Public Displays of Indecency?

Tiffany Yang

It’s funny how pervasive certain attitudes or ideas are. Take public breastfeeding or even breastfeeding in general. In the context of mother and child in their own home, people think of it as a wonderful experience for the mother to bond with her child while nourishing that infant with her own milk. Take it outside in the public, though, and it’s a whole ‘nother story. Many people are uncomfortable, especially males, and wonder why the women “can’t take it elsewhere.” There have been numerous accounts of nursing mothers being asked to leave, or even being arrested, just for breastfeeding their child in public.

Just last night I was having dinner with some friends and one of them mentioned that one of her former coworkers had just had another baby and needed to pump her breasts during her shift. My friend laughed a little bit and asked us in an embarrassed and disbelieving voice “can you imagine what that would be like if you were working and she needed to do that?! And you knew exactly what was going on while she was in the bathroom?!” This conversation was hardly negative towards breastfeeding, but the fact that she was surprised at what her former coworker needed to do and would feel uncomfortable being in the situation shows that attitudes towards breastfeeding still needs to be changed before it can become accepted in public. Unfortunately, this negative attitude affects mothers who want to breastfeed their child but are wary of leaving their house in case they need to feed their baby.

A woman’s body goes through some extraordinary changes in order to produce breast milk and the beauty of it is that it will continue to be made as long as the infant is still suckling. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age and, with appropriate complementary foods added in, breastfeeding up to 2 years old. There’s tons of literature out there about the benefits of breastfeeding that range from increased immunity to higher IQ. In my classes that talk about pregnancy and lactation, it is made to sound like a crime if you don’t breastfeed your child because of what is being “withheld” from them. I used to feel pretty smug that I was breastfed until I found out earlier this semester that I was bottle-fed. I was pretty sad but I turned out ok.

I think it is harder for public breastfeeding to be accepted in the United States because our media sexualize breasts and, for many people, it can be hard to see them as having a function, much less one that helps remind everyone that we are animals and able to feed our young. We all (kind of?) know the benefits that can be reaped from breastfeeding but no one really talks about it like the way we talk about vaccinations or hand-washing. Thankfully, the new health reform legislation has established a right for women to pump at work. In fact, the Fair Labor Standards Act will be amended so that employers will need to provide a private location and allow women to take breaks in order to pump.

This is a step in the right direction but what we need is more public discourse on breastfeeding.

3 thoughts on “Public Displays of Indecency?

  1. Thanks for blogging on this subject! In my personal experience, even folks who are aware of benefits of breastfeeding get uncomfortable if they unexpectedly bump into you nursing. More public discussion would help to normalize the activity or at least bring people’s concerns into the open.

    It is a pity someone would have to pump in a restroom – that was suggested to one of my coworkers at an earlier place of employment. She asked, “Do you fix your lunch in the bathroom? Don’t ask me to make my baby’s lunch there.” The most basic act of child care, feeding, can benefit from privacy but should not be equated with eliminating bodily wastes.

  2. Thanks for the comments!

    Sarah, what you say is very very true, unfortunately. I have friends who plan on breastfeeding but still squirm at the sight of someone breastfeeding in public. Personally, I think women should reclaim the public space and insist on breastfeeding in public, if only to bring more awareness and to facilitate discussion.

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