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If Public Breastfeeding Offends You, Don’t Look

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about public breastfeeding and the controversy surrounding Karlesha Thurman.

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, andseveral 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.”

Read the rest here.

Comments

  1. Onamission5 says

    I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around breastfeeding stigma. I grew up in a relatively conservative family and it was so not even an issue *even in church* for a woman to feed her baby when and where the baby was hungry that it’s exceedingly difficult for me to conceptualize the kind of mindset which sees breastfeeding as inappropriate or sexual. No nursing blankets, no “oh sorry it’s this or she cries,” no glares or stares, just feed and get on with it.

    Once, when traveling across country with Spouse and two of my kids, we were readying for take off so I put baby to breast to help her transition without her ears hurting her and noticed this woman turned around in her seat glaring daggers at me. I stared back. She glared harder. I just kept staring back at her until finally I’d had enough and said loudly enough to startle baby off latch, thereby flashing nipple, “WHAT?” She turned back around with a huff, and I caught her glaring over her shoulder off and on through the whole 6 hour flight any time my daughter made so much as a peep, then huffing and chuffing when I’d put cranky baby to nursing to try and quiet her. Eventually I asked Spouse to trade seats with me even though I really needed the small amount of extra space that the aisle seat afforded. More than anything I wanted to get up and tell her that she can’t have it all the ways. You can’t restrict liquids on airplanes AND bar public breastfeeding AND have a quiet baby. Not gonna happen.

  2. says

    I breastfed both kids and I breastfed everywhere I went and it was never a problem. I did not believe in stuffing the baby under a blanket or feeding in bathrooms. Everybody was entitled to look away, which is a very easy thing to do.
    Having said this, I think it’s important to mention that the benefits of breastfeeding are greatly exaggerated. There is only one optimal way to feed a baby: the one that works best for the mother and baby in question, no matter if it’s breast, formula or a combination of both.

    • says

      My sister was never able to breastfeed. With her youngest, my kid was close enough in age that I was able to give her all the excess expressed milk, but with her older one it was formula the entire time. I didn’t do it because of the ‘breast is best’ nonsense, I did it because otherwise my deep freeze would have been filled with nothing but milk and holy shit formula gets expensive.

      I ended up physically throwing someone out of the house because they wouldn’t leave her alone over the issue. Stressed out sobbing mothers do not make for happy babies. Funny how much better my niece started doing when the judgypants was no longer around and mommy could relax and just enjoy her child.

      Ironically, it’s the youngest who developed ADHD and other issues that breastmilk is supposed to prevent. My kid has ADHD as well. Ah well, guess my boobs are responsible for that as well as earthquakes and the fall of modern society.

    • says

      That’s an interesting perspective I hadn’t thought about. Maybe part of the anti-public breastfeeding push is just people’s discomfort with the reminder that humans are still animals and that biological processes like breastfeeding are still a part of our lives.

      • says

        Apart from the ear thing and the hair that is what defines our whole class!

        I also find it interesting how in many societies women (and now men too) seem to want, or are encouraged or whatever, to remove body hair.
         
        All our children were breastfed, and apart from the benefits to them (and the fact that their poop was a lot less yeuch!-ish) it made my wife feel good, and (according to her) it helped with her physical recovery (if that’s the right word: I, of course, didn’t have that experience so I’m guessing).

        • says

          Sorry I forgot to add that in Scotland (I’m originally from the UK) they passed a law against being against breastfeeding in public! This from the Grauniad:
          “The legislation, which will take effect early next year [2005], makes it a criminal offence to deliberately obstruct breast or bottle feeding in any public place where children are allowed. Businesses and organisations that breach the rules could be fined up to £2,500.”

          Of course they did this in part because of historically low breastfeeding rates.

  3. smrnda says

    I really have never *got* the issue with breastfeeding. People whine about crying babies all the time and expect parents (particularly mothers) to work some kind of magic to make the baby stop crying or fidgeting, so it’s a bit absurd to complain about feeding a baby.

