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Our Complicated Relationship with Breasts

The matter inflaming the Internet this Thursday is one of breasts. Particularly, a bare boob, tucked neatly into the mouth of a 3-year-old boy, on the cover of Time magazine.

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In America, we have what you might call a "problem" with boobs. See, the thing is, we don't know how to feel about them, exactly.

On the one hand, we're surrounded by hyper-sexualized images of women, chests heaving in décolletage-revealing attire, or, more titillating (yes, I said it), covered by nothing at all. This vast array of flesh—whether on the covers of magazines like Playboy or something more mixed-company-friendly, on the Internet, in the movies, on late night cable TV, or even in our own homes in human form—it does something to us. For women, maybe, there's a sense of arousal but also there's competition, comparisons, and taking action: breast implants, breast reductions, breast rejuvenating, the business of shapewear and clothing to boost the breasts' appeal, thereby boosting the appeal of those women to men. There may also be a sense of distaste, a concern over what all this breast-obsession is doing to women, a concern over exploitation, and even a concern over how to feel about one's breasts. For men, some of them anyway, it's more simply about... BOOBS. Maybe more, maybe less. These are generalizations, but just as we have generalizations about how we feel about boobs, there are generalizations of the boobs themselves. They embody that stereotypical madonna-whore relationship: On one side, sex; and on the other, motherhood and goodness and comfort and wholesome nurturing—but only up to a point, because sex takes over. It always does. Especially when the boys grow up.

The matter inflaming the Internet this Thursday is one of breasts. Particularly, a bare boob, tucked neatly into the mouth of a nearly 4-year-old boy (who looks, like his mom, a bit older than his printed age), on the cover of Time magazine. But the complications inherent in the topic of boobs, and how we view them, isn't anything new. It could be wisely argued, in fact, that that's exactly why there is a boob being suckled by a rather well-grown child on the cover of Time magazine, along with the tantalizing troll-worthy question "Are You Mom Enough?" For this is an article not about breasts but about motherhood, and that coverline is actually a question which parents have had quite enough of at this point. Like boob comparisons, how many competitive comparisons to other parenting models (French, American, helicopter, lax, bad, forever breast-feeding) will our society endure? Keep 'em coming, say the magazine and book editors.

Breast-feeding has always been a topic of some controversy, though, even when we're talking about wee babies, because the act involves both motherhood and sexuality. See: Hanna Rosin's 2009 story, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" in The Atlantic, "Is Breastfeeding Creepy?" by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times' parenting blog, or Terry Richardson's typically scandalizing Vice photo of a breastfeeding mom with gun. This cover just puts it even more "in our faces," as it were—while we know that it's no longer PC to talk about how a breast-feeding mom with infant makes us feel "creepy," we can rail on this mom, with her grown-up looking kid, no problem. This is extreme, and therefore, ripe for outrage! Ew, gross, goes the Internet chorus.

But think of how many people have railed against moms showing their breasts—as objects of nourishment, not sex—in public; how many lawsuits there have been; how many times moms have had to cover up, or chosen to cover up so as not to face external censure or the threat thereof. Meanwhile, we positively celebrate a glimpse at the "sexified" boob in mainstream society. A wardrobe malfunction, while a cause for network aneurysms, is also a cause for much glee among the TV-watching public. We obsess about news anchors' cleavage (even as we are secretly delighted by it, and use it to start trollsome Internet discourses). A whole class of reality TV celebrities has been made by their D-cups. America adores boobs. We think they look great! In the right place, at the right time, of course, and only if they're being used for the purpose of which they were intended...

Oh, wait a second. Therein lies the rub. Why are we so freaked out by the sight of a boob in a grown-ish little boy's mouth? Why are we so worried about the kid, and predicting mockery or impending years in therapy for him? Why are we discussing whether this sort of thing is "freakish or feminist?" and what might become of men grown from such "attached" arrangements? Why are we gaping in horror and turning away and feeling... strange, or shielding the eyes of our innocent children in the grocery store? Because the breast is one of the few entities with this dual role. You know, besides the body parts involved in sex itself and from which, sometimes, 9 months later, babies emerge. Or, for that matter, the sexualized pregnant woman. These things creep us out because we don't like "sex" and "motherhood" coming from the same place. And, yet, the grand forever irony is that they can't be separated. That kind of makes our minds explode. See, we said it was complicated.

Image via Shutterstock by Tatiana Morozova.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.