Breast shame is a complex problem. It has been around a long time. Some of the most powerful multinational corporations profit from it. Instead of reasonably wondering why some people are ashamed of breasts, such discomfort is commonly taken for granted as if it’s inevitable. The only question addressed by self-proclaimed moral authorities is how to enforce somebody’s standards of “decency.” This article explores what breast shame is, how it develops, the destructive consequences of it, and what can be done about it.
Traditions Old and New
If little girls learn from their parents to be ashamed of breasts, when they become mothers they will probably teach their daughters to be ashamed too, either through active instruction or unwitting modeling. Is there ever any reflection or debate about what they are doing or why they are doing it, or merely: “That’s the way I was brought up, and that’s the way everybody else is around here!” A sheep would approve of that logic. If your parents indoctrinated you to disapprove of exposed breasts when you were too young to choose what to believe, should you then spend the rest of your life looking for excuses to justify the indoctrination you suffered?
In the prehistoric past social customs developed without any written record of why or how the customs came about or how long they were intended to continue. Some customs may have had good reasons to exist, while others may have been merely epiphenomena or side-effects of local circumstances at that time. In any case, there is no logical reason to worship traditions as an expression of infinite wisdom. Quite the contrary, every old custom should be subject to interpretation and re-evaluation according to relevant conditions in the here and now.
Although some ancient scriptures like the Bible and Koran condemn nudity, and some groups or sects attempt to impose their beliefs on everyone else, many other cultures have very different attitudes toward breasts. In Africa, Australia, Polynesia and Japan women never wore bras or covered their breasts. While exposing breasts in public is a very old tradition, breast shame is a relatively new tradition. It isn’t tradition in itself that is considered important, but “our” relatively recent Western tradition that supposedly reached moral perfection.
Some people assume that shame represents an advance over prehistoric and pre-industrial cultures, but there is ample evidence that along with the advance of civilization, in many respects people today are less ashamed of their bodies than in the distant past. See German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr’s extensive documentation in the first volume of “Der Mythos von Zivilzation Prozess.”
The appeal to one tradition or another is similar to the mistaken worship of instincts, as if whatever is instinctive is probably healthy. Some people who criticize modern science nonetheless appeal to the theory of evolution when they think it will support their case. But in reality an instinct that developed as useful in one environment may be maladaptive or even fatal in a changed environment. Some of the most barbaric aspects of human behavior are instinctive. I think what should be most important is the consequence of behavior under current conditions, not some tradition or instinct.
The Art of Deception
In addition to the weakness of defending breast shame in terms of “tradition” or instinct, breast shame is promoted in some clearly dishonest ways. How do we know when someone is telling the impartial truth or merely trying to sell us a product, service or idea? One trick is that an expert salesman will rely on a logical principle or form of evidence as long as it supports his sales pitch, and then deny the value of that same principle or form of evidence when it turns against him, as in the appeal to evolutionary theory.
Another common trick is to use inflammatory language rather than neutral terms to discuss what you don’t like or personally disapprove of. Body pride is called “indecency,” and fashion preferences are called “morality.” To cite an extreme but humorous example, the 19th century British crusader, Josephine Butler, referred to 12 to 15-year-old girls as “these infants.”
The most blatant form of deception is telling only one side of the story. You present only the evidence that supports what you are selling, and censor any contrary evidence. A sneaky variation of this trick is to select and discuss incompetent opponents as if that represents a balanced view of the subject. This trick is presented as an indication of the importance or urgency of the cause, when in reality such trickery should be an obvious sign that deception is the goal.
I searched and was unable to find any competent writer defending breast shame. I found only fanatics who claim images of any chest skin showing is “pornography.” In the most exhaustive treatment of the subject, “Shame: The Exposed Self” by Michael Lewis (1995), there is not a single line defending any kind of body shame. I would sincerely appreciate anybody referring me to a competent defender of breast shame for a thorough discussion in the comments following.
Another trick that has become accepted as “innocent,” is hiding behind the respectable and tax-exempt status of an organized religion in order to promote what is actually a personal political agenda. Instead of saying that someone finds breast pride distasteful, they claim that their political activism is religiously inspired. At the same time, they claim they are not violating the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. We should consider that radicals given attention by sensationalist journalists in the mass media might not be representative of most religionists. (If you are in the latter category, you might want to check out www.religiousinstitute.org and www.GoTopless.org )
My own experience is that articulate letters to the editor attempting to add balance to emotional stories go unpublished. We have no idea if what the mass media present is representative of popular opinion or merely highly selected voices to support an editor’s point of view. Some people have become so cynical that they know very well their promotion of “tradition” and “decency” are biased and illogical, but they only care about what they believe are their own personal financial or political interests. Their cynical response to reason is: “What is truth?”
