Breastfeeding supporters get excited when a politician/actor/presenter feeds her baby in public. The beauty of social media means that good news travels fast. The fact that this basic act is news at all is what’s newsworthy. Shaming and respecting in equal measure follows every breastfeeding article, photo and video. It’s how babies get their food, drink, vitamins and comfort. So why all the fuss?
My sister-in-law was handed a “thank you for breastfeeding in public” card, acknowledging how this helps other nursing mums to feel comfortable to feed while out and about. Indeed, I now don’t hesitate to unbutton a blouse, or lift a t-shirt, feeding my little one wherever he needs it. But, I wasn’t always like this.
My first public breastfeed was on a hot September afternoon when my eldest was about four weeks old, in a park near our over-heated home. I was incredibly anxious and kept putting it off. I had struggled with the latch and sharp pains. Beyond flustered, I fumbled with a fresh nursing apron, a multi-layered special feeding top, an ‘easy’ fastening nursing bra and a spare muslin to soak up the other leaking breast, petrified of causing offence with a flashed raw nipple.
Once finally latched on, we relaxed into the feed; it was still painful at that stage, but it was a huge accomplishment to experience that dual sensation: cool air on my face and the unmistakable tiny gulps of a successful feed. A group of youngish men passed by, all with their abandoned t-shirts tucked into the back-jeans pocket, or slung over one shoulder. Later, an older man dawdled by, shirt off and nipples out. Nobody cared. Why was I so ashamed to be seen to be feeding our child?
Probably because we’ve rarely seen breastfeeding in our daily lives. We see sexualised breasts, but not breastfeeding. I remember, aged 6 in the late 80s, going to a builders’ merchants and being quite shocked by the provocative display of tabloid boobs plastered across the workshop walls. Breasts in the workplace to entertain and titillate; breasts as idols. A trip to the corner shop would mean an awkward slink past all the ‘lads mags’ with all their young fleshy mounds and perky nipples. Things have changed a tiny bit since then, with modesty covers and rearranged news-stands, but covering up the breasts may not be the answer.
For female nudity is beautiful, but so is the naked male figure. Classical Art depicts the naked form with corporeal honesty and gender equality. Such art is an education in our own prudishness, an irony parodied by V&A visitor who was asked to cover up while nursing in the courtyard. When the bare-chested men walked by, it was so normal a sight, that it didn’t occur to me to objectify and sexualise. In many traditional communities, women are free to live their lives as topless as their menfolk. Breasts are baby feeders and aside from symbolising maturity and passing puberty, the fleshy hillocks carry little or no sexual allure. Traditional Japanese dress is designed to flatten the female chest as a preoccupation with breasts is seen as a childish habit. While living in the south of Spain, I was a regular at the local beach, and we all swam and sunbathed without tops on, men and women, boys and girls. Women, old and young, were as comfortable to air their torsos as their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Babies were nursed and nobody thought about nursing aprons, or fiddly feeding tops. And if people want to cover up, that’s cool too.
Websites exist to chronicle breastfeeding in current TV and media, logging both positive and negative portrayals, helping or hindering the plight of the breastfeeding mother who may want to leave the house from time to time. The Art world continues to normalise all aged bodies, breasts and breastfeeding, celebrated by the 2017 BP Portrait Winner of the artist’s wife tenderly nursing their daughter.
A look at Literature reveals similar accepting attitudes. Shakespearean theatre- the popular media of the time- has shown no discomfort when portraying the place of breastfeeding in the everyday. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the nurse speaks fondly of feeding Juliet and the memory of trying to wean her, aged three, with “wormwood to my dug” and later jokes that “thou hadst suck’d wisdom from my teat” (I.v). The nurse’s refreshingly honest language portrays a normal act, interestingly written and delivered by male actors. In ‘Macbeth’, even the villainous Lady Macbeth has “given suck” and knows “how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me” (I.vii). In ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’, the Egyptian queen dies while imagining a “baby at my breast”/ that sucks the nurse asleep” (V.ii). In 19th Century Moscow, Leo Tolstoy normalises breastfeeding in his novels, an important form of media of its time. ‘Anna Karenina’ (1878) depicts Kitty who struggles to feed her firstborn, but is helped by her sister. Although set in private homes, Tolstoy invites the reader into an intimate scene: “as he went on sucking [edited to “business” in the Vintage Classics!] the baby raised his long curly eyelashes and peeped at his mother with wet eyes” and then sleeps in his mother’s arms until the end of the chapter (Pt 8, ch. 7). In ‘War and Peace’, for Natasha, Tolstoy details the “soothing and sensible consolation… of the movement of his lips and the snuffling of his tiny nose” (Epi. P1, ch.11).
Changing a nation’s attitudes to the female form, breasts and breastfeeding isn’t easy, but the west can continue to learn from the world. Educating young children about breastfeeding is one major healthy step in the right direction. It’s a genuinely fascinating topic of human biology and is rarely investigated until motherhood begins. The media plays a huge role, too. Breastfeeding, like anything, will become normal when it is seen and discussed with the same joy as Juliet’s wet-nurse on the Shakespearean stage. Breasts could also become normal too: why not accept the naked female torsos alongside public male toplessness? Too far for the British? Maybe, or maybe not, but let’s at least enjoy and allow a mother’s legal right to feed her child in any place she needs to, without fear of scorn or causing upset.