Characterised as “the perfect food” for newborns by the World Health Organisation, breastfeeding is slowly but surely on the rise. With the latest statistics from Unicef showing a 20 percent increase or higher in breastfeeding rates across 25 countries, more women than ever are nursing in countries like the United States and New Zealand.
Despite a burgeoning advocacy from health professionals and governments alike, mothers continue to report being discriminated against for publicly nursing. As the news floods with stories of women being shamed for breastfeeding outside the home, more mothers are taking a stand against what they say is another example of the policing of women’s bodies. Lactivism, otherwise known as breastfeeding advocacy, is the latest feminist movement making headlines. Tired of patriarchal double standards allowing one women to bare her breasts for advertising purposes while another is shamed for using them to feed her child, lactivists are calling it quits on the popular blood or “milk” sport of critiquing mothers parenting.
Courtney Jung is just one such woman speaking out against the perils of modern motherhood. A professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Jung is the author of the recently released Lactivism, a book examining breastfeeding as an industry. In it, Jung describes how breastfeeding has become a moral issue. “Breastfeeding has become an important marker of who we are and what we believe in. For some it signals a commitment to attachment parenting, for others it is an environmental issue, and for still others it is a protest against the predatory marketing practices of the big formula companies,” explains Jung. “Some parents on the Christian right see breastfeeding as a sign of the rightness of heterosexual marriage, with different roles for men and women and some feminists believe it is an emblem of female empowerment and the life-sustaining force of female bodies.”
It is this very perception of breastfeeding as a moral act that continues to leave many mothers in a complex bind. In a world where breastfeeding is considered the optimum way to feed a child, women who cannot or do not want to nurse their children frequently report feeling pressure to breastfeed (a recent study by online video community Channel Mum shows women who bottle feed are three times more likely to be abused in public). This pressure, combined with the moral fervour surrounding the act, sends a conflicting message: to not breastfeed is to risk your child’s health, but to do so publicly is to possibly offend.
This is the argument put forth by lactivists who say the public feeding debate is more concerned with controlling women’s bodies and boosting profits than it is about the health interests of infants. “What this really seems to be about, yet again, is policing women’s bodies, judging and thus controlling aspects of motherhood as well,” says Dr Karen Brooks, an associate professor at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies in Australia. “Setting conditions on what’s acceptable and unacceptable parenting has become a popular blood (or should that be milk?) sport.”
Evidently, everyone from private companies to governments seem to have an interest in how and when mothers should feed their children. In Mexico, the government recently announced a crackdown on giveaways of baby formula at hospitals and clinics in a bid to boost breastfeeding rates. Elsewhere, companies like Medela, which manufacture breast pumps and Prolacta Bioscience, which make nutritional supplements for infants from human milk, are funding breastfeeding research. While this isn’t to say such research is rigged, it does mean private companies have a vested interest in the outcome. According to Jung, such acts indicate nursing has become a commercialised business. With many businesses now profiting from the breastfeeding boom, some suggest devices like breast pumps are only encouraging women to feed their babies breast milk in a private setting or via bottle in public.
Meanwhile, in the US, New Hampshire politician Josh Moore has come under fire for suggesting mothers who breastfeed in public shouldn’t have a problem with men staring or grabbing their breasts. While Moore’s views may sit on the extreme side of the spectrum, his opinions stem from the common belief that breasts are sexual organs and as such, should not be publicly displayed. An argument frequently put forth by those who oppose public breastfeeding – the concept of breasts as sexual organs – appears to be relatively exclusive to Western society. In a study of 191 cultures by anthropologist Clellan Ford and ethnologist Frank Beach, only 13 countries were found to consider breasts as sexually important. In a similar research project by cultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, West Africans were noted to be shocked by the Western eroticisation of breasts, deeming the behaviour as “unnatural” and even “perverted”.
“Breastfeeding is normal. But, in a society that sexualises everything mammary, it appears we struggle when breasts are transformed from objects of femininity, sensuality and sexuality to a maternal and infant necessity,” says Brooks. Nevertheless, sexuality remains an integral component in the argument against public breastfeeding. But for lactivists, any sexual function a breast has comes secondary to their primary function – which is to feed young children. To argue otherwise is to support the patriarchal vision of women’s bodies as profit-making sex objects.
“I wonder if the same person who finds breastfeeding or a mother’s breasts offensive has a similar problem with the semi or topless pictures of women that adorn countless billboards and magazine covers,” says Brooks.
Yet for others whose views lie somewhere in between the debate extremes, breastfeeding in public is an acceptable practice – so long as the mother is discreet. Despite his profession as a doctor, Max Pemberton believes seeing a women’s breast in a public is unsettling. As a British author and journalist, Pemberton frequently shares his views online. While he disagrees with public breastfeeding, he does agree more public facilities are needed for women to breastfeed in private. “Of course, breastfeeding is only natural, but so are lots of things that I don’t want to see or engage with while I’m eating a muffin,” writes Pemberton.
“What’s more, [breastfeeding] is not something that can be just tolerated: increasingly, it’s one of those activities that is publicly applauded. Why do we need to celebrate other people’s private biological functions?”
