For my certification process I got to write two reports on cultures in my breastfeeding. This is my report on breastfeeding in Mormon culture. Some may call this cheating since I am LDS, but the unique thing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is that there are doctrinal aspects and cultural aspects… and sometimes even members confuse the two. I felt that this was an important issue to address for LDS families. I have generally used the terms “Latter Day Saint” and “LDS” when referring to doctrinal aspects and “Mormon” when referring to cultural aspects.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as Latter Day Saints or Mormons) represent both a religion and a culture and the boundaries between the two are often hazy for both non-Mormons and Mormons alike. Mormons have historically been more isolated both socially and geographically from mainstream America, yet in the last century they have adopted a more mainstream lifestyle while still preserving many of their unique beliefs and traditions. Some of these beliefs and traditions have an enormous impact on breastfeeding for Mormon women in some areas. Of particular importance are Mormon beliefs about motherhood and modesty.
Motherhood and the care of children are very highly regarded in Mormon culture. Latter Day Saints have the distinction of being one of the few Christian religions that believe in both a male and female God; a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. Family and the bearing and nurturing of children are considered to be enormously important in the Latter Day Saint religion. Parenthood is seen as a godly co-creative process and important for a person’s spiritual development (Holland, 2016). Breastfeeding has historically been encouraged for mothers because of its health benefits for infants. Utah has relatively high breastfeeding rates at 86.4% for any breastfeeding and 64.4% of infants are breastfed exclusively for six months (Fletcher Stack).
While breastfeeding is acceptable and even encouraged for Mormon women, breastfeeding in public is often discouraged or prohibited in some American Mormon communities (especially Utah and Idaho). Several women have recounted being told by their local leadership that they must not breastfeed during Church meetings. Other women frequently discourage mothers from breastfeeding at church, saying that they fear an exposed breast will cause their husbands or sons to look at pornography (Fletcher Stack).
Much of this has to do with the concept of modesty. Modesty has been defined by LDS materials as “….an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to “glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit…Revealing and sexually suggestive clothing, which includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, can stimulate desires and actions that violate the Lord’s law of chastity.” Many Latter Day Saints feel that breastfeeding in public violates this definition of modesty.
There is, however, a growing faction of Latter Day Saints who are very disturbed by this implementation of modesty and point out that rather than fighting pornography it actually reinforces the message that women’s bodies are objects of lust. Also of concern are the way an excessive focus on women’s dress encourages the idea that men are not able to control themselves and women are responsible for mens’ actions (de Azevedo-Hanks). Dr. Rixa Freeze is a Mormon anthropologist who argues in her blog post “The Problem With Nursing Covers” that breastfeeding uncovered in public is actually an anti-dote to pornography use because it reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are for nurturing and bearing children not gratifying men’s lust.
The issue of modesty, dress codes and nursing in public is a thorny one. Many Mormons believe strongly that a dress code for women involving cap sleeves and knee length skirts and that men will be unavoidably sexually excited by women breastfeeding is an unchangeable principle, though the doctrinal basis for these ideas is questionable. Ironically enough, the clothes that most Mormons consider modest today would have been considered indecent exposure a century ago, yet artwork from 19th century Mormon artists frequently include breastfeeding mothers as a normal occurrence (see Figures 1 and 2).
LDS congregations in other countries do not share the same disapproval for nursing in public. In many European countries, nudity is not equated with immorality or sex. In some Scandinavian countries where saunas are a traditional social activity, Mormons may even participate in sauna baths in single sex company (Cleverly, 73). In African congregations mothers frequently breastfeed their babies uncovered during church meetings. Even within the United States there are variations. One mother reported being told to cover up in her Utah ward, but was never bothered by anyone when she moved to a ward in the San Francisco Bay Area (Fletcher Stack).
Mormon women may find themselves in a paradoxical situation with breastfeeding. On the one hand, they are encouraged to be mothers and nurture children, yet they are sometimes told that in doing so they will contribute to lust and infidelity. This problem is compounded by cultural beliefs about modesty that may be deeply held. Working with LDS mothers requires a great deal of sensitivity. It may be helpful to refer the LDS woman who is struggling with breastfeeding and questions about modesty to pro-breastfeeding LDS sources and articles. Mormonism has a history and doctrine of promoting motherhood. Helping LDS women to reconcile the needs of a breastfeeding infant with cultural ideas about modesty will be very helpful.
Cleverly, J. Michael. “Mormonism on the Big Mac Standard.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 29(2), 69-75, 1996.
De Azevedo-Hanks, Julie. “The Costs of Misunderstanding Modesty”. Meridian Magazine. 12 August 2015. http://ldsmag.com/the-problem-with-overemphasizing-modesty/
Fletcher Stack, Peggy. “Battles break out over breast-feeding at Mormon meetings.” Salt Lake Tribune, 19 March 2013. http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/lifestyle/55921668-80/breast-church-feeding-lds.html.csp
Freeze, Rixa. “The Problem With Nursing Covers.” Stand and Deliver. 22 November 2011. http://rixarixa.blogspot.com/?m=0
Holland, Patricia. “Motherhood”. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2016.
“Modesty”. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 2016. https://www.lds.org/topics/modesty?lang=eng&old=true