There is a lot of money being made on breast shame. The bra industry has $3 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone. Bras are sold by promoting the idea that some breasts are more “perfect” than others, and having less than perfect breasts is equivalent to having less dignity or value as a human being. As with Forrest Gump’s leg braces, the response is to sell a lucrative prosthesis for an imaginary handicap. If you consider the sale of “training bras” for little girls today questionable, note that in the past full corsets were sold for girls as young as eight years old.
In addition to the expense and discomfort of wearing bras, there is some evidence that wearing a bra is a significant risk factor for breast cancer – the leading killer of women. A study of over 2,000 women found a clear correlation between wearing a bra and the rate of breast cancer. The correlation is much stronger than between smoking and lung cancer. See “Dressed to Kill: the Link between Bras and Breast Cancer,” by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer (ISCD Press 2005).
Buying a bra is also an insult to both wearers and observers. Using a bra to make your breasts seem more “perfect” than they really are, assumes that observers are so stupid they don’t realize that under the colorful disguise they’re seeing the form of a propped-up facsimile of a “perfect” breast.
The naughty business of selling bras is nothing compared to the infant bottle formula industry. A few large multinational companies have over $30 billion in annual sales of breastmilk substitutes. The commercial interests of the industry have deceived parents, corrupted medical staff and made breastfeeding a dirty word in the mass media, thereby promoting breast shame, endangering the health and lives of countless babies, as well as provoking an epidemic of obesity, all in the name of cash profits.
In the Third World where mothers are undernourished they always have enough breast milk to feed their babies, but in the affluent West the bottle formula industry and its accomplices and dupes have the most well-fed women in the world believing they “might not have enough breast milk” to feed their babies and hence need to buy formula. It’s an ongoing international scandal that equals the tobacco industry’s disgrace. Hiding behind the claim of “free enterprise,” there is a long rap sheet on the criminal bottle formula industry:
- contributing a million dollars a year to the American Academy of Pediatrics to hush-up the benefits of breastfeeding and soft-pedal the dangers of toxic bottle formulas;
- bribing hospital staff to sabotage breastfeeding and encourage new mothers to bottle feed babies formula instead;
- circumventing laws that prohibit such sabotage: billing hospitals for formula that will actually be distributed as illegal free samples, then never collecting the bills;
- attempting to hide and censor the World Health Organization’s recommendation that all babies be exclusively breastfed for at least six months;
- making tax exempt “donations” of bottle formula to mothers in Third World countries, thereby risking the starvation of those babies when the samples run out and breastmilk has disappeared due to lack of stimulation.
See Gabrielle Palmer’s “The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business” for extensive documentation. Recently a company in Spain came out with a breastfeeding doll for little girls, and critics said that made some adults feel uncomfortable. Imagine, little girls learning that breastfeeding is a viable alternative to bottle formula! I think we should feel outraged that for many years toy companies have routinely sold dolls equipped with rubber pacifiers and plastic formula bottles.
What is Shame, and Why are You so Proud of it?
What exactly is breast “shame,” and is there a more neutral word for it? Dictionaries typically report how people use words. A committee of experts may be selective or add what they believe is helpful, but there is no ultimate authority in language. Words themselves don’t “mean” anything, because “to mean” is a human action. Everyone doesn’t have to agree on how to use a word, as long as differences in usage are explicit. A serious writer defines the important words he is using and explains his choices among alternatives, rather than pretending that his definition is the only “correct” one, or changing definitions to suit his argument as he goes along.
The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed. (OUP 2002) defines shame as: 1. “The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency.” 2. “Fear of offence against propriety or decency, operating as a restraint on behaviour; modesty, shamefastness.” 3. “Disgrace, ignominy, loss of esteem or reputation.” 4. “What is morally disgraceful or dishonourable; baseness in conduct or behaviour.” 5. “A fact or circumstance which brings disgrace or discredit (to a person, etc.); matter for severe reproach or reprobation.” 6. “A person or thing that is a cause or source of disgrace.” In a sub-definition, the words “ugly” and “bad quality” also appear.
