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We need to end breastfeeding shaming – starting with women

breastfeeding

– Original post on metronews.ca here

 

I can’t believe I’m actually writing this column because this has been said so many times. But, given the recent breastfeeding-shaming incidents at a Winnipeg mall and on a United Airlines flight, I guess it needs to be said again: Breastfeeding is not gross. It’s natural, it’s important and it’s really difficult. So it’s shocking to me that mothers are being shamed for doing it in public — and by other women.

I nursed my daughter for 12 months. Sometimes I covered up, sometimes I didn’t, but I was always modest – as our most nursing mothers. We don’t whip our boobs out for a public display of frontal nudity, despite what many people opposed to public breastfeeding seem to think.

Breastfeeding was painful and difficult, and I would have quit without the support of my husband. I needed constant encouragement, and every sneer or stare gave me one more excuse to quit something that, ultimately, was (and is) really important.

In that year, the only people who ever gave me a disgusted sideways look, or admitted openly to being offended or disgusted by public nursing, were women. Somehow their judgment stung worse than it would have had it come from a man. I look to other women — and mothers — for support and understanding. Women seem to be perpetually apologizing for their bodies, and the fact that shame and judgment often comes from other women seems completely illogical.

Penny Van Esterik, an anthropologist at Toronto’s York University and a breastfeeding researcher and author, says some women see breastfeeding as an in-your-face political statement or a way to shame mothers who bottle-fed their own children.

Many women don’t nurse their own children — by choice or necessity — and it’s possible, said Van Esterik, that the sight of a breast-feeding mom produces a knee-jerk defensive reaction. It’s the idea that what was good enough for their baby should be good enough for other women’s babies, too.

She pointed out that as we have become more of a bottle-feeding culture, several generations of women have become unfamiliar with nursing. This has made public breastfeeding — something that doesn’t raise an eyebrow in much of the rest of in the world — seem foreign and inappropriate.

“Nurturing practices and customs are passed down from grandmother to mother and mother to daughter, and when those customs and support practices are disrupted, they are gone,” said Van Esterik. “They are lost for women, but it’s also a loss for men who don’t know how to support their breastfeeding partners or where to look when they see other women breastfeeding in public because they haven’t seen much breastfeeding.

“If someone responds with disgust to this basic nurturing practice, somehow society is at fault,” she said. “Not to support a breastfeeding mother is to reject one of the most important nurturing practices in the world. We should all be celebrating it.”

We place huge expectations and judgments on women and mothers. That judgment needs to stop, and the change needs to start with women.

That means not expecting moms to tuck themselves into a bathroom stall to feed their baby for 45 minutes because you are offended by the sight of boobs across the restaurant.

Breasts are not gross. Our babies’ hunger is not gross. The milk our bodies make to feed our children is not gross. We need to hammer this point home again and again and again until not a single nursing mother feels she needs to turn away in shame.

Van Esterik said it best at the end of our interview when she gave a message to people — men or women — who have a problem with public breastfeeding: “Tell them to put a blanket over their own heads.”


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