    The *issue* with breastfeeding also displays a shocking degree of entitlement about regulating what other people do when the worst is that you might *see something.*

  4. says

    Yeah, it’s a super-weird thing, the way some people want to control the breastfeeding of others. The motivations seem deeply disturbing. On the surface, it seems that many would have it as a “nudity” issue, which is utter crap, since commonly acceptable clothing may reveal just as much or more than a mother breastfeeding.

    Or maybe the thought of an educated Black mother caring lovingly for her child blows some people’s stereotypes out of whack.

    Whatever, it always seems to boils down to policing women, their bodies, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. I think most sci-fi dystopias came true for women around the dawn of civilization.

  5. Blanche Quizno says

    My daughter breastfed until she was almost 6. Of course, by the last coupla years, it was just on going to sleep and waking up in the morning (and very rarely otherwise, unless she hurt herself), but you should see the weirdness when I bring that up (in an appropriate context, of course).

    This daughter is now 15, extremely healthy, and is planning on graduating early from high school. Her teeth are great – always have been – I think she’s had, like, 2 small cavities (to address the hand-wringing over tooth decay from nursing to sleep).

    I think the real reason is that our culture here in the US is so focused on separating mothers and infants, getting the moms back into the workforce post-haste and those useless, ostensibly insentient poop machines into day care. Since high school girls aren’t supposed to have babies, they should not be bringing the products of their slutty tramp trash lifestyle out and shoving them in everyone else’s face.

    I went to a high school graduation last week at a high-risk high school program (many, if not most, of the graduating young women had at least one child; there was a day-care on site), but none of the young women had their babies with them while they were on the stage in their caps and gowns. I think that says something, too. Though the speakers who described the young women who were receiving awards and mentioned their children along with how hard they had worked, the fact that the children were not up there sent a pretty strong message, I thought.

  6. lochaber says

    I don’t get this.

    do these people know what can be annoying?

    a crying baby.

    And do they know what a breast feeding baby isn’t?

    crying.

    It’s a hell of a lot easier to look the other way then to ignore a noise.

  7. says

    I think that a lot of the opposition comes from the fact that breastfeeding removes boobs from the approved context: They’re there for heterosexual men to oggle at. You typically don’t see anything in a breastfeeding mother you don’t see in the add she’s sitting in front of, but a woman nursing clearly indicates that this boob is now for the baby (and if you sexualize it you’re a bad kind of pervert). And we all know that the worst human rights abuse ever is hurting het white cis man feefees

    • Onamission5 says

      Yup.

      And the opposition that I have gotten from other women generally stemmed from their belief that I was putting myself on display for the ogling of men, in a word, immodesty. So, slut shaming me for feeding my baby.

    • thascius says

      “And we all know that the worst human rights abuse ever is hurting het white cis man feefees”
      How true. And we also know that worrying about anyone else’s feelings is “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!!!”

  8. says

    Public breastfeeding is one of those issues where I have trouble being 100% unquestioningly supportive. I mean, I breastfeed in public, of course I think it’s absolutely okay.

    I do think some reasonable limits are okay. I think if your child is past the toddler stage, you really shouldn’t be breastfeeding in public. I think once you are done breastfeeding, you should put the boob away. I think there is no reason to go completely topless when breastfeeding or otherwise make an exhibition of it. I also think you should be somewhat cognizant of the fact that some people are just made very uncomfortable by it, and as long as they aren’t getting in your face over it you don’t need to be getting in theirs. And I think taking up the only available handicapped stall to breastfeed is very rude unless you are willing to vacate when someone comes along who actually needs the stall. I do wish more areas would provide a nice, comfortable, quiet place for those who do wish to breastfeed in private or have one of those kids who tries to turn their head and look at absolutely every distraction, without releasing the nipple to do so (ow).

    But I also think mothers should be issued a tazer upon leaving the hospital with full legal permission to use it on anyone coming up to either criticize them for bottle feeding instead of breast or breastfeeding instead of bottle. As well as to use it on those creeps who come up and leer at breastfeeding women. And the folks who slut-shame women who are simply breastfeeding and minding their own business. And the people who try to get employees to exile breastfeeding women from the premises. And people who come up to breastfeeding women and tell them what a good mother they are not like those liberal women who hand over the kid to strangers and go immediately back to work and insist you have (insert number here, often broken down by gender) more but don’t dare go over (insert number here) or you are mistaking your vagina for a clown car. And the folks that come up and say ‘your baby is (gender)? Why the hell are you dressing it in color/character/style more appropriate to (other gender)? Aren’t you worried you are going to turn it into a (slur for sexual orientation)? And in addition to the tazer, they should also be issued a clue by four to deal with that one person who comes up and starts poking at the baby while it’s breastfeeding.

