Breastfeeding Shame

by July 31, 2013
filed under Activism

The first time I breastfed my son in public it was quite the operation. We were at the Cross Iron Mills Shopping Centre in Calgary during the holiday season. The place was busy and it was difficult to find a desolate corner. I forgot to pack a nursing cover so I awkwardly positioned my son underneath a blanket. Both my husband and mother-in-law protectively kept watch while I nervously attempted to feed my son in a subtle manner amongst a crowd of people. I had yet to master the dance of breastfeeding and it was a clumsy and awkward process – even at home. As I attempted to position him, he would flail his arms against the blanket. Being covered frightened him and I’m sure he sensed my anxiety. As a gurl with large breasts, I was far outside my realm of comfort. Nearby sat a Muslim woman in a full burka, bottle-feeding her infant on a bench. In that moment, I wished that I had thought ahead to pump and been spared this embarrassment.

I’d seen it done plenty of times – women I considered my role models maneuvering their baby to latch and suckle under a cover while multitasking to text a message, eat and even wrangle a second child. The breastfeeding pros did it with ease, paying no mind to the audience they might inadvertently procure. I wanted so badly to be this “model of modern motherhood,” fearlessly feeding out in the open with pride. The stigma on “public breastfeeding” is everywhere and nowhere all at once. It’s one of those things that come from a combination of assumed social scrutiny and personal self-consciousness.  I have done it often and never once been confronted about it. However, I have heard the horror stories about comments being made, “suggesting that you go into the bathroom,” ignorance over sanitation concerns and the evil glares from jealous wives concerned about their gawking husbands. Everyone knows someone who has had these incidents happen to them.

I remember reading a story in a local newspaper column with a bold complaint about a breastfeeding wardrobe malfunction that they witnessed at The Cheesecake Factory. The ridiculous claim stated that they had been put off of their meal after seeing the glimpse of a nipple. This nagged in the back of my subconscious as the norm regarding society’s opinion of public breastfeeding. I harboured this misconception until I had a child of my own and was surrounded with an abundance of countering support.

For all the stories of distasteful negativity, I’ve also heard many of encouragement and perseverance. For instance, women have taken it upon themselves to “bare all” for the sake of feeding their child and were praised for it. In fact, this article from the Huffington Post was recently posted on my local breastfeeding support forum. It’s a story of a woman who was surprised to find a note from a waitress on her dinner receipt. The waitress, who had witnessed the woman breastfeeding during her meal, had kindly paid for one of her family’s pizzas. The note read, “Please thank your wife for breastfeeding!” The fact is, many people in North America are still choosing not to breastfeed for cultural and personal reasons. One of the prevailing concerns is that they will be embarrassed or ashamed in public. Stories like the article above are the kind that challenge that idea and let women know that it is okay to feed their babies, covered or uncovered, wherever they choose.

Embarrassed is a spoken-word poem by Hollie McNish that has recently gone viral. Hollie is a young mother who composed this poem after finding herself retreating to a public washroom to nurse her 6 month old baby. She was tired of the scrutiny and hypocrisy of being made to feel ashamed of feeding her baby in a society saturated with the sexualization of breasts. She rhymes: “In a country of billboards covered in ‘tits’/ In a country of low cut tops cleavage and skin/In a country of cloth bags and recycling bins and as I desperately try to take all of it in…” From the way she describes the confines of a bathroom stall and the “smell of piss” in her baby’s nostrils, I can’t help but find myself incredibly empathetic towards Hollie’s frustrations.

The idea that breastfeeding is considered “offensive” and that we must hide it is absurd. If you subscribe to this misconception then you are the one who needs to reevaluate your understanding of “rights” and “respect.” If a woman wishes to sit cross-legged in the middle of the local Denny’s, left boob flopped out to feed her child like she is straight from the pages of National Geographic, power to her. The primary concern for everybody should be the right of the child to eat and the right of the mother to feed him however she sees fit.

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