What are boobs for? A toddler asks and a mother attempts to explain…

My inquisitive little toddler, MJ, discomfited me the other night while we were getting ready for bed by asking me ‘what were boobs for?’

My response began simply by explaining that they were for feeding babies – just like I had done for my (now seven month old) baby AM, for a while (and although I stopped due to medical reasons, I still have anxiety over what other parents must think of me).

This anxiety over my own struggles with having to resort to bottle-feeding (without my own say in the matter) made me pause to reshape my answer to my questioningly little toddler.

What about all the other bottle-feeding Mums? How do we, as a group, define the ‘use’ of our boobs?

They are not merely used as feeding tools – I don’t want to devalue the worth of boobs by denying their secondary function.  Boobs can be used as tools to pleasure, as playthings.

Yet as new mums they are certainly not objects of desire. In all honesty it takes us and our husbands awhile to reinterpret the function of the boobies. To adjust to the perspective of them from belonging to babies and thus being flung out every few hours to be pulled at and sucked on by hungry infants. Then to being slowly transformed post breastfeeding (over months) back to the funbags you and your partner once enjoyed.

Do I really tell a toddler that? Of course not! But not because I don’t want her running around talking about and playing with her boobs (or her ‘topples’ as she oddly refers to them as). But because I don’t want to ascribe this nature to my boobs. This would be a great disservice to women’s boobs.

This is because breasts are an important essence of what is a woman. There are brave women out there who fight for their lives by removing their breasts through double mastectomies in a bid to fight off cancer. There are tough women such as Krystal Barter who used a double mastectomy as a preventative strategy to fight breast cancer after finding changes in her breast tissue.  Krystal has founded Pink Hope  http://pinkhope.org.au/about-us/welcome/#.UUmNnI73MUU which ‘provides a unique community where the general public are inspired to be proactive and vigilant. These women understand that breasts do not make the woman.


Yet, no matter if we still own them or not, our boobs should never be insulted. Boobs have been internationally disfigured in our recent popular culture with the catchy but distasteful tune – ‘I Saw Your Boobs’. This catchphrase first emerged via the ‘We Saw your boobs’ shtick at the 2013 Oscars by renowned comic Seth McFarlane. The song can be viewed here:



Whilst a variety of movies (and actresses) were singled out, the song made reference to some films where boobs were exposed via rape scenes, and also the scandal surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s leaked photographs (so not even a movie!).

The twitter rage and newsfeeds were possessed with horror and pomposity (Guardian, Oscars 2013: ‘We Saw Your Boobs – sexist or smart?’) as fans and haters dissected the brave, but perhaps even stupid, Oscars stunt by McFarlane.

So now we are onto a whole new complexity about the representation of boobs in popular culture and the way in which women can be admired or admonished because of the way their boobs are displayed. There is a fine line between cleavage and exposure and as women we grow up understanding that certain things should be kept private. But how to impart this to a toddler?

In preparing this discussion I became aware that nipples play a role in this division. If exposed on a photograph the nipples are blurred out. In the caverns of the pornographic underworld – nipples are shown off. In feeding babies, nipples and boobs are flipped out to a suckling infant, which still offend people today.  David Koch (Morning television host) caused an uproar by suggesting women should be a bit more private when feeding their babies http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-21/tv-host-targeted-in-breastfeeding-protest/4473302

Often it is assumed that it is women with high self-esteem who are showing off their boobs. But when it comes to feeding our babies, often this display is out of pure necessity for a crying infant. I was never very comfortable with having to expose myself, but you do what you have to for your baby. We certainly don’t need men in powerful positions (such as TV hosts) deriding this display.

It seems that men assume that women who are flaunting their boobs are doing so because they want attention. Sometimes this is true, other times it is just because that woman is happy and confident in herself and is wearing clothes that she feels sexy in.

I don’t want to get into body image and self-confidence with my toddler, but yet I do have to explain to her that we need to cover up our boobs. By telling her they need to be hidden, I am already introducing her to the concept that bosoms (an image connected to our femininity) should not be seen). Why is this? Well, the main reason, I feel as a Mum, is because of those perverts out there who might look at little girls.

This topic hits a personal nerve for me, as there has been assault on women in my family circle and we are extremely protective about this topic. How do I not pass on my paranoid prejudices?

Some women never recover from these assaults and go on to hide their breasts and their femininity in order to discourage interest from men.

I want to have the wisdom to teach my daughter how to balance the two without being over-protective or naive. Of course, awareness of these different approaches is a stepping stone… but then what? I know I still have a few years to figure all these things out, but then my toddler stops me in the middle of our nightly routine with this whopper of a question, and I just don’t want to let her, myself, or the sisterhood down with my failure to address it clearly.

But how to answer a toddler? Boobs are what identifies a woman from a man.

I can’t say that to her! What about those women who have mastectomies? Are they less of a woman – of course not! Thus boobs does not maketh the woman.

How to explain what boobs are to a toddler? A man has a willy and a woman has a fanny and boobs.

Even with this simplicity I am scared that I am betraying the feminist guild. Germaine Greer said in ‘The Female Eunuch”

“It is agreed that little girls should have a different physical education than little boys, but it is not admitted how much of the difference is counseled by the conviction that little girls should not look like little boys.”

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

It is this pressure to not oversimplify our sexuality but also to not over-emphasise it to a toddler that has led to this long ramble on our bosoms.

So I take it you now, my readers… Any other suggestions on how to explain to a toddler what boobs are for?


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About the author

Elissa De Heer

I have been studying on and off for years and have postgraduate degrees in English Literature (Masters) and Teaching (Masters), a Diploma in Editing, and a Certificate in English Language Teaching.

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