Let’s talk about breastfeeding. Not enough people do, sadly.

There are many debates surrounding the subject of breastfeeding: the bottle versus the breast and the public breastfeeding debate.   The public breastfeeding debate is an extremely delicate and controversial topic of discussion for many, with various sensitive and dynamic factors involved.

Before we start brandishing pitchforks, it must be noted that not all those against public breastfeeding are sexist, misogynistic males - some mothers also feel strongly about the matter.  Then, there are those that are more tolerable and prefer a breastfeeding mother to use a breastfeeding cover or blanket - this includes breastfeeding mothers themselves. The right to publicly feed your baby doesn’t mean that you have to, and some women are uncomfortable with completely baring all.  And finally, there are those that are entirely accepting of public breastfeeding in any shape or form and actively encourage it, seeing it as a beautiful act of nature that shouldn’t be tainted with taboo or social discomfort.  Whether you’re a ‘lactivist’ or not, and whatever your preferred breastfeeding method, the important issue at hand is that all women have the freedom of choice to privately or publicly feed their babies, with a cover or without, and without victimisation.

Discussions concerning the subject can quickly heat up with the words ‘feminism’ and ‘misogyny’ quickly making an appearance.  We must take into consideration that not all men who feel uncomfortable with public breastfeeding are misogynistic or sexist and not all women who support it are attempting to overthrow the male sex.  Men are biologically programmed to perceive breasts as a sexual object. Like it or not, this is not debasing to the female form, and derives from the basic instinct and desire to select a healthy partner that can bare and raise children.  It is, therefore, only natural that men may feel uncomfortable when in the presence of a breastfeeding mother, and for that we must forgive them – but certainly not be shamed into hiding. Uncomfortable individuals will simply have to avert their eyes.  We are now living in an age where it is unacceptable to subjugate women; however the issue still remains, whether through lack of knowledge on the legislation or general ignorance, many breastfeeding mothers still experience penalisation for publicly feeding.

Maternity Action brought into effect The Equality Act in October 2010 that states that ‘it is sex discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding’.  The movement continues by stating that women may not be prevented from breastfeeding in any public place, such as a restaurant or café and must not be treated differently or with any contempt.  Despite this legislation, This is Gloucester recently reported of mortified mother of 11 week old Jessica, Claire Knowles, who was asked to disguise her breastfeeding in a public restaurant by one of the staff who asked her to turn and face the wall like a naughty child.  The restaurant owner later apologised publicly for this unfavourable act.

 

It seems that, although breastfeeding women are protected by law, breastfeeding rights are relatively unknown and unclear amongst the general public and public service providers of the UK.  This lack of knowledge and general ignorance causes women to feel uncomfortable when it comes to the issue of having to feed their baby in public.  Breastfed babies do require feeds very regularly within the first few weeks, and it is therefore completely unfathomable to expect a mother to desist from entering the public sphere.

Although women are free to breastfeed in public without the need to cover up or find somewhere private, there are many women who still aren’t comfortable for their own personal reasons, which is absolutely fine.  Nobody should feel pressured to publicly breastfeed just because they have the right to – the laws passed were to allow women the freedom to choose.

Concerning a sensitive subject such as this, there will always be a difference of opinions.   Perhaps the wrong way to go about raising awareness is raising too much awareness in the form of ‘lactivist’ protests, whereby groups of mothers gather in a public place and breastfeed together to make a point.  Anthropological Professor and single mother, Adrienne Pine makes a great point in her piece ‘Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet’.  Adrienne regrettably addresses the public concerning her choice to breastfeed her sick daughter during a lecture.  A fellow student picks up on the story and naively intends to create a ‘pro-lactating’ article concerning the supposed ‘incident’, much to Pine’s abhorrence as she explains: ‘…she appeared to admire that I had committed some sort of radical feminist act … it became clear that the goal of the article was to explore/create a controversy where there was none’.  Pine argues that turning a simple act of nature into something considered newsworthy actually reinforces the perceived taboo nature of the act when, in actual fact, to encourage the public to become more comfortable with breastfeeding, little attention is more effective.

Lactating mothers, if you want to breastfeed your baby in public you are entirely free to do so; lactating mothers who don’t wish to, that’s absolutely fine too. Nobody should feel pressured one way or the other.  To those who find it uncomfortable, don’t watch.  We’re all sensible enough to tolerate one another’s opinions, and wise enough to know that they aren’t easily changed, so the only solution is to accept, understand and tolerate.