This week, breastfeeding advocates celebrated a big win when a photo from a Target store proclaiming their new policy welcoming breastfeeding in their stores was posted on the Breastfeeding Mama Talk Facebook page, as reported by Yahoo Parenting. The policy stated, in part: “Target’s policy supports breastfeeding in any area of our stores, including our fitting rooms, even if others are waiting. If you see a woman breastfeeding in our stores, do not approach her. If she approaches you and asks for a location to breastfeed, offer the fitting room (do not offer the restroom as an option)” As the article highlighted, this is a marked contract from the chain being the site of nurse-ins across the country in 2011 after a breastfeeding mom was kicked out of a store.
But numerous other institutions, big and small, haven’t made similar strides. Representative Niki Tsongas has introduced an amendment to address the current lack of a clear policy within the Army toward breastfeeding mothers. She wrote in an op-ed at The Army Times, “Army servicewomen face obstacles in motherhood because that branch, unlike every other, does not currently have a policy regarding breastfeeding while on the job. Servicewomen are left at the mercy of superiors, whereas in the other branches standard policy dictates when and where female servicemembers can breastfeed, the length of time permitted and the type of facilities that must be provided.” To ameliorate this, the amendment she authored to the National Defense Authorization act would, in her words, require the Army “to develop a comprehensive policy that, at minimum, designates a private, clean area with electrical outlets for expressing milk, and an allowance for breaks.”
Meanwhile, not a week goes by where we don’t hear a news story of a woman being kicked out of a store, restaurant and even the post office for breastfeeding. Last week, Janesville, Wisconsin mom Raven Dibble was asked to leave her local post office while breastfeeding, and says she was told by a postal worker that nursing in public was “indecent.” This despite a Wisconsin statute stating, “ says a "mother may breast-feed her child in any public or private location where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be.” A USPS spokesperson did apologize for the incident, but it’s still a disturbingly common sentiment.
Same story, different location: A breastfeeding Bemidji, Minnesota mom, Holly Heitkamp, was told to cover up the next time she visited her local public pool because a male lifeguard was uncomfortable, even though she wasn’t violating any local laws. As she told The Bemidji Pioneer, “I hope he’s seen a booby by now. He’s like 20-some years old. How does that offend him? I’m not whipping it out and showing him. I’m just sitting there feeding my child.”
I could offer up umpteen similar incidents, but the point is clear: if breastfeeding is legal, but is still being treated as something that isn’t, we have a problem, and it stems from one of legitimacy. If all breasts are seen as suspect, then a woman engaging in the natural act of breastfeeding, most likely extremely discreetly, is still equated with waving her boob in someone’s face (see above). It’s not a breastfeeding mom’s job to worry about whether someone else is comfortable with what she’s doing, but we need to question why there’s this level of squeamishness in the first place.
This battle has been fought online, too, and while last year Facebook did change its policy to “free the nipple” and allow breastfeeding photos, images are still reported and taken down that shouldn’t be. The group Breastfeeding Mamas Talk Back cited a breastfeeding image with over 63,000 shares that is repeatedly reported to Facebook for removal. There is some good news: A commenter on the group’s page wrote, “All of my bfing pics get reported! My profile pic was reported minutes after it was posted. Thankfully (and shockingly) fb has our backs on this one. Mine are always quickly cleared.”
In addition to legal policy changes being sought, women are also working on the cultural front to combat that discomfort and make breastfeeding more acceptable and visible. A 2015 documentary, "The Milky Way," directed by Jon Fitzgerald with cameos by celebrities such as Minnie Driver, Alanis Morissette and Carrie-Ann Moss, makes the case for the U.S. to follow more breastfeeding-friendly countries like Sweden and Germany. “We see lots of images of sexualized breasts on TV, on the internet, but the image of a lactating breast is somehow unusual,” Charlene Villaseñor Black, associate professor of art history at UCLA, says in the film, which explores the way women in the U.S. aren’t encouraged to breastfeed, nor given adequate time off work or preparation for it.
Newborn photographer Erin White, who’s based in Kaiserslautern, Germany, is intent on making breastfeeding much more public, and in the process, normalizing it. She created a set of photos entitled Women in the Wild featuring 51 mothers from around the world — some clothed, some nude — holding their babies to their breasts. White told The Huffington Post, “The first year or two can be so hard as a family, the last thing [a mom] should be stressed about is her body image. I hope people will get a sense of the natural beauty of a new mother and stop tearing each other down. I hope it helps people see breastfeeding as a natural act of feeding a baby, rather than a sexual act to be hidden.” She’s taking her act on the road, visiting six U.S. cities in July and August, and others in Europe after that, to continue the project.
As "The Milky Way" makes clear, women in the U.S. are often encouraged early on to use formula rather than breastfeed. One brand new mother who had trouble breastfeeding in the hospital and asked for help in the middle of the night was told by an overworked nurse, “It’s probably time for you to just give them formula,” rather than getting any assistance. When the filmmakers travel to Sweden, they find mothers breastfeeding in public at a much larger rate than they do in the U.S., and attribute it to the cultural support for breastfeeding, with ease of access in hospitals to breastfeeding specialists and free formula samples forbidden to be given out in hospitals, unlike in the U.S.
Advocates in "The Milky Way" can often sound rapturous about breast being best. In the documentary, Minnie Driver calls breastfeeding “the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to me,” while Alanis Morissette proclaims, “It teaches intimacy, it teaches connection, it teaches care. I think these are huge voids in society in general so we are the living embodiment of it not only in the doing of it, but in the offering of it directly and microcosmically to a little one. They have that in their back pocket now.” You don’t have to agree with those sentiments, though, to recognize the fundamental inequality women face when they are shamed, shunned and told not to do something that they are legally entitled to engage in.