Featured image: Elina Tuomi
In early December, a Chinese mother made international headlines because she nursed her baby in the Beijing subway. A fellow passenger had taken a picture of the mother breastfeeding and shared it on social media with the caption “let me remind you that this is the Beijing subway, not a bus in your village”. Last week a Finnish celebrity stylist and a TV personality posted a picture to his Instagram and Facebook profiles of a mother nursing her baby on a Finnair flight from Helsinki to New York. His caption read “I know I am going to raise hell with this post but would it be too much to ask for mothers breastfeeding in public to cover the activity with a scarf?!” – his hashtags included #decency and #firstclass. A few days ago, a Republican State Representative Josh Moore from New Hampshire stated in his Facebook page that if a proposed bill banning women from exposing their nipples in public does not pass, if women choose to expose their nipples in public for the purposes of breastfeeding men should be allowed to “stare at it and grab it”. Apparently, according to Mr. Moore, the inclination for men to “stare and grab” an exposed nipple is as natural and therefore comparable to a mother’s inclination to feed her hungry child. Earlier in January, Donald Trump called a lawyer and breastfeeding mother “disgusting” for needing to take a break to pump milk.
I. Just. Can’t. With. The. Hypocrisy.
As a feminist, a woman, a mother and a human being I am absolutely sick and tired of having to fight over a mother’s right to feed her child. I am also sick and tired about the ridiculous hypocrisy that surrounds the issue of public breastfeeding – which, honestly, should be the biggest non-issue of the history of the world. What could be more non-controversial, non-threatening, and more natural than a mother breastfeeding her baby?
Here’s the thing: This isn’t a question about decency. This isn’t an issue about people getting all hot and bothered over some exposed skin. This isn’t about nudity, or babies, or even breasts.
It’s an issue about control over the female body and sexuality. About why, when and for whom women expose their bodies and breasts and who gets to determine whether it is acceptable or not. Apparently, according to quite a few people, this is to be determined by almost anyone else except for the woman in question herself.
Throughout history, women’s bodies have been used as a political battleground, a stage for patriarchy, a tool for male dominance, a vehicle for capitalism. Our bodies have been abused, taken advantage of, prodded, poked, grabbed and violated in the name of advertisement, entertainment, and profit making. We – men and women – are used to seeing the female body exposed for such purposes, whether on billboards, TV or on stage – but when it becomes a question of using our body – and a highly sexualized part of it: the breast – for nursing a child, suddenly people are all up in arms about what is decent and acceptable. Additionally, for some reason many people seem to think that nursing mothers are some sort of exhibitionists – that we’re just waiting for that perfect moment to flash our nipple to an unsuspecting stranger. That we’re holding on to that nursing bra clasp in anticipation, ready to release the glory of our milk dripping breast under the guise of “feeding our child”, when what we really want is to see the shock and horror on your face when you are nearly blinded by the sight of our dark areola. Have a taste of that, you total stranger! How about them nipples, hmhhhh??
No. Just. No.
Let me tell you a secret: Many breastfeeding mothers don’t enjoy nursing in public. Many breastfeeding mothers actually don’t enjoy nursing, period. And even those of us who do enjoy nursing, and who don’t mind nursing in public places, still eventually find ourselves in situations where we are wrestling a squirming baby with one hand, sweat dripping from our forehead, while somehow trying to keep our nipple covered with the other hand and get our too-interested-in-everything-but-the-boob baby to nurse. I would venture a guess that almost every mother would rather pick a calm, quiet and private spot for breastfeeding their kid than a public one – but there’s this annoying manufacturing flaw in (most) babies: they sometimes get hungry outside of the comfort of their own home. They sometimes need to feed when on the go. And, some of them just won’t take the bottle; some mothers don’t want to offer the bottle because it might cause problems for breastfeeding; and some mothers just can’t pump (or don’t want to, because it kinda sucks). Surprisingly, some babies also do not appreciate it when someone tries to throw a blanket on their face when they’re trying to eat. None of these reasons are any business of anyone else’s though – the crux of the issue is simple:
A mother has a right to feed her child, in her chosen method of feeding, wherever and whenever the need arises.
We do not breastfeed our children for your viewing pleasure. We do not need nor want you to stare at us while we’re feeding our babies. Your eyes have a built-in feature: they can look away. Most importantly: We do not need your acceptance, permission or approval. Our bodies are not here to serve or entertain you. Public breastfeeding is protected by the law in many parts of the world, and where it isn’t it should be. There is nothing more natural in this world than a mother breastfeeding her baby – so excuse me when I take a moment to not give a crap when you lift your eyes from the full page advertisement of a half-naked woman to give me the evil judging eye while I breastfeed. And let me be clear: women in skimpy or tight clothes have nothing to be ashamed for either – but neither do women who choose to breastfeed in public. Let’s make 2016 the year to end stigma and shame around public breastfeeding, once and for all.
Edit: This post has been corrected to note that the proposed bill in New Hampshire that would make it illegal for women to expose their nipples in public does have an exemption for breastfeeding mothers.
Image of Texas breastfeeding law courtesy of Will C. Fry/Flickr, Creative Commons.