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The Big Argument About Breastfeeding In Public

Artwork by Abigail Bell
While we might be inundated with photos of glossy cleavages, it is far rarer to come across images of lactating breasts with babies attached to them. Breastfeeding remains an uncomfortable taboo. According to a recent poll, a third of women feel embarrassed or uncomfortable breastfeeding outside of the home and six out of 10 women hide it in public.

This unease doesn’t come from nowhere. We live in a society where breastfeeding is routinely viewed as distasteful and inappropriate, something that should be done in the secrecy of the home rather than in public places. Although it is technically illegal to ask a mother not to breastfeed in public, this doesn't nothing to stop onlookers taking offence.

Every other week, a story about a breastfeeding mother being shamed seems to grab the headlines. Take the case where Claridge’s Hotel demanded a breastfeeding mum to cover herself up with a large napkin to avoid “causing offence” at the end of last year. True to form, Nigel Farage publicly endorsed the hotel’s response, adding that mothers should "sit in the corner” while they breastfeed, reported the Guardian.

While these might sound like rather extreme responses, they are illustrative of much of the British public’s view of breastfeeding. According to a poll conducted by Public Health England’s Start4Life campaign last November, 43% of people don’t think breastfeeding is acceptable in restaurants, while 49% think it’s unacceptable on public transport. To put this into context, just over half of those surveyed did not agree with the statement that, “Women should always feel comfortable breastfeeding in public.”

So what exactly is it about breastfeeding that makes so many people awkwardly seize up and walk away? Why are we happy to gawk at a pair of DDs on a bus stop and yet cannot bear to watch a woman feed her child? Why do we become instantly prudish as soon as a woman whips out a real-life nipple? Well, it probably has something to do with the fact that breastfeeding isn’t expressly sexual. Quite the contrary, it is unapologetically maternal.

"It is extraordinary that the media is filled with images of barely-clothed women and yet women encounter criticism for breastfeeding their babies in public places”.

Ros Bragg, CEO of Maternity Action
But did Nigel Farage hit the nail on the head when he said breastfeeding was “ostentatious”? While I wouldn’t normally take the UKIP leader’s views as a barometer of public opinion, on this particular issue he doesn’t seem so far off the mark. Although there’s been some improvement over time, breasts remain a sexual taboo and it seems like many do indeed perceive breastfeeding as “ostentatious” and tasteless in some way.

Facebook, for example, certainly does. Year upon year, the site has caused controversy for removing photos of mothers breastfeeding because they violated the company’s pornographic rules. In retaliation, we have recently seen a wave of “Brelfies” engulf social media, with the likes of Gwen Stefani and Alyssa Milano sharing photos of themselves breastfeeding.

Ros Bragg, the CEO of Maternity Action, a charity dedicated to promoting maternity rights and improving the health and well-being of pregnant women, also believes our fixation with breasts is plagued by double standards. In her own words: "It is extraordinary that the media is filled with images of barely-clothed women and yet women encounter criticism for breastfeeding their babies in public places.”

Likewise, she argues too much pressure is put on individual women to deal with the consequences of shaming. "Breastfeeding women should be supported to exercise their right to breastfeed in public. It should not be left to individual women to educate service providers who don't understand the law,” Bragg explains.

Even though the Equality Act has formally protected breastfeeding in public since it came into force in 2010, Bragg argues that, “Community awareness of the law is very low, leaving breastfeeding women to deal with a succession of distressing incidents as they go about their daily lives.” Like the incident at Claridges, or the more recent case where Victoria Jones was asked to cover up and “have a bit of dignity” while breastfeeding at a café in Swansea a couple of months ago. Even though the 23-year-old asked permission to breastfeed, the owner later demanded that she stop.

To counter this problem, Maternity Action provides indispensible information for new mothers. “Women often print out our information sheet on breastfeeding in public places and carry it with them when they are out and about with their baby,” she explains. “If they face problems at a café or a shop, they hand over the information sheet and tell the waiter or shop assistant that their business has broken the law. It is very effective in getting the message across.”
Maternity Action has also done a lot of work on women’s right to breastfeed at work. While you’d think breastfeeding on your return to work would be relatively straightforward, at present the law doesn’t provide the right to have time off at work to breastfeed and employers aren’t required to offer facilities for expressing and storing milk.

As such, Bragg argues that, “Many stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like, as they can't negotiate a satisfactory arrangement prior to their return. Even the US, which is not known for generous employment rights, provides legal protection for women to breastfeed on return to work."
One workplace where it is certainly impossible to breastfeed is Parliament. Back in the 1970s, Labour MP Helene Hayman caused a stir for breastfeeding between parliamentary votes. It had never been done before and four decades later it has not been done since. According to the Guardian, it is for this reason that female MPs have recently demanded that new mothers be allowed to breastfeed in the House of Commons chamber in a bid to get more women into Parliament. But alas, demands have been ignored.
What is clear is that attitudes to breastfeeding in public and in the workplace need a radical overhaul. After all, feeding your hungry child isn’t some grandiose emancipatory gesture, it’s a deeply personal human act. Besides, what are you supposed to do if you don’t breastfeed in public? Stay indoors on the couch and watch Come Dine With Me all day, in case your baby gets hungry? The very notion that you shouldn’t breastfeed in public assumes that women are forever destined for the seclusion of the private sphere.

And then there’s the rather bizarre belief that women should cover their babies while breastfeeding in public. You might be thinking, 'Who should have to eat with a blanket over their head?' but increasing numbers of shops have started stocking “breastfeeding aprons” which are used to cover up. A quick Google for these coughs up plenty of purchasing options.

In response to women’s reluctance to breastfeed in public, Public Health England have decided to launch a national campaign called Start4Life, which kicked off back in November. It hopes to “break down the barriers and stigma attached to breastfeeding” and will be releasing a series of short animated films where mothers can share real-life experiences of breastfeeding in public, as well as providing personal advice and support for mothers.
Dr Ann Hoskins, the Deputy Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England has been vocal within the campaign. In turn, she argues that, “Anxiety about breastfeeding in public certainly shouldn’t be a barrier to breastfeeding in general. One of the great benefits of breastfeeding is that it can be done anytime and anywhere, so as a society we need to help new mothers feel comfortable in feeding their babies wherever and whenever they need to, and we all have a role to play in that.”

While campaigns such as these are obviously commendable, it goes without saying that much of the problem lies in public attitudes to breastfeeding. In a society in which breasts are too often thought of as a source of sexual pleasure for the male gaze, it is no wonder many women feel uncomfortable bearing their naked nipples to the world. We might be au fait with the cartoon breasts of billboards, but when it comes to real-life breasts feeding hungry children... many stiffen up.