Last year a mother breastfeeding her baby was ordered to get off the bus in Bristol. The mother was accused of ‘indecent exposure’ for responding to her six weeks old daughter’s hunger. The bus driver asked the mother to either ‘put them away’ or get off the bus, and the woman chose the latter.
On another occasion, a woman breastfeeding her baby in a library in north London was advised to be more discrete and ‘face the wall’ the next time she feeds the baby. A similar incident occurred online when Facebook took down a page about breastfeeding for featuring pictures of breastfeeding mothers. Facebook argued the pictures contained ‘inappropriate content’ though it changed its stance later and reinstated the page. Breastfeeding in public, whether it’s the actual act or visual representations of it, remains a fraught issue.
Breastfeeding mothers in the UK are now protected by law. The Equality Act 2010, which came into force in October last year, explicitly protects breastfeeding in public for up to 26 weeks after a woman has given birth. Not only does this protection entitle women to breastfeeding in public but also asks public bodies to make proper provisions for working and student mothers. It is indeed a big step that the legislation has taken but the question remains – have attitudes towards breastfeeding changed at all?
The answer to this question is neither simple nor one we can to gauge at the moment. The more important question here, and the one we can dwell on now, is – what is so offensive about breastfeeding? And is that offence justified?
The anti-breastfeeding in public discourse is an interesting one. Due to the onslaught and interest around breastfeeding in public, there has been a proliferation of scientific studies on health issues related to breastfeeding. According to a recent research conducted by University College London’s Institute of Child Health, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months may result in iron deficiency in the baby. Of course, the ‘naturalists’ are always quick to get back with their own scientific studies of how breastfeeding for as long as possible is the best a baby can get. And then of course, there is the whole debate around the ‘maternal instinct’ which often tends to demonise women who opt to bottle feed their babies.
However, the debate I am exploring here is not about whether breastfeeding is the ‘right’ option or whether mothers should, as a maternal duty, breastfeed their babies. Those debates obscure the real issue. The question is what is it about breastfeeding in public that makes it a matter of such divided public debate and concern?
Opposition to breastfeeding in public seems to be largely a ‘Western’ issue. There have been no incidents of people expressing revulsion at a mother breastfeeding her baby in Asian, Middle Eastern or African countries, but that the West tends to show a more systematic and institutionalised opposition to breastfeeding. It is, therefore, no surprise that opposition to breastfeeding in public in the developing world is most often heard of in urban than rural areas. This is indeed an intriguing dichotomy, though not an absolute one. It is intriguing because it flouts the ‘normal’ expectations of ‘modesty’ in Western and Eastern women – veiled women in many countries feel no shame in breastfeeding their babies in public.
This dichotomy has several aspects to it. One, it may be a result of the perception that breastfeeding in public is a ‘savage’ act – people in ‘uncivilised’ countries breastfeed their babies in public because they are not familiar with the nuances of a civilised life and mostly do not have enough space in their countries (because of their exploding populations, which are also a result of their ‘savagery’) to be able to enjoy any privacy. Western populations, however, are civilised and have the privilege of privacy; therefore, mothers in Western countries, who have access to a ‘room of their own’ should restrict the act of breastfeeding to their inner quarters.
Secondly, this dichotomy can also be credited to the idea that the West is more ‘advanced’ and women in Western countries are educated and independent as opposed to women in the Eastern countries who are meant to exist only for the purpose of reproduction. This perception makes it easier to accept a woman to be seen in public with a baby latched onto her breast in an Eastern country while making the image of a Western woman as a mother something difficult to digest as a Western woman is a ‘professional’ who has enough resources to buy formula milk and breast pumps.
These perspectives are only meant to exemplify the attitudes underlying the opposition to breastfeeding in public but are not the only aspects of this debate. Breastfeeding is in fact a much more complex cultural issues and to find the original cause behind the opposition to breastfeeding in public would take at least several years of research.
Besides the ‘modesty’ issue, the hypocrisy of the situation is betrayed by the almost complete lack of a similar opposition to what is otherwise termed ‘indecent exposure’ on the television, on the big Hollywood screen, in pubs and clubs, on the streets and so on. The whole issue then boils down to the ‘belonging of breasts’ – where is it appropriate for breasts to be exposed and how much?
One doesn’t have to be a genius to be able to clearly see that exposing breasts in a sexual way or in sexual situations is deemed appropriate whereas, breastfeeding, a non-sexual use of breasts, becomes problematic. This is about men claiming sexual possession of breasts – breasts are only meant for sexual gratification of men and so that is how they should be presented, laced and dolled up in bras, not bulging and lactating with an infant latched on to them.
My contention with the opposition to breastfeeding in public is not that breastfeeding is ‘natural’ or ‘instinctual’, not even that it’s a basic necessity, but that it’s a glaring example of sexual double standards. It appears that it’s quite difficult for men to be sexually gratified by an infant sucking on its mother’s breasts and consequently such a scene should be kept out of their view. It’s ironic that the only time breasts can be acceptably exposed is when they are actually displayed. A mother who, on the other hand, may be hesitant about exposing in public to breastfeed her baby is seen as repulsive or disgusting.
And this is exactly why I believe we need to move away from the debate of whether breast milk is the best for baby’s health or whether breastfeeding is instinctual as that discourse only fuzzes the real issue; instead we need to focus on questioning the sexual double standards that the opposition to breastfeeding in public betrays.
*Originally published on the Vibe