Breastfeeding and Breast Cancer: What If Women Didn’t Have Breasts?

Baila posts an interview with her friend, Nitsana Bellesohn, who directed a short film to call attention to the fight against breast cancer. Entitled “FLAT,” it’s up for the Amazing Grace Award. Warning: The film contains images of exposed breasts.

Go here to see all the films and vote for your favorites.

The film asks the question: What would the world be like if women didn’t have breasts, and children had to go to a museum to see them?  What if breast cancer became so prevalent that girls began taking hormones to keep their breasts from growing?

Unfortunately, the film views breasts, and by extension women, as sex objects for men. Most of the film’s footage shows men ogling breasts and recalling to their young sons how pleasurable it was to watch and hold breasts.

I am not sure what hyper-sexualization of breasts has to do with breast cancer. Breasts are part of women’s bodies and are biologically intended for feeding and nurturing babies, not for titillating men.

Girls don’t even appear in this film, unless you count the token woman who rolls her eyes at the men’s reaction to the “artwork.” Women’s feelings about the existence of this museum are never addressed.

Is reminding men that they might lose their playthings, as it were, the only way to get them interested in breast cancer? What a shallow portrayal of men. What a sad commentary on our culture’s attitude toward women’s bodies.

Breasts, Breastfeeding and Cancer

I would have stopped here if the film hadn’t mentioned breastfeeding at all. But since it did, I’ll add some thoughts on breasts, infant feeding, and cancer.

The film’s only indication that breasts have a biological function is when a boy comments on a picture of a baby breastfeeding. His father tells him, matter-of-factly, that that was how babies used to eat. The son says, “Gross.” I think the idea is that boys think breasts are gross because they have never seen them. Although breasts are visible everywhere today, selling products, plenty of people still find breastfeeding disgusting. Just look at any debate about public breastfeeding.  The son’s reaction did not seem futuristic to me.

In the film, the environment is blamed for the increase in breast cancer rates. But what about the connection between breastfeeding and breast cancer? According to a collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, reduced breastfeeding rates are an important factor in breast cancer rates:

It is estimated that the cumulative incidence of breast cancer in developed countries would be reduced by more than half, from 6.3 to 2.7 per 100 women by age 70, if women had the average number of births and lifetime duration of breastfeeding that had been prevalent in developing countries until recently. Breastfeeding could account for almost two-thirds of this estimated reduction in breast cancer incidence. INTERPRETATION: The longer women breast feed the more they are protected against breast cancer. The lack of or short lifetime duration of breastfeeding typical of women in developed countries makes a major contribution to the high incidence of breast cancer in these countries.

Not every discussion of breast cancer needs to mention breastfeeding. But the film’s approach was disturbing because society’s attitude toward breasts affects breastfeeding rates, and therefore cancer rates. When breasts are associated with women, mothers and babies, more women choose to breastfeed and their partners will support them. I’m not denying the importance of breasts in sexual pleasure, and there are many factors that contribute to lack of breastfeeding. But until we stop seeing breasts as the object of men’s desire instead of as a way to feed and nurture babies, breastfeeding rates will remain low.

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Comments

  1. I read Baila’s interview. Perhaps you could interview Nitsana as well and talk about the issues that you raised.

  2. I appreciate your perspective; I think Ariela’s suggestion is a good one and if you’d like, I can certainly put you in touch with Nitsana.

  3. There are so many issues related to breast cancer, so I didn’t really see the movie as needing to address all of them. Breastfeeding is only considering to be a prevention for pre-menopausal cancer, not post-menopausal. Environment might also be a factor (see The Secret History of the War on Cancer). I’m big on nutrition, so I see that as playing a role. I wasn’t crazy about the last line of the film, the we don’t know line, but the film as a whole sort of made me think about removing breasts as NOT the way to go. In any case, a five minute film is good to raise discussion. And maybe in some ways it did talk to men and boys instead of women.

  4. mominisrael says:

    Ariela and Baila: I don’t feel an interview is the right format, but I would be happy to share Nitsana’s response with readers if she likes.
    Leora, as I wrote I don’t expect every discussion of breast cancer to include breastfeeding. Even though i disagree with the approach of the film I hope that it will indeed raise awareness.

  5. My husband did his post-doc in the number 1 breast cancer lab in the USA. From what I understand the two biggest preventative factors for breast cancer are giving birth before the age of 20 and lots of exercize in teenage years. The bottom line is we MUST encourage teenage girls to exersize.

  6. Exercise – yes, my friend’s mom, Dr. Leslie Bernstein, did a lot of research on teens, exercise and breast cancer.

    Wish exercise did not have to = competition sports. My daughter does ballet, and the kids make fun of her at school because she does not like doing gym, which is all about playing ball. Is it any better in Israel? Why not teach kids Tai Chi or yoga?

  7. I agree that the way men view breast is disturbing. One of the ways that a mother can change the way her son feel about breasts is by breastfeeding openly in her home and not acting like there is something shameful about nursing by never nursing in front of him.

    I can proudly say that I have always nursed in front of my now 13 year old son (although I know some would say that I nursed too to openly ). I am sure that he view breasts as something that is utilitarian like a leg. Last winter we were on the beach in South Beach, Miami and there was a woman who was wearing a topless bathing suit. As we walked by her he didn’t flinch. No staring, no reaction at all.