If we accept that what some people feel when seeing a flat chest or breast exposed is a “painful emotion,” then I would note that modern imaging technology reveals that shame originates in the same part of the brain as fear and anger, what Daniel Goleman calls the “negative emotions,” (Emotional Intelligence 2006). There are several books on helping people overcome the destructive effects of shame, typically referring to shame as a “toxic” emotion that is associated with a risk of leading to depression, substance abuse, self-harm or violence against others.
Among the many senses of the word “honor” (usually esteem, value or worth), the most interesting is: chastity (from the Latin for cleanliness) or purity. Should the appearance of an exposed breast mean the person exposed or the observer is worthless, dirty or impure? We must also assert that an awareness of what dishonors us is essential, and that comes from your teachers or models.
Offense against “decency” is a learned concept as well; babies have not yet learned about propriety or political correctness, and hence feel no shame or restraint on their behavior. Why do some people teach the labels of “disgrace” and “baseness” in reference to exposed breasts? Women have always exposed their breasts in public to breastfeed, including in church. Why should the exposure of a breast to breastfeed be completely innocent, while the exposure of a breast on the beach or in art and photography is a threat to civilization? Why do some women today feel too ashamed to breastfeed their children in public, preferring to let the child cry?
Although the OED lists the word “modesty” as a synonym for shame, the OED’s definitions of the former word are quite different: 1. “Moderation; freedom from excess or exaggeration; self-control;…” 2. “The quality of being modest, or having a moderate opinion of oneself; reserve springing from an unexaggerated estimate of one’s qualities; freedom from presumption, ostentation, arrogance, or impudence.” 3. “Womanly propriety of behaviour; scrupulous chastity of thought, speech, and conduct (in men or women); reserve or sense of shame proceeding from instinctive aversion to impure or coarse suggestions.” 4. “Unpretentious character (of things).”
In the 18th century some entrepreneurs made money selling a “modesty-bit” or “modesty-piece” as “A kind of veil for the concealment of the bosom…” Self-control and “reserve” would seem to suggest there is a base temptation to show-off one’s breasts if you are well-endowed, but I don’t think that’s the case because my extensive personal experience in naturist (nudist) resorts is that most women who expose their breasts in public are quite average.
The OED gives the word “immodesty” as a synonym for indecency, so presumably immodesty may lead to shame, which in turn may inspire modesty. Shame may lead to modesty, but is hardly synonymous with it. I would add that modesty is more honorable if it is a free and rational choice, not a consequence of indoctrination or fear of punishment. A common definition of decency is: appropriateness to circumstances. Under many circumstances shame may be inappropriate and often is, as when a wife is ashamed to undress in front of her husband.
The word “humility” isn’t a reasonable way to describe people feeling mortified that someone inadvertently saw their exposed breasts. Although “pride” is commonly considered the opposite of both shame and humility (e.g. by the OED), humility is not really a good synonym for shame. Both modesty and humility can be positive qualities to be proud of, while shame (when justified) implies a destructive act, careless error, or evil intention. Although the word “prude” comes from the word prudence, the common meaning of “prude” is excessive modesty or propriety, often accompanied by the affectation of shame. No matter what you call it, when shame is justified (something you did) or the result of the early indoctrination you suffered as a child, breast shame is nothing to be proud of.
Although there are negative uses of the word “pride,” usually in the sense of excessive self-esteem, by breast pride I mean taking pleasure or satisfaction in the appearance of one’s healthy breasts, as any other part of the body, as a form of self-respect. Hiding your imperfections to seem more perfect than you really are offers only false pride.
Why should a girl or woman feel shame in exposing her bare chest or breasts around the house in the presence of family or friends when the temperature is high? On the beach or at a pool, or whenever and wherever a child may benefit from breastfeeding, including at workplaces. But many girls and women do feel ashamed under such circumstances. If children are brought up to feel a painful emotion even in such innocent circumstances, then the charge of miseducation is in order.
Shame is also a destructive factor in deciding when to wean a child, usually much too early. Since our close relatives, the chimpanzees, breastfeed exclusively for 3-4 years and partially for another 1-2 years, but have a much shorter growth span than humans, an equivalent natural weaning time for children in our species would be eight years old. The fat-cats in the giant dairy industry might wring their hands, but not for children’s sake. Profiteering opportunists who exploit shame to make a buck should be ashamed of themselves.
As with other emotions, it’s useful to distinguish between genuinely feeling shame and merely acting or behaving as if you are ashamed. A person may feel ashamed and not show it, or conversely say or pretend you’re ashamed without actually feeling any such thing. Laws that threaten penalties for “indecent exposure” under any circumstances attempt to force everyone to act ashamed whether they actually feel ashamed or not, thereby dishonestly indoctrinating children into prescriptive norms rather than actual “community standards.” Outlawing images of exposed chests or breasts at home, on the beach or in similar contexts where there is no sexual message expressed, is an attempt to prescribe social norms, which is a polite way of saying: forcing your beliefs on other people.
In some respects there are more restrictions on breasts today than before the 1920s. In the past much religious art showed Jesus breastfeeding from an exposed breast. In many European countries there are statues of exposed breasts and nude children in public parks. As revealed by art and photography of the nineteenth century, children at the beach didn’t wear bathing suits at all before the fashion industry began selling them. Mainstream retailers in some countries sell top-free bathing suits for girls up to size (age) 10, which can be seen on 30% or more of girls before puberty on public beaches (my own informal survey) depending on the country.
There is evidence that young girls have lower self-esteem and a more negative body image than boys in grade six – age 11 – when breasts are usually developing. I recently edited a medical article describing breast cancer in girls aged 13 to 17, including seven fatalities. As often happens, diagnosis was delayed 2-10 months by initial shame in talking about a lump in the breast. In one case a girl didn’t mention a tumor in her vagina even after she was diagnosed with cancer. Body shame isn’t merely an inconvenient expense; it’s potentially deadly.
According to Ashley Montague (“Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin” 2010) many people avoid skin contact because they think it’s a prelude to, or excuse for, sexual pleasure, but the truth is often the contrary: people (especially young people) use sex as an excuse for skin contact. Ironically, if we want to discourage children from precocious sex, we should encourage more skin contact (e.g. massage) rather than prudishly discouraging children from any skin contact. There is some evidence that breast massage is a good way to improve the flow of lymph and thereby reduce the risk of breast cancer. But in some states any contact between a parent and a minor’s breast meets the definition of criminal sexual abuse.
Some superficial moralists claim that breasts should be considered sexual organs, even though they play no part in sexual reproduction. Although stimulation of the breasts may be sexually arousing, so is stimulation of the lips and ears, but they aren’t considered sexual organs. Is a little girl’s flat chest a sex organ too?
In 2007 the American Psychological Association created a “task force” to study the “sexualization” of girls. They made the classic error of equating exposed skin with sexual eroticism, and although I have discussed the study in detail in another post, suffice it to say here that the report itself is evidence that the envy of adult women and their own appearance anxiety and body discomfort explain why little girls wearing revealing clothing is called a “problem.”
Have you been miseducated or duped into feeling ashamed of breasts and risking your health and the health of your child for someone else’s profit? One way to combat this truly “disgusting” problem is to bring it out of the closet and into public discussion. My personal experience seeing hundreds of nude girls and women is that breasts are never “perfect,” and they are a very small part of a human being. While I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a nudist like me, I do have every right and good reasons to reject breast shame and encourage my family and friends to consider doing so as well. Just as I have no right to make other people expose their children’s flat chests, other people have no right to prevent me from allowing mine to learn healthy breast pride by exposing their flat chests if they want to.
An important difference between Western democracy and fundamentalist dictatorships elsewhere is that our governments only limit people’s public behavior, while arrogant fundamentalists try to control people’s private behavior, speech and even thought as well.
In deciding how “decency” should be legally defined for everybody, there are many possible standards to choose from. When is it appropriate or “decent” to expose breasts? Always, never, or an infinite range in between? That should depend on where, how, why, and the choices of the individuals immediately involved. A guiding principle in constitutional democracy is that the majority rules, but minorities are respected. Instead, some individuals today are promoting a very perverted standard: whatever anybody claims makes them feel “uncomfortable” is indecent, – a standard that is impossible to apply fairly. Covering or uncovering your flat chest or breasts should be the individual’s choice, not an authoritarian Big Brother’s directive.
What is needed are comprehensive, research-based educational materials on breast development for parents and children, and teacher training to offer that material in primary and middle schools. The inadequacy of education about breast development isn’t unique. Studies of girls’ experience of menarche (first menstruation) reveal that most girls aren’t prepared for that event either, and suffer because of the lack of preparation. Children need to learn that breast development is normal and that breast pride is conducive to health. Parents who meet a child’s normal curiosity with cold silence or a slap across the face should be confronted with the possible consequences of such backwards behavior.