A breast-feeding anthem goes viral

Holly McNish got tired of nursing her baby in the ladies' room, and created an Internet sensation

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 8, 2013 3:41PM (EDT)

             (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-817618p1.html'>Solovyova Lyudmyla</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Solovyova Lyudmyla via Shutterstock)

It's not every day that a poem goes viral. And even though this one has the advantage of being a poem about breasts, it's not erotic. The video of the poet reciting it contains no salacious imagery, no clever double-entendres. Why, then, is a stark, three and a half minute clip of British poet Holly McNish suddenly cropping up all over your social media feed? Because her candid, plain-spoken poem about her experiences with public breast-feeding eloquently says something that, unfortunately, still needs to reinforced.

In her poem, "Embarrassed," McNish transforms from a woman who "tiptoed with nervous discretion" to bathrooms to breast-feed to one who is "tired of discretion and being polite as my baby's first sips are drown drenched in shite." And she takes on the hypocrisy of a culture that recoils at women's breasts unless, of course, "they're just for show," and a formula industry that's feeding on our shame.

McNish says she originally wrote the poem after nursing her baby on a toilet when the child was 6 months old. Her daughter is now 3 years old, and McNish told Huffington Post over the weekend that "My partner has been telling me I should share the poem for a long time and, well, I've been too embarrassed." She says she's now "in the process of putting together all the poems I didn't share with people" when her daughter was younger, ones full of all the "awkward things I thought no-one else was thinking or feeling."

It seems ridiculous that here in the 21st century, women would still feel ashamed and embarrassed about the simple act of feeding their babies. Diaper companies now use breast-feeding moms in their ads, and magazine spreads featuring new mothers comfortably nursing raise nary an eyebrow -- though it likely helps quell public outrage when the new mother in question is a lingerie model.

But wherever there are breasts, there are going to be those who are uncomfortable and weird about them. And take us outside the image of a beautiful woman contentedly and very discreetly nursing a tiny baby, and things get complicated fast. We sell our daughters baby dolls with bottles, and flip out when somebody tries instead to market one who nurses, fearing that the concept is "too grown-up for young children." We squirm on cue at a calculatedly provocative Time magazine cover of a mother feeding her 3-year-old. We take sides when a Playboy model declares breast-feeding is "gross." And we run the near constant risk of having Facebook ban photos of simply feeding a baby for violating the terms of service, while truly offensive material  often gets a far more generous pass. And that's what continues to exasperate – that as McNish points out, breasts as entertainment are ubiquitous. Naked girls cavorting around Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake? Topless girls as a staple of British tabloids? No prob. "This country of billboards covered in tits"? Great. Normal-looking mum feeding her baby? Somehow still controversial.

So let's say it one more time – breast-feeding is neither porn nor defecation, though somehow it frequently finds itself conflated with both. It's not a sexy show or an unpleasant bodily function. It's just something moms and babies do, and if you have a problem with it, maybe you should go sit in a toilet stall for a while till it's over.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Breastfeeding Going Viral Holly Mcnish Video