Society’s Aversion to Public Displays of Breastfeeding

Two dear friends of mine are new moms.  Their babies are beautiful, precious, and hungry.  Hungry for momma’s milk and lots of it so they can grow big, healthy, and strong.

Both of my friends told me that they felt shy about feeding their infants in front of friends or in public, even with a nursing cover.  I wondered if I would feel the same way when I have children.

Both moms are educated, beautiful, and confident women who support healthy and natural baby-rearing practices such as delivering with a midwife or doula, using cloth diapers, and breastfeeding.

A few day’s ago, I was reading a global health article in TIME Magazine (June 21, 2010 edition) and came across a photo of a malaria-stricken Ugandan woman nuring her child. I felt conflicted about this image for two reasons:

  1. Had that woman been white or looked like a relatable middle-class American woman, I would imagine, TIME would receive an uproar of complaints for indecent exposure.
  2. Reason #1 reinforces our society’s aversion to public displays of breastfeeding.

The conflict stemmed from my initial reaction to this photo thinking it was provocative.  I was disappointed with my degree of sensitivity to an image of a woman naturally feeding her child despite my support for the benefits and act of breastfeeding.  Our cultural practices of censoring the boob had penetrated my health education and values, just for a split moment.

Clearly, many women feel similarly to my two mommy friends about public breastfeeding.  Some go further down the spectrum where, for varying reason, do not or cannot naturally feed their babies.  Some women use a combination of breastfeeding (at home) and formula or pumped breast milk for going out.  If breasts were seen less as sexual objects and more for their important functionality, we’d see more women feeding their babies at the bus stop, in the mall, at work, or with friends at a restaurant, while the moms eat themselves.

My (not-yet-a-mom) maternal and public health instincts feel an injustice about how we’ve grown accustom to the lack of public ownership we (women) have over our bodies, particularly our boobs!  Our society highlights this injustice for every time a woman gets a stare for publicly nursing their child, or worse scolded for indecency, or worse yet banned from permitting the act to not offend or distract others.

Despite popular belief, public breastfeeding is NOT a controversial issue, it’s a public health one.  Not enough women naturally feed their babies either exclusively or for a long enough period to maximize its health benefits for mother and child. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey among US infants born in 2006:

  • 73.9% were ever breastfed
  • 43.4% were still breastfeeding at 6 months of age
  • 22.7% were breastfeeding at 1 year of age
  • 33.1% were exclusively breastfed through 3 months of age
  • 13.6% were exclusively breastfed through 6 months of age

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding,

…up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.

For a practice so important to the growth and development of our future generation, any societal barriers to breastfeeding are troubling.  Especially when we censor such images from public consumption as Facebook (FB) did when they deemed breastfeeding photos a violation of their decency policy.  In response, many women added more pictures of themselves nursing and a non-profit organization started a FB fan page called “If breastfeeding offends you put a blanket over YOUR head.” You should check out some of the discussion, it’s really interesting.

As natural as it is, initiating and maintaining breastfeeding can be challenging or uncomfortable.  There’s no place for additional barriers or judgment whether it’s from your partner, a stranger, employer, or a social networking site run by a twenty-something year old, multi-millionaire guy.

Although most states have laws protecting a woman’s rights to breastfeed in public, women brave enough to bare their breast still face scrutiny and harassment.  The image of baby-sucking-on teat still makes people feel uncomfortable.  Could it be because for every picture of a breast in our society , a small fraction of them represent its primary function, to provide nutrients?

Don’t get me wrong, breasts are beautiful and sexy. But the breast’s attractiveness and function don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

I joked with one of my friends and said, “imagine women had the guts to whip out their breast whenever they needed to nurse and said to their onlooking nay-sayers ‘Watchu lookin’ at? Never seen a tit before?'”  Some women are that brave.  But the vast majority of us who may (or will) find it challenging to publicly breastfeed, shouldn’t have to compromise their child’s health (even in the slightest) because of societal pressure to keep nursing behind closed doors.

Many workplaces now have policies promoting nursing and the CDC has a guide to promote breastfeeding at work.  You can also support local or national breastfeeding campaigns.  Joining or starting a support group is also an option.  If you’re committed to building your public breastfeeding confidence, start small.  Try nursing in front of trusted family and friends, use a cover if need be, then go from there.

Remember, there’s no justification in anyone judging a woman for nursing.  It’s a beautiful and natural way of keeping mom and baby healthy.  For nursing mom’s out there, please share your tips.

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One thought on “Society’s Aversion to Public Displays of Breastfeeding

  1. YukaNakamura says:

    As my daughter approaches her first birthday, I have been frequenly looking back on the past 12 months and I can relate to the feeling of embarrassment with respect to public breastfeeding. With time and with circumstance, I grew to put my daughter’s needs (hunger, comfort) above my own (or anyone else’s) discomfort with having my breast and (for a split second) my nipple exposed. Now that I contemplate continuing to breastfeed past 12 months, I’m once again faced with the potential embarrassment of public breastfeeding, this time of a toddler. Even though extended breastfeeding is proven to be beneficial, so many look upon it with disdain. I hope that I can find the courage to put my daughter’s needs above public opinion.

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