)

Obviously the meaning of “totally supportive” has changed since I learned the English language, and it now means, “I guess it’s OK with me if you have to do that, but it’s so repulsive I wish you’d do it somewhere else.”

Ash is right, of course, to say that a breast is “a sexual thing,” but it has been made that — exclusively, for a lot of people — by a culture that uses sexual imagery to sell everything from soap to nuts to (especially) new cars. The utility value of the breast, the reason for its very existence as the source of first nourishment for thousands of years, was nearly forgotten in the last century as formula-makers pushed their product on young mothers who didn’t want to be seen as old-fashioned in space-age America.

It would seem that the problem for these folks is not so much the amount of nudity involved in breastfeeding (far less than what is seen as acceptable by women trying to be seductive), but more the nature of the act itself: It’s seen as comparable to someone eliminating on the sidewalk or pissing up against a building — distasteful albeit natural acts from which civilized people need to be shielded.

So the use of a mother’s breast for its primary purpose has been relegated by many Americans to a shameful process that should be only done in private, or under a shroud should the need arise in public.

Freud would probably have a field day with the underlying reasons for such a twisted mindset, possibly conjecturing that these maladjusted people are distressed by the idea that they themselves may have been breastfed, because that would somehow equate to being sexually attracted to their own moms.

Before missionaries got a hold on them, women in many African and Polynesian cultures wore no covering on their breasts at all and no one thought anything about it. Mothers didn’t have a great fear of their sons seeing a bare bosom because they saw them all the time, and appreciated them for what they really are.

A final irony is that men, some of whom have breast-like protrusions many women might envy, feel perfectly at ease strutting around bare-chested in public places. (Oh, that’s just Herb and his high-fat diet.) Guys can show off their chests, nipples and all, with impunity, while the female aereola is the one small part of that gender’s breast that is forbidden “by decency” from being bared. The only difference? Men’s breasts are useless — decorative items that produce no milk.

Me, I look forward — but in vain, I fear — to the day when Americans grow up and women can feel equally comfortable in baring a breast or two in public.

But then maybe I’m just a dirty old man.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez.

From David Long, September 2006.