Modesty & Breastfeeding
Like many Mormons I grew up in a very modesty-minded family. We were taught from an early age to keep our bodies covered at all times. This was drilled into me by my sweet mother and progressed over the years to numerous discussions about the appropriate length of shorts and skirts (to the knee without exception), whether sleeveless was appropriate (never), and how tight clothing should be (consistent with a potato sack).
These teachings were reinforced by Young Women leaders, General Conference talks, seminary lessons, the New Era, and For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which told me, “When you dress immodestly, you send a message that is contrary to your identity as a son or daughter of God. You also send the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval.”
I absorbed the message. My body was a temple and as such “women who love God would never abuse or deface a temple with graffiti. Nor would they throw open the doors of that holy, dedicated edifice and invite the world to look on.”
This translated into an awareness of modesty in all circumstances. When I would come face-to-face with someone breastfeeding in public, I would react with a red face and toe scraping. It wasn’t that I had a problem with a mother providing nourishment to her baby. I had great respect for the closeness of motherhood in the early months of a baby’s life. What was happening in my mind was a direct conflict between that respect and gospel teaching about exposing one’s body.
When I became a mother I breastfed my babies. I enjoyed that time but found it was sometimes painful, messy, and complicated to do outside of my home. I am not a terribly coordinated person and so trying to keep a squirming baby and myself covered was tricky. I was also highly aware that my actions made others uncomfortable and so eventually I choose to pump and use bottles while out and about. I knew that no one wanted me to accidentally come popping out from behind that baby blanket, least of all myself.
Over the years some dear friendships helped me diminish the disagreement in my mind between the teachings of modesty and women choosing to nurse in public. These friends nurse anywhere and everywhere and are skilled at doing so in a way that doesn’t distract or embarrass anyone. I appreciate and love them for their openness but must confess that even with this greater acceptance, I still find it a little uncomfortable to witness nursing out of the home. I suspect that there are many members out there like me who have this inner culture conflict running in their heads.
So I find myself asking:
- In the context of modern teachings from church leaders on modesty, is this sensitivity to breastfeeding in public justified?
- Could more education help relieve the tension between women who feel persecuted and forced out of public areas simply because they are doing something natural and those who are concerned about modesty?
- What do we need to teach our youth about modesty and nursing?
Read the next essay: Humility and Forgiveness