The breastfeeding debate is a sad indication of society’s double standards when it comes to women’s bodies.
A few weeks ago, Facebook reversed its policy of banning photos of mothers breastfeeding. The change was made without much fanfare, but writer and activist Soraya Chemaly, who has previously advocated for fairer and more reasonable content guidelines on Facebook, reported that these photos would no longer be considered “nudity” and “obscenity” by the company. (Photos of topless women who are not breastfeeding, however, are still banned.)
Like pretty much everything surrounding mothers and childrearing, breastfeeding is a politically charged topic. In some ways, mothers are encouraged, even demanded, to breastfeed their babies because of the potential health benefits that breastfeeding provides.
In New York City, a municipal program called Latch On NYC required hospitals to stop giving out formula to new mothers unless specifically requested, in which case a nurse has to record a medical justification for providing the formula. Mothers who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed for whatever reason face stigma—what sort of mom wouldn’t want to do absolutely everything she can to ensure her baby’s health? So the reasoning goes.
At the same time, women are also shamed for breastfeeding in public, even though it’s legal throughout the United States. Public breastfeeding, we are told, is “indecent” and “disgusting,” and mothers should “think of the children” before “whipping it out” in public. (Presumably, they should think about children besides their own, who are hungry and need to be fed.)
Instead, they should find a private place such as a restroom (unhygienic, and most don’t have comfortable seating for a mother to breastfeed), bring formula (not as good for the baby as breast milk), or pump their milk beforehand (and carry it around in a cooler in the summer heat, presumably). Breast pumps and formula aren’t even affordable for all women, and some babies refuse to drink formula.
All this has recently come up in online discussion once again after Karlesha Thurman, a mother and recent college graduate, posted a photo of herself breastfeeding at her graduation from California State University Long Beach. The photo went viral and spawned all of the usual blowback, except this time with an extra side of “She’s ruining the sanctity of the college graduation ceremony!” and probably a generous helping of racism. (Thurman is Black, and several commentators pointed out that the harsh response she is now facing ties into a long history of analyzing, judging, and regulating Black women’s bodies and what they do with them.)
Thurman originally posted the photo to the Facebook page of a group called Black Women Do Breastfeed, which aims to encourage and support Black mothers who are breastfeeding and who feel that their experiences are not well-represented in narratives of motherhood.
Thurman has since removed the photo from the group, explaining in interviews that the reactions she received personally, including from the other graduates, had all been supportive, but that people elsewhere online were being “very harsh.” She added, “I did it to show it’s natural, it’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it. I didn’t even know there was a big controversy about breast-feeding in public until all of this happened.”
I will never understand how Americans have become so vulgar that we now sexualize breastfeeding. #normalizebreastfeeding
— Abby Johnson (@AbbyJohnson) June 14, 2014
— Anne Lippin (@AnneLippin) June 12, 2014
#normalizebreastfeeding YOU can eat your meal in the washroom if my breast feeding makes you uncomfortable.
— Septembre Anderson (@SeptembreA) June 10, 2014
— Nιɴα ॐ (@PlusSizedHippie) May 11, 2014
Many Twitter users also linked to a meme that included photos of Rihanna in a dress that showed her nipples and made the news a few weeks ago along with photos of breastfeeding mothers. The meme was captioned, “Why is THIS [Rihanna’s dress] okay…But THIS [breastfeeding mothers] isn’t?”
While the meme makes an important point, it should also be noted that Rihanna’s dress was not considered even remotely “okay” by most commentators. “Sexy” clothing probably gets a slight pass because, unlike breastfeeding, straight men don’t have to feel gross about sexualizing it. But that doesn’t mean that women who choose to reveal their bodies—for themselves, for men, for any reason—don’t face backlash for it.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter how convenient or inconvenient it is to avoid breastfeeding in public. What matters is the hypocrisy of using breasts to advertise everything from cars to vegetable oil on billboards and in magazines while banning their public use for their most fundamental purpose: producing milk and feeding babies. American society takes it as a granted that breasts are “sexual” and must be kept private just like penises, testicles, and labia, but in many other parts of the world, toplessness is common and accepted for people of all genders, and the children seem to be doing just fine there.
Generally speaking, individual freedoms should not be restricted unless they cause actual harm to others. There is no evidence that the sight of a breastfeeding mother has any adverse effects on children or on anybody else. On the contrary, preventing mothers from breastfeeding when and where they need to will negatively impact them and their children—maybe a little bit, maybe a lot. If seeing a small bit of someone’s breast offends you that much, look away.
Miri Mogilevsky is a social work student who loves feminism, politics, New York City, and asking people about their feelings. She writes a blog called Brute Reason, tweets @sondosia, and rants on Tumblr.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
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