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Public Breastfeeding – Indecent Exposure?

On September 4th, a breastfeeding rally was held in a Giddings Plaza on the North Side of Chicago in support of Lauren Trost who was harassed for nursing her seven-month-old baby Hank in the same plaza. The month before, Trost was in the plaza helping her sister to open a jewelry store. During the course of the day, Trost sat down to nurse her infant son in the public plaza and was approached by a woman who accused of doing something illegal and indecent by publicly breastfeeding her son.

Approximately fifteen moms nursed their babies simultaneously to show support for Trost and for public breastfeeding at the rally. Surprisingly, there was a great deal of positive media coverage of the rally, both on television and in local newspapers. My father sent me a link to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, which bore the title, “Breastfeeding Moms Rally to Support Hassled Woman.”

I was thrilled to see that the media has chosen to cover public breastfeeding in such a positive light. But what I found disturbing was that even though the media coverage was positive, 90 percent of reader reactions to this article were shockingly rude, hostile, or perverse. Other articles that covered the rally in a positive light also had extremely negative reader reactions. Here is a small sample of these comments (I retyped the posts “as is” with grammatical errors intact):

  • Can we at least get an advance warning next time???? Geezzzzzzzz, I want to have a chance to get into my baby costume.
  • How come it is never a hot mom in public breast-feeding? It is always some hippie, angry at the world so I won’t shave my armpit liberal that does this kind of thing.
  • I just don’t think it’s proper for women to show their breasts out in public unless they’re on the beach
  • 7 months old and still on the teet?something tells me she will still be doing it when the child is 14 months as well
  • No wants to see these women breastfeeding. Have some discretion and get a life.
  • I don’t see why Trost felt she needed to stage a demonstration. If she used discretion and covered her breas ts. I hope Trost knows she opens herself up to perverts and freaks (voyeurism) by just whipping her breas ts out in public.
  • Does no one have common sense? Both these women sound like typical spoiled shrews. Breastfeed, but cover up and be discreet. And the other woman should have just moved on. 10 bucks says no one had to take off work to do any of this, just a bunch of bored housewives.
  • Is there a waiting list? Or do you have to know someone. My qualifications: 52 years old lactose toleration own my own teeth post-nibbler syndrome (sorry) sleeps through the night also, are there government grants to become part of this program? Ill sit down and suckkkk my thumb.
  • Why would you want to do something so intimate with child in public? Are you looking for attention?
  • Anyone who is really against it should go there with information on breast pumps and formula alternatives and pass it out to women there. Can we get a sponsor here? I don’t want to see a 20 or 30 (or 40) year old woman’s breasts with her kid sucking on them. I just want to enjoy the neighborhood food and shops. Can’t you feed your kid before you go out? I guess that would be too intimate, private, and simple.

The comments from the readers reflect the real opinions of the general population here in the United States in regards to breastfeeding. Essentially, the public opinion about breastfeeding can be summarized in the following belief statements:

1. Breasts are sexual objects and therefore it is indecent to nurse, whether publicly or privately. Additionally, women who breastfeed publicly should feel ashamed of themselves and deserve the harassment, perverse comments, and other negative attention they receive.

2. Babies do not need to breastfeed. Formula is just as good.

3. Women who are stubbornly determined to breastfeed should at least remain at home because it is unnecessary, indecent and perverse to do so in public.

In a country where breastfeeding is actually on the rise statistically, it is interesting that general public opinion about the subject is still so pervasively negative. When did feeding an infant in the way God intended become a sexually perverse act? Why should a mother feel a sense of shame when she is doing the most natural thing a mother could do—feeding her baby?

I am a staunch breastfeeding advocate. I have nursed both of my sons past the age of two. I know that breast milk has enormous advantages for my children’s well-being (emotional, mental, and physical) but I have to admit that I still feel slightly uncomfortable when breastfeeding in public. Why do I feel this way?

The truth is two-fold. The first half starts with the advent of infant formula companies and their corrupt marketing strategies. According to the National Fertility Survey 68  percent of mothers born between 1911 and 1915 breastfed their first baby, compared with 35  percent of mothers born by the early 1940’s.

In the 1940s, evaporated milk formulas and commercial infant formulas began to seriously compete in the market. Commercial infant formula was touted as the new “scientific” way of feeding your baby which also liberated mothers from needing to be in constant contact with their infants. Women in the United States, as well as in other Western countries, rapidly accepted this new model of infant feeding and breastfeeding rates began to drop continuously from this point forward. At the same time, formula companies promoted their product in third world countries, ultimately leading to malnutrition, health problems and death in millions of infants abroad because of improper sanitation, weak or improperly mixed solutions of formula, and loss of the many natural benefits present in breast milk.

By 1971, breastfeeding the United States was at al all time low of 23 percent. Consider also, that this statistic includes any baby that was ever breastfeed, even a single time. It wasn’t until after July 4, 1977, when an enormous boycott was launched against Nestlé and other infant formula makers, that the public perception of breastfeeding began to improve again. Also, at this time, La Leche League and other lactavist groups began to rally to improve the public understanding of the real benefits of mother’s milk.

The second part of the equation is that while women’s breasts were no longer being utilized as they were intended (to feed human infants), media in this country became more and more explicit in using women’s bodies as sexual objects. Women’s bodies have become in our country an extraordinary tool for advertising, marketing and sales. As the standards for what is acceptable to appear on television deteriorate and you can see nearly naked women bumping, grinding and tantalizing viewers on practically every channel, it is not shocking that the American public cannot conceive of women’s breasts as anything but sexual.

At the same time, it is important to remember that this is a cultural phenomenon and does not represent anything more than the depravity, frivolity and density of American society. In plenty of other cultures around the world, women’s breasts are still perceived as utilitarian tools with which babies are nourished. None of the mystique and sexual aura surrounds them. Men and women of all ages congratulate women who breastfeed their children publicly and encourage them to continue for as many years as the children desire to do so.

In her wonderful, thought-provoking article, Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan, Ruth Kamnitzer talks about her experiences as a Canadian living in Mongolia. She explains that breastfeeding is not only accepted in Mongolian culture, but embraced, expected and encouraged. Children are expected not only to nurse, but to nurse “to term,” which could be anything from two to four years old and sometimes upwards of that.

In Mali, women go around topless, breastfeeding their infants without even a sideways glance from onlookers. Carolyn Latteier, the author of Breasts, The Women’s Perspective on American Obsession, wrote:

Well, we do have a peculiar obsession with breasts in this culture. A lot of people think it’s just the human nature to be fascinated with breasts but in many cultures, breasts aren’t sexual at all. I interviewed a young anthropologist working with women in Mali, in a country in Africa where women go around with bare breasts. They’re always feeding their babies. And when she told them that in our culture men are fascinated with breasts there was an instant of shock. The women burst out laughing. They laughed so hard, they fell on the floor. They said, “You mean, men act like babies?”

But the ultimate truth is we cannot escape from the society in which we live. It’s wonderful that breastfeeding is accepted and encouraged in other cultures, but if we live in America, we have to acknowledge the fact that many people are uncomfortable with watching mothers nurse their babies.

What is the solution? Plain and simple—more public breastfeeding. The more people see something, the more common it becomes, and the less it jumps out as a shocking anathema. So, get out there mommies and show those nursing boobies to the world. Breastfeeding moms everywhere will thank you and your baby will too.

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