Ironically, the majority of breastfeeding mothers seem to be just as embarrassed by the act as their disapproving onlookers. A 2015 study of nearly 3,000 mothers by Public Health England found six out of ten women who breastfeed attempt to hide it while out and about. A further third of the women surveyed said they felt too embarrassed or uncomfortable to nurse outside the home. Of the reasons for choosing not to, one of five women said they believed people did not want to see them breastfeed in public. Confirming that belief, just under half of respondents felt it was inappropriate to nurse in places like restaurants or buses.
“I find it extraordinary that instead of those who are uncomfortable with breastfeeding averting their gaze, the onus of responsibility for ‘showing respect’ falls on the mother. She’s expected to ‘cover up’ or relocate,” says Brooks. “As for the ‘modesty’ and ‘more discretion’ being asked of these lactating women, in all the years I’ve been on this planet, I’ve yet to see a breastfeeding mother being indiscreet or immodest.” Undoubtedly, there are problems with asking women to be discreet. For one, the terms modesty and discretion are subjective. What may be perfectly acceptable for one person is highly inappropriate to the next.
One alternative is the displaying of signs in businesses and cafes where breastfeeding is supported – a move supported by the New Zealand Breastfeeding Alliance. Executive Officer at the NZBA, Julie Stufkens, says a number of businesses are now showing signage as part of the organisation’s Baby Friendly Initiative. Although not illegal in New Zealand, there are no laws specifically designed to protect mothers from being discriminated against for nursing in public. Mothers can, however, make a case for sex discrimination under the Human Rights Commission Act of 1977.
“Sadly, women still do experience criticism and the Human Rights Commission continues to receive complaints and enquiries involving mothers being asked to leave cafes, pre-schools, museums and other public places while breastfeeding their babies,” she says.
Even so, Stufkens believes there is no need for a change in the law. “Enforcing rules and regulations does not fix the underlying issue that we are trying to address, which is to help improve our nation’s support, protection and promotion of breastfeeding.” Others not so content with the situation are taking matters into their own hands. Mass breastfeeding protests have become a popular means for frustrated mothers across the globe to make their opinion heard.
Michelle Van Zyl from Bendigo in Australia organised one such event in February after she had heard another local mum had been asked to leave a food court for breastfeeding. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to look, it’s as simple as that. We’re just trying to feed our baby – that’s all – just keeping them happy and healthy,” Van Zyl responded when asked about possibly offending onlookers.
Indeed, health benefits are what motivates most women to breastfeed. Stufkens believes greater education around the health benefits of breastfeeding is needed to gain support from the public. She also believes mothers need to be more informed of the implications of breastfeeding and using formula. “Breastfeeding is about two people – the mother and the infant. We need to consider what is best for both individuals when it coming to infant feeding. Women, when making feeding decisions, should be provided with objective and scientific information on breastfeeding and other infant feeding options to consider, as well as the possible implications of that choice.”
While it is generally accepted that breastfeeding is the healthiest means of feeding newborns (the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first six months), some say the rhetoric around nursing is only adding fuel to the fire. In other words, by upholding breastfeeding as the standard, we are participating in society’s obsession with policing women’s bodies. It is this very policing by governments, private companies and the media that some lactivists claim has led the public to believe they have a right to decide how and when a women feeds her child.
Dana Ben-Ari, director of the documentary Breastmilk, which explores the bottle versus breastfeeding debate, believes this is a crucial component in the debate. “Our society has so much anxiety over how women’s choices – their independent decisions and experiences – affect their roles as mothers. As a result, women’s practices are overly scrutinised and regulated in surprising ways,” says Ben-Ari. “For example, there is the surveillance of eating, exercise and other behaviours that many women go through during pregnancy and now, even during ‘pre-pregnancy’; a so-called detoxifying and cleansing in order to ready their bodies to be pregnant. This carries on through postpartum months of mother and baby feeding practices as well.”
Even staunch opponents of public breastfeeding like Pemberton, admit the public versus private discussion is only a smaller part of a larger problem. “I think the debate about breastfeeding has become a very strange part of a larger phenomenon, where women’s lactation has become public property,” he says. “Everyone has a view on new mothers and their bodies these days. Women who choose not to breastfeed are ostracised and considered bad mothers, as though it’s anyone else’s business how they choose to feed their baby.”
Stufkens shares a similar viewpoint. “Society plays a significant role in whether a mother feels comfortable enough to breastfeed in public and we still have some way to go in New Zealand before it becomes the cultural norm.”
Rather than debating the health benefits of breastfeeding and the sexuality of breasts, women like Ben-Ari suggest we shift the focus towards respecting women’s bodies, their choices and supporting their journeys as mothers. “The women interviewed in my documentary are constantly negotiating between wanting to provide breast milk, either through breastfeeding, supplementing with formula or pumping at the workplace, and struggling with supportive and contradictory concerns from partners and family members,” she says. “What’s clear is the lack of infrastructure in place to help support these mothers breast or bottle feed without going through overwhelming amounts of anxiety and juggling.” Wherever you stand in the debate, it’s hard to deny being a mother is one of the most difficult roles a woman can take on. Perhaps it is time for all of us to stop pointing fingers and begin lending a hand.
This article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of M2woman Magazine.