Like the female breasts, the nipples have historically been viewed in relation to woman's utility, pleasure, and beauty. Differences between the beautiful and useful nipple are strikingly portrayed in Lehmann's late sixteenth-century portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées, mistress of Henri IV, with her two sons and their wet-nurse ( Chateau d'Azay-Le Rideau). Gabrielle is shown seated in her bath, naked to the waist; behind her the elder child reaches toward a fruit bowl, while further back a wet-nurse holds d'Estrée's swaddled infant at her breast. The nurse's nipple contrasts with those of the King's favourite; where Gabrielle has small, pink nipples with little trace of pigmentation on her white breasts, the nurse's are large and brown, with the surrounding areola darkened in colour. The baby actively sucks at this working nipple, whose size and shape echoes the fruit in the bowl before her. In their configuration Gabrielle's nipples are nearer the pearls that ornament her hair, and in colour they resemble the pink flowers that surround her. The nurse here sets off the idealized body of the aristocratic mother whose nipples are ornamental, like the jewels and flowers to which they are compared. Of particular importance is the rosebud with its pink tip pointed towards Gabrielle. In France, the beautiful nipple was compared to a rose, since the word ‘bouton’ meant both nipple and rosebud. Dennel's later engraving of The Comparison of the Nipple to the Rose (1761) makes the connection explicit as a young girl holds a rosebud to her breast and assesses her beauty by comparing its size, shape, and colour to her nipple.
Although the portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées shows wet nursing as an accepted practice, some doctors during this time encouraged mothers to nurse their infants by stressing the pleasures of breastfeeding. Ambroise Paré believed that nursing provided women a ‘delicious stimulation’ of the nipples, and that the nursing ‘gently titillates them with tongue and mouth.’ Paré argued that the nipples were sensitive not only because of their many nerve endings, but because of their affinity with the genitals. That this latter belief permeated popular thought is, evident when considering further the colloquial meaning of ‘bouton’, which besides referring to rosebud and nipple, also signified the clitoris.
By the eighteenth century those who encouraged maternal breastfeeding censured women who refused to nurse their infants for fear of disfiguring their breasts and nipples. Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the most influential advocate of breastfeeding, many others in the medical professions took up the cause. Doctors connected problems with breastfeeding to women's fashions. In 1706 Edward Baynard, a Lancashire physician, complained about women who wore corsets that squashed and flattened their nipples. Similarly, Dr Charles White of Manchester argued that the small, flat nipple buried in the breast was caused by the tight dress, ‘which has for some centuries been so constantly worn in this island by the female sex of all ages and of almost all ranks.’ By being continually pressed, the breast and nipple are deprived of their beauty and use.
For women living before the age of antibiotics, however, breastfeeding was actually a greater threat to their nipples than fashion. Nipples sore or cracked from nursing were easily infected; they could become ulcerated, obstructed, or deformed by scar tissue. Sometimes the nipples were so damaged that after nursing her first child the woman could not breastfeed the next; sometimes they were completely destroyed. To solve the problem of sore nipples and to aid in preventing or healing infections, women often used nipple shields. In basic design, the nipple shield has varied little from the sixteenth century to the present day. Worn over the nipples, these shields mimic their shape and size, and the tips are perforated to allow milk to flow through them. The primary difference between older and more recent versions is the material used in their manufacture. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, shields were made of tin, pewter, lead(!), horn, ivory, wood, silver, glass, or wax. Although the rubber nipple was patented in 1856, it did not come into widespread use until well into the twentieth century, because early versions were deemed foul smelling, bad tasting, and liable to contamination.
While the dangers of breast-feeding for the mother's health have been significantly reduced in the twentieth century, tensions between the erotic and the nourishing nipple limit women's opportunities for breast-feeding, especially in the US. In the 1990s, the many cases of security guards who harassed women for breastfeeding in public places led state lawmakers to enact legislation that excepted from public nudity laws a woman nursing a baby ‘whether or not the nipple or areola is exposed during or incidental to the feeding.’ That so many of these laws explicitly mention the nipple suggests that this part of the breast is especially charged as an erotic zone, and that exposing the nipple is tantamount to exposing the genitalia. Glorifying the breast as a sexual object led Americans to stigmatize its natural use by deeming public breast-feeding indecent. Only now are they belatedly undoing this latest damage to the breast.
Mary D. Sheriff
Baumslag, N. and and Michels, D. (1995). Milk, money, and madness. The culture and politics of breastfeeding. Bergin and Garvey, Westport, CT and London.
Fildes, V. (1986). Breasts, bottles, and babies. A history of infant feeding. Edinburgh University Press.
See also breast; infant feeding; wet-nursing.