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?

"Madonna" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Image source: WikiMedia Commons.
“Madonna” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Image source: WikiMedia Commons.

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.

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Featured image from WikiMedia Commons, listed under Creative Commons license.

Share your thoughts

31 Responses

  1. I used to think covering my nursing child with a blanket was discreet. I used to do it. Kids hated it. Think of some women’s obligatory head covers. No one likes a to be partitioned off with a blanket. My kids wanted to be a part of the group while they ate. No one else gets partitioned off at the table. They spent most of their time flailing their arms batting away at the blanket to open their path of vision. And their teeth grip hurt me. But I had no idea then how kids feel pretty much like the rest of us even if they can’t stand up for themselves. Blankets blocking children’s faces is apartheid. I’m as embarrassed that I did that as that I spanked my kids. Barbaric. Thank Life I am growing.
    : D

    1. Hi there, and thank so much for sharing your experience with us! I agree with you in that we as societies should never shun women into situations where breastfeeding becomes an uncomfortable, difficult experience to neither the mom nor the baby! I have no personal experience of it yet, but when the time comes, I hope I’ll be surrounded by a society that understands how natural – and essential – part of our lives breastfeeding is. Thanks again for visiting, and please do come again!

  2. Powerfully said. Inmy country breastfeeding a babay is as natural as urinating. When you have a crying baby strapped on your back, the first thing a concerned man or woman would ask ‘have you given the baby breast to suck? It is deemed really strange for a mother not to breastfeed a baby even in public, though I must say that with education and cultural adulteration, some mothers would rather do the breastfeeding hiding. But even that, what I normally see is that a clean napkin is used to cover the breast while the baby is breastfed.

  3. I am a mum, I breastfed both my girls in the late 80’s. We were discreet when we needed to be with a baby blanket over our shoulder. At times when this was not possible, I simply fed. Half of the people who complain have no children, or totally unaware that they were probably breastfed. For heavens sake grow up those who tsk tsk in disgust. If our children are hungry – they need feeding. Or are mothers banished & made to feel guilty for doing so?? Perhaps they would rather hearing a distressed screaming child, rather than the beauty of a mother providing for her young. Thnose that find it abhorent – walks away- look away – or more to the point SIMPLY get over yourselves for your immature reactions. Sorry for the vent – good article.

    1. Hello there, and welcome to Girls’ Globe! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us – and I agree, there should be no reason for breastfeeding to make anyone uncomfortable, especially given the amount of half-naked (or fully naked) female bodies we are exposed to every day through ads, TV, movies and magazines. Breastfeeding should be a beautiful, natural thing between the mother and the baby, not something the mother has to stress about, worry or feel ashamed for. Thank you for stopping by and for your supportive comment, and we hope to see you here again!

  4. Reblogged this on Susan Daniels Poetry and commented:
    I spent months on my lunch break in a bathroom using a breast pump when I worked in a hospital in order to keep breastfeeding my son after a return to work. Needless to say, this touched a HEAP of nerves. We need to support women tho breastfeed.

    1. Hi Susan! Thank you for visiting Girls’ Globe and for the reblog! I fully agree with you – work places need to have more policies and support systems in place to enable women to breastfeed after returning to work (not to mention longer maternity leaves and flexible work time!) – no one should have to hide in bathrooms to be able to feed their child! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, and we hope to see you here again!

  5. Bravo!! We at the Assoc. for Women in Science (AWIS) have been advocating for Title IX issues, and companies having breastfeeding facilities is one of them! It’s absolutely ridiculous that women get quarantined off to dirty bathrooms (or even clean ones) or broom closets to breastfeed or pump, and if they don’t and decide to breastfeed wherever is convenient, they get scoffed at and made to feel shameful! It’s a huge issue and one we take very seriously here at AWIS. Bravo on this great article!!! Here’s one blog post we had about that issue if you’re interested!: http://awisblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/title-ix-and-the-baby-bias/

    I’d like to invite yourself and your readers to take our LinkedIn poll — does your job provide a breastfeeding facility? http://linkd.in/12yrsnd

    1. Howdy! Thanks so much for your positive and encouraging comment and for sharing these resources with us! I think it is absolutely fantastic that you are advocating for measures that make it easier for women to continue to breastfeed and pump after returning to work – that is such an important component of ensuring that women can and do breastfeed their babies even after going back to the work place. I will definitely take your poll, and encourage all of our readers to do so as well! Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your comments with us, and please do come again!

    1. Hi Noel! I agree, promoting breastfeeding and making it easier and more comfortable for women to do so in public is definitely a priority! Thank you for visiting Girls’ Globe and please do come again!

  6. Excellent post. But I must be honest, I don’t think it wise to expose breasts in public, only out of a sense of modesty, but women ought to have the freedom to feed their children whenever it is necessary. I don’t see why no one has taken advantage of the market and made clothes for public breast feeding.

    1. Hi Zaffa87! Thank you for visiting Girls’ Globe and for your comment! I am personally not very sensitive with bare breasts and since I don’t yet have personal experience, cannot really comment on the easiness/difficulties of breastfeeding in a way that doesn’t expose the breast. I do know that there are plenty of clothes, bras, wraps and shawls designed particularly for breastfeeding purposes, so maybe those help women who also themselves might feel uncomfortable exposing the breast while feeding their baby. However, I do think that the main priority should be to create an atmosphere where women feel comfortable and safe to breastfeed in public places, even if it does mean exposing their breast while doing so. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and we hope to see you here again!

  7. While I support the author, I think she needs to visit more of countries before assuming the American attitude towards breastfeeding in public is “everyone”. E.g. in the UK breast feeding in public is a civil right. In Scotland, you can be arrested for preventing a woman from breastfeeding in a public place. If Hollie feels uncomfortable doing it then that’s a separate issue. I believe in most (if not all) of the US, breastfeeding in public is against the law. Americans are probably aware of this, which is why they go hide when they need to breastfeed. Therefore embarrassment is probably not the overriding emotion, it’s fear of recrimination. That’s the bigger issue here.

    1. Hi Rob! Thank you for visiting Girls’ Globe and sharing your thoughts with us!
      I (the author) am from Finland, though I currently live in the US – and have lived in several countries around the world. I do not have personal experience with public breastfeeding yet, as I don’t have children, but based on discussions with many friends who do have babies both in the US and in other countries, I have come to understand that many of them do feel shunned and shamed when breastfeeding in public. Breastfeeding is a legally protected right in most of the US as well, with the exception of a couple of states – but the issue is that many women are probably not aware of their legal rights to breastfeed, and also do not want to engage in public arguments when asked to move to the bathroom/back room by staff or bystanders. I do think that the big issue is public perception, as well as of course making women (and men) aware of existing laws and ensuring that they are implemented, so that women feel comfortable breastfeeding in public places.

      1. I agree; additionally here’s a link to a site that shows the different federal and state laws in the United States regarding breastfeeding (or “expressing milk,” as they say).

    1. Hi there and welcome to Girls’ Globe! I fully agree with you John – breastfeeding in public should be the most natural thing in the world! Thanks for visiting us and sharing your thoughts with us, and we hope to see you here again!

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