I live in New York, and I see them everywhere – on subways, in coffee shops, on park benches, lying on their sides on picnic quilts, in restaurants while others are eating around them, in buses, in supermarkets, in department stores, on the streets. Women, pulling out their breasts from under their shirts, clipping open their bras, sometimes exposing a nipple, to feed a hungry child in the middle of a public place. I see them, and I think to myself:
How in the world could anyone, ever, have an issue with this?
I am a native of Finland, and I realize that our relationship with nudity in general is very different than in many other countries, largely due to our sauna culture which is as essential to being a Finn as 4th of July barbecues are for Americans. We grow up understanding that a naked body, or bare breasts, do not always equal sexuality and lust. Movies, magazines, TV shows, advertisements and ten feet high billboards are plastered in women’s bodies; bodies that are these days used to sell anything and everything under the sun from cars to alcohol to power tools to grocery items. Yet women who want to engage in the most natural, essential thing in the world – breastfeeding their children – still find themselves shunned from public, having to hide in bathrooms, corners and backrooms or just wait until they get home, and for what? Because strangers are not comfortable seeing a woman breastfeed her child in public, but are perfectly fine consuming products that are promoted through the objectification of women’s bodies, or listening to music by artists that parade naked women as props around them, or staring at a billboard with a godzilla-sized half naked female body on it? This is absolutely absurd.
Hollie McNish, a British poet and artist also felt this way after months of hiding in dirty public toilets to feed her baby girl. She posted a video on YouTube titled “Embarrassed”, powerfully describing in spoken word what it feels like to be shunned and shamed to breastfeed in hiding. The video is quickly going viral, and the comment stream is filling up with heartfelt thank you notes from mothers around the world. As McNish rightfully points out:
For God’s sake, Jesus drank it, and so did Siddhartha, Mohammed, and Moses and both of their fathers, Ganesh and Shiva and Brigit and Buddha, and I’m sure they weren’t doing it sniffing on piss as their mothers sat embarrassed on cold toilet lids in a country of billboards covered in tits.
Both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend six months of exclusive breastfeeding. For some women, that might mean six months of hiding in dirty toilets, rushing home to feed their children, or staying indoors because of the shame and stress that public breastfeeding can cause. What does it say about us, as individuals, as countries, as cultures and as societies, if we shame mothers into hiding to feed their babies but embrace a culture that objectifies women every moment of every day, using the female body as a tool to sell, to promote, to advertise, to get attention? What does it say about us that we find it acceptable to musicians to parade naked women around them for nothing else than shock value, but we think there is something wrong with a bare breast when it is exposed for the purposes of feeding a child? What does it say about us, if we do not flinch at the sight of these American Apparel ads, but find it disturbing when a baby is reaching for a bare breast for food? It says we are becoming communities of hypocrites, and that this travesty absolutely has to stop.
I am not a mother yet, but if I one day become one, I hope I will never have to hide in toilets or backrooms to feed my baby. No mother, anywhere in the world, ever should.
For more reading:
- Katharine McKinney: If you don’t support breastfeeding in public, You don’t support breastfeeding
- There is a link between proper maternity leave and benefits and women’s ability to breastfeed – check out this article on NY Times blog “Motherlode”
- Legal information about breastfeeding in public in the United Kingdom (Maternity Action)
- Information on state breastfeeding laws in the United States
Featured image from WikiMedia Commons, listed under Creative Commons license.