    • says

      I do think some reasonable limits are okay. I think if your child is past the toddler stage puberty, you really shouldn’t be breastfeeding in public.

      FIFY
      It’s not that I’m a big fan of extended breastfeeding, but I really think that the issues people have with it in public have everything to do with their own minds and nothing with the fact at hand.
      As for your other “demands”: Who decides what is “reasonable”? Why should the discomfort of people not involved be considered at all? It is really easy to look away.

      • says

        In my case it has to do with having known a few breastfeeding fanatics. That’s also where some of the other issues come from. Breastfeeding is a perfectly natural thing, but it doesn’t need to be an ‘in your face’ thing.

        It got beyond ridiculous. If I breastfed in public, I got slut-shamed, told to put it away, told it was ‘inappropriate’, blah blah blah. If I bottlefed in public, I got lectured on being a cold mother, told I was ignorant and breast was best, and had it suggested I was an unfit parent who should have the kid taken from me. And of course, I was also wrong for encouraging my over a year old kiddo to try tastes of whatever I was eating. There was no way to win, and a lot of my issues on this topic have to do with exactly that.

        As for ‘who decides’, I thought that was clear – I do, of course. What, exactly, do you feel is ‘unreasonable’ about my ‘demands’?

        —-It is really easy to look away.—

        Yes. It is. Let me actually tell you the incidents that led to my remark about just accepting that some people find it uncomfortable and you shouldn’t get in their face over it. I have a friend, who, for want of a better term, is a prude. He’s just really disturbed by the naked human form, male or female. It’s his issue, he looks away, he doesn’t get in anyone’s face over it and avoids areas where it’s reasonable to see another human being sans clothing. We were out and about, and there was a woman breastfeeding. He noticed, and promptly turned his back so he didn’t have to see. This offended her, and she started snarking at him for ‘not being able to handle natural motherhood’ and all kinds of other shit. We left that section. Later we crossed her path again and she pointed him out and snarked about him to her companion. It was stupid. There was no reason she needed to be offended, or get in his face, or make any kind of big deal over it.

        I have another friend who ended up in a similar situation, though in her case it was because the child in question was a very noisy feeder and my friend moved away because the sound was bothering her. She got snarked at and confronted for ‘being judgmental’ as well (gotta love hypocrisy, right?).

        It struck me as shades of a persecution complex. Like those particular women wanted a fight, and when nobody obliged them they tried to pick one. I just wanted to scream at them about how much harder they were making it for other women.

        Yeah, it’s easy to look away. Breastfeeding in public is perfectly natural, and should be allowed. But holy fucking shit are there some real judgypants drama llamas on the pro-breastfeeding breast is best side. They are almost as bad as the judgypants drama llama kids and mothers shouldn’t be seen at all side.

        I breastfed in public. I had one of those kids who couldn’t stand to have a cover-up. I know it isn’t always possible to be ‘modest’ while breastfeeding, but there is a difference between breastfeeding your kid in public and putting on a show. Maybe it’s a backlash against the constant preaching of ‘be modest’ and ‘boobs are for the male gaze’, but it seems like some people are making a production out of it and trying to put themselves on some kind of mommy pedestal or cross or something. It’s the same people who go on about how you don’t know anything about ‘love’ or ‘sacrifice’ or ‘hard work’ until you become a parent and throw shit-fits when you suggest they get a babysitter instead of bringing the kid along to an adult-oriented event.

        Breastfeeding is perfectly natural. So is eating. I’m fine with eating in public too, but the teenagers at the pizza place the other day chewing with their mouths open after shoveling in entire slices of pizza and belching the whole time needed to grow up.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    I am highly offended by people who go grocery shopping in their pajamas. Let’s all work to shame them, and leave the moms alone.