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The Big Deal About Breasts

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They say the most important word to include in a book title is "you" because it draws the reader in and makes the topic seem relevant and accessible. Well, allow me to offer a web-based caveat to this axiom: the most important word to include in a blog post title is "breasts" (see my "Greatest Blog Post Ever" for more details). Alas, if that's the lure that led you to click on this post, you might be disappointed by the specifics of what's to follow.

Because, as with most of our day-to-day perceptions, the big deal about breasts is highly context-dependent. It isn't just about sex. What do I mean? Allow me a brief story to demonstrate...

The mother of my best friend growing up once told me a tale of the outrage she had provoked by breastfeeding one of her children in public. Specifically, the members of the country club to which she belonged apparently didn't take too kindly to her infant son's need to eat, responding to her breastfeeding with dirty looks, rebukes, and draconian policy changes that were ultimately enough to convince her and her husband to resign from the club.

Years later, upon returning to the club for dinner one night as the guests of friends who were still members, my friend's mother discovered just how much of an impression her breastfeeding-and her vocal displeasure with the resistance she encountered-had made. On the permanent dining room menu, the club had long since re-named a chicken breast dish after her: Chicken a la Barbara.

Get it? Breastfeeding... chicken breast... ah, country club humor...

Decades later, as many women I know can attest, such negative reaction to breastfeeding is hardly extinct. The question of why? is an interesting one worthy of a blog post in and of itself. But the focus of this post is on an intriguing possibility that often gets lost in the debate over the breastfeeding policies of restaurants, airlines, Facebook, and others: does breastfeeding change the type of person others believe you to be?

A series of research studies in the July issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides a clear and disconcerting answer: yes.

In these studies, researchers at Montana State University created scenarios in which participants were to evaluate women, some of whom were breastfeeding and some of whom were not. One study was ostensibly about consumer preferences, with participants asked to rate the effectiveness of magazine ads for various products. First, they evaluated an endorsement for oatmeal, followed by earplugs and then chips. The fourth product they were shown was a skin cream.

In one version of the study, the tagline for the skin cream was specifically about breastfeeding, describing the product as intended for women "to soothe chaffed nipples after nursing." Other conditions used similar, breast-specific language but not about breastfeeding, stating instead that the product was for joggers to use after exercise or for women to use "before intimacy."

After viewing one of these ads, respondents were asked a series of questions about the woman endorsing the cream. Though everyone looked at a photo of the same sweatshirt-wearing woman, those who saw the breastfeeding tagline rated the woman in the ad as less generally competent and less likely to experience success "in the working world."

Similar results emerged in another study in which participants overheard a woman (who was actually in cahoots with the researchers) checking her cell phone voice mail and listening to a message that mentioned her need to go home to breastfeed before going out for the evening.

Keep in mind, in these studies respondents didn't even have to see the actual breastfeeding to form these negative impressions and expectations about the woman in question. Simply reading an advertising tagline or overhearing a voice mail was enough.

And it wasn't just any mention of breasts that had these effects-the results were specific to breastfeeding. In the magazine ad study, for example, comparably negative stereotypes did not emerge when breasts were referenced in an exercise or sexual context.

The moral of the story? Despite the well-documented benefits of breastfeeding, despite the fact that many of us were breastfed as infants, despite the fact that almost all of us were raised in two-or-more-breast households, we still have quite the curiously ambivalent response when it comes to matters breast-related.

Actually, strike that-this conclusion doesn't do the story justice. The real take-home? We still have a long way to go when it comes to how we react and respond to breastfeeding. And the problem may be worse than you suspected: breastfeeding actually changes people's more global perceptions of an individual's competence and capability. That's a sad legacy for a practice that has benefited so many of us.

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Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: