Breastfeeding: The Ongoing Controversy

By Evelyn Gonzalez ‘18
Feminism Columnist

Posters protesting breastfeeding conditions. Photos courtesy of When Nurture Calls.

Posters protesting breastfeeding conditions. Photos courtesy of When Nurture Calls.

The hypocrisies of society become self-evident when you begin to examine the controversial topic of breastfeeding in public. We see babies being bottle-fed on a daily basis, and yet it does not bring about the same provocation, anger or disgust that are expressed when children are nursing from a breast. There are many layers to consider when parents are scrutinized for feeding their child in public— beginning with the over-sexualization of breasts, the commercialization of breasts and the ideas of modesty often forced on those with breasts.

Breasts are everywhere.

They appear on billboards, storefronts and advertisements selling products from hamburgers to cars and everything in between. So why is it that people seem to be so taken aback when a parent chooses to breastfeed in public? One of the reasons people are so uncomfortable seeing a parent breastfeed in public and why they often have such strong opinions is a direct result of the ways that breasts are treated and viewed in society. Breasts are overtly sexualized and commercialized. Unfortunately, people have a difficult time realizing that these masses of tissue are not in themselves erotic and sexual but have been made so by the social contexts in which they have existed. People are unsettled at seeing someone breastfeeding because their ingrained perceptions about what breasts are and what they are made for get distorted. It’s a lot harder to sexualize a parent’s breasts if there’s a baby attached to them. Yes, breastfeeding can be an intimate experience— for the parent and their child, not for the stranger who happened to glance over. If you experience these feelings of anger and aversion at seeing a child being fed, maybe you should reevaluate your priorities and make an effort to work at extinguishing your need to objectify others as a result of your own self-imposed discomfort.

A parent is entitled to feed their child in any public place.

Another person’s negative comments or hurt sensibilities does not constitute the law.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Forty-nine states [excluding Idaho], the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location and twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws.” Although nursing parents are protected by law these do not protect them from the stigma and judgement expressed upon them by society, which often force them into uncomfortable and often unsanitary situations and conditions. Breastfeeding parents are often subject to varying levels of harassment. It’s harassment that pressures mothers to cover their babies with blankets in 90 degree weather, it’s harassment that forces mothers to stop breastfeeding at an early age although they would like to continue, it’s harassment that keeps parents cooped up in their home for fear they would be unable to feed their child elsewhere and it’s harassment that pressures a parent into feeding a child behind a locked stall in a public restroom. The uncalled-for feelings of embarrassment and discomfort exhibited by others should not prohibit parents from doing what they feel is best for their child, especially if that action is basic care and comfort.

Fortunately, there is some movement to help change society’s perception about breastfeeding in public. When Nurture Calls was a campaign started by Kris Haro and Johnathan Wenske. These students, from the University of North Texas, created a series of posters illustrating parents nursing in public restrooms. They adorned the photos with slogans like “Would you eat here?”  to illustrate the unhygienic and often cramped spaces into which breastfeeding parents are forced. The intention behind this campaign was to “gather support for protecting a [parent’s] right to breastfeed in public.” People are speaking up about the hypocrisy surrounding breastfeeding. It’s one thing for a parent to specifically choose not to breastfeed their child in public, but it is a whole ‘nother story to bar them from doing so in the first place. 

Whatever a parent chooses, whether to breastfeed or bottle feed, they have a right to do so safely.