Would you be offended by a woman breastfeeding in public?
2nd Aug 2019
Kiki Valentine remembers the first time she breastfed her son, Hart, in a public place. It was summertime in New York City and steamy hot, as she sat down on a park bench to feed. She wasn’t trying to make a statement or make anyone uncomfortable. “He needed to eat,” she says, simple as that.
But a few weeks later, Valentine found herself the accidental face of a movement, after a photograph of her feeding Hart – this time on the steps of New York City Hall, during a rally to support breastfeeding in public – appeared in several publications. An even bigger shock came when the picture aired on an episode of , with the designer posing the question, “Breastfeeding in public: trend or tragic?” Valentine watched as Zoe’s husband Rodger Berman voted “tragic”. She was mortified.
A 2018 report from UNICEF that looked at 123 countries, found that 95 per cent of babies worldwide are breastfed; a statistic that reflects the general consensus in most countries that breastfeeding has significant health benefits for both mother and baby. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of a baby’s life, and laws exist throughout the world to protect nursing mothers. In the United States, every state has laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location; the EU similarly forbids discrimination against breastfeeding mothers.
And yet, public breastfeeding is still very much cause for debate. In July, the Dutch airline KLM inspired both critics and defenders after a flight attendant told a breastfeeding mother to cover up. The airline’s official party line: “Breastfeeding is allowed onboard as long as no other passengers are offended by the practice.” Chances are someone might be.
A recent survey of 1,000 women and men, by nursing and pumping bra Milx, found that one in three people surveyed has been shamed (or has had a partner shamed) for breastfeeding in public. A 2014 study conducted by the University of Athens, meanwhile, found that while public breastfeeding is socially acceptable in Norway, Sweden and Finland, it’s far rarer in France and Wales “where women still have mixed feelings due to possible embarrassment or judgement they may be subjected to”.
In countries where public breastfeeding is illegal, lawmakers often cite religious reasons. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are forbidden to expose their breasts in public, even for nursing – despite the fact that the Islamic religion encourages women to breastfeed for around two years.
New York-based psychologist Sarah Gundle, PsyD, offers two primary reasons for continued discomfort around seeing a woman feed her baby. “Breasts aren’t associated with function; they are seen as objects for sexual pleasure,” she says. “So whether there’s a baby attached to one or not, people see a naked breast and equate it to something sexual and it makes them uncomfortable.” Secondly, she says women exercising anything perceived as brazenness, “or availing themselves of freedoms not previously available to them, is always a threat. Breastfeeding in public certainly counts.” And while public nursing rooms have become more widely available, Gundle wonders if they may, in fact, contribute to the taboo. “On the one hand, it’s great that they’re there for those who don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding or pumping in public,” says Gundle. “But they do suggest that breastfeeding is something that should be done out of view.”
Those against public breastfeeding would seem to agree. “Public breastfeeding violates the line between public and private,” says Margaret J King, PhD, the director of Philadelphia-based think tank The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis. “It makes people uneasy when, as in the example of the airplane, they have no option to move from the scene. I once attended a conference where a breastfeeding mum asked me whether she would be OK doing this at the table – my answer, for the same reason, was ‘no way’. For women, this is a sure sign they don’t know the difference between professional and unprofessional deportment. Part of civilised behaviour is making these distinctions. Ask yourself if you would take a bath in public, or undress, shave your legs, or even hold a sensitive conversation – all private modes of behaviour, not for public witnessing.”
The view of breastfeeding as private behaviour is one reason that images of people doing so are often blocked on social media – despite Facebook granting mothers the right to lactate on the site’s newsfeed a few years ago. Since it was founded in 2018, Imalac, a South Florida-based company that developed a breast massage system for nursing mothers, has had its company Facebook page, which includes images of women breastfeeding using their product, shut down several times due to “inappropriate nudity”. Valentine points out that Instagram restricts the hashtag #breast. “And if our biggest platform thinks breasts should be hidden,” she says, “is it any wonder the rest of the world agrees?”
Movements like World Breastfeeding Week (WBW), August 1 to 7, run by the Malaysia-based World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, are working to counter that notion, aiming to protect, promote and support breastfeeding by making it less about a private moment and more about a biological, natural function that’s not limited to any particular surroundings. Last year, as part of WBW, nearly 23,000 women in 28 different countries took part in the Global Big Latch On, a simultaneous public breastfeeding event, founded in New Zealand in 2005.
“Education is necessary,” says Valentine. “People think women are trying to flaunt their breasts, but unless you’re really staring, the time between when a person takes out their breast and puts their baby on it is, at most, a few seconds. It’s not like there’s tassels and lights and horns blaring. To think a person is being provocative in any way by breastfeeding in public is ignorance.” Even so, Valentine admits that before she became a mother, she might have seen a breastfeeding woman in a restaurant and think, “Ugh, does she have to do that here?” Now she knows that yes, she does need to, and it’s her right.
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