  8. mominisrael says:

    MotherThoughts, who has breast cancer herself, comments on the film:
    http://www.motherthoughts.com/2009/10/what-if-women-didnt-have-breasts.html

  9. mominisrael says:

    UWSM:I’m not sure how I feel about your son’s reaction. And in a year or two, it might be different.
    It doesn’t bother me that men find breasts stimulating. But it disturbs me when breasts are seen as inanimate sex objects or used to sell products.

  10. OK, I broke down and saw the video after saying I wouldn’t.

    What are we supposed to get from it? That men would painfully miss women’s breasts if women didn’t have them? Duh.

    That breast cancer is spiraling upward, possibly partly due to environmental toxins? (That blast of gas enveloping the father and son in the last seconds of the film.)No concrete suggestions there.

    That babies can’t nurse if there are no breasts? The last isn’t true; all a woman needs is milk glands and nipples. I have a friend almost totally flat-chested who nursed all her kids till three years old.

    Just another mournful end-of-days sci-fi film; not even a consciousness-raiser.

    Maybe there wasn’t enough budget to show how women would feel if obliged to forgo their breasts. But as MiI says, it’s one-sided. I add, pointless.

  11. mominisrael says:

    Leora, ballet seems to be super-popular here for girls. I’ve seen very few ads for competitive sports for girls.

  12. mominisrael says:

    As Mimi said, some women have no visible breasts, but enough breast tissue to feed their babies. A very small number of women have oddly-shaped breasts that are not properly developed; i.e. breasts but no milk. But if a woman (or man) wanted to prevent cancer s/he would have to remove all breast tissue.

  13. Hi. Thanks for taking the time to think about the film and to comment. In that sense, it has already done what I set out to do.

    I saw some people wanted my comment – so I will give it. Although once an artwork exists – it stands on its own and doesnt really matter anymore what I think about it. How it affects you is what is important. In that sense, it seems I offended some people – and that was never my intention.

    FLAT is about breast cancer prevention. It is a satire and not meant to be taken literally. It does not look at breast cancer from the point of view of men – but uses this story as a device to make a point.

    It is an attempt to get us to look at the way we live our lives and realize that what we do, how we live, what we eat and how we feel, has direct affect on our health. Breast cancer is spiraling upwards – and there is scientific evidence that points to a western way of life as a factor in this. Many of you pointed to serious risk factors for developing breast cancer – the importance of exercise, of breastfeeding at a young age, etc. However, our society still views breast cancer as something that “happens” to us and that we have nothing to do with it.

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and went through all the treatments (still doing some…) it is not fun. In getting breast cancer, I got a wake up call that the way I was living my life was not life-supporting. I dont feel like I am guilty – or that I ate worse food than others – or anything else… I think that the combination of the way I lived, with my specific physiology was what happened. So we dont know exactly what to do to prevent cancer – but we do know that we can live our lives in a way that is more life-supporting. And while it may mean that I “suffer” by eating less junk food – I benefit in so many ways. And with all the things I have changed in my life, I am still aware that I may get cancer again – because we dont control everything – but I will have gained so much from my new point of view. This was a hard-won lesson for me. This film is one attempt to share this lesson with others.

    I could have gone about it in a more literal way. True. But this is a difficult message to talk about- that people dont really want to hear. Talking about it in a didactic way usually doesnt change any hearts and minds. I was looking for a way to tell the story through humor, through poking fun at ourselves and the way we are. Watching an extreme situation, a world where breasts no longer exist because we didnt try to prevent cancer in our way of living but cut them off to stop cancer from spreading is an extreme view of how we treat cancer today. And by looking at our attitude in the extreme, possibly we can awaken to it and try to do things differently. The end frame – with the father saying “I dont know” is an extension of this. The father says I dont know – an expression of how we live our lives today, while the visual aspect of the film is saying – we do know – but we live our lives as though we dont know.

    Again, thanks for your attention to the film and to its message. Breast cancer – and cancer in general – is a scourge in our world that I do believe we can impact and not only through detection and treatment – but through living our lives in a way that supports health. And I hope that this discussion can scratch the surface of changing our habits.

    • mominisrael says:

      Nitsana, thanks so much for your comments. I see your point about the satire and not taking breasts for granted. I don’t know that the importance of a healthy lifestyle came through in the film, perhaps it did for others. By the way, the discussion of removing breasts applies to women at extremely high risk, genetically. The environmental factors are less significant for them. I guess I am not shocked by the idea.

  14. I agree with you that men finding breast stimulating is fine but I guess what I meant to say is that I got the feeling that my son looked at breast the same way he looks at legs. They might be something he likes about women but they are not there only for a man’s pleasure.

  15. MII:

    “But until we stop seeing breasts as the object of men’s desire instead of as a way to feed and nurture babies”

    how does this relate to ???? and the laws of ???????

    UPPER WEST SIDE MOM:

    “As we walked by her he didn’t flinch. No staring, no reaction at all.”

    perhaps because he was too embarrassed in the presence of his mother? would he have reacted differently is he was alone?

  16. that should read “how does this relate to halakhah and the laws of tzeniut”

    • mominisrael says:

      LOZ: In Jewish law both elements are recognized. Breasts are covered, but breastfeeding itself is not considered immodest the way it is in American culture.

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