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The recent debate about a photo promoting public breastfeeding reminds this author that we need to do more practically, to support breastfeeding moms – including clean and accessible breastfeeding rooms.
I remember when I first wrote an article on breastfeeding online, one reader commented that I shouldn’t be writing so extensively about breastfeeding and I replied if it was wrong or taboo to talk about it.
Breastfeeding is a natural process that is important both for the well-being of the mother and baby. I have no qualms at all talking about breasts or breastfeeding as long as they help another individual. I remember an aunt of mine who remarked, rather sermonised to us children back then, on how society has over-sexualised breasts. Their sole purpose is for the nourishment of babies. Period.
Recently Gilu Joseph’s breastfeeding photo on the Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi’s cover page became a heated topic of discussion. We’ve seen celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Lisa Haydon closer home promote public breastfeeding and rightly so! There is nothing wrong except your perspective. Using their privileged position as celebrities, they are making a strong social statement that breastfeeding is a natural phenomenon and there is nothing sexual about it.
While personally I thought that Gilu Joseph’s breastfeeding photo was completely natural and shot beautifully, I have certain reservations about public breastfeeding. By showing a no-holds barred photo or video of breastfeeding, are we normalising or furthering the stereotypes attached to the sexualization of breasts?
Where did I fall on this colourful spectrum of the nebulous milky way, I wondered. I was right in the centre, seeing half truths on both sides of the heated argument.
Personally, I am not against the breastfeeding photo. The mother has every right to shoot this photo and make a bold statement about normalizing breastfeeding. I am in full support of extended breastfeeding and child-led weaning. I am cool with breasts and cleavage. I am cool with talking about breastfeeding and the various choices mothers make. Those who want to breastfeed – cool! Those who don’t – still cool! You know what’s best for your baby, I don’t! You’re their Mama, after all! But, I have a certain line that I won’t cross when it comes to discussing breastfeeding. I cannot make a photo or Vlog of my breastfeeding ritual and share it with the world and make claims of normalizing breastfeeding in the mainstream culture.
I have reservations because of two reasons. One, because I am not entirely convinced if it will have any major impact on people’s perceptions or serve any practical solution and two, because of public etiquette.
Like the real world, the internet is filled with all kinds of people. The reason we put all those child filters on our computer system is because we want out children to stay far away from the dangers of the world – pedophiles, perverts, voyuers and what not! Similarly, in an attempt to normalize breastfeeding and change the perception of society, are we not perpetuating those very same stereotypes that we fight against? You are giving the pervert or voyeur exactly what he wants to see. Is this the best or the only way to normalize breastfeeding?
Is it even practically possible to dictate to others which part of the human anatomy can be sexualised and not? How can we tell men and women what they should or should not be sexualising inside their heads? Can we really control others’ instinctive sexual urges?
Every mother in the world understands that breastfeeding is normal. Like every one else, mothers fall into the various range of personalities and culture. While hard-core liberals may demand a ban on breastfeeding rooms claiming it is an act of injustice by patriarchy, there are women who are genuinely not comfortable with public breastfeeding and prefer the utmost privacy. Would women in Hijab or of a traditional bent of mind or introvert personalities be comfortable with open breastfeeding?
I am not a Hijab wearing woman, or hold a traditional bent of mind or have an introverted personality, but I would still never openly breastfeed unless there is a dire need to do so. Breastfeeding, for me, is not just feeding the baby. It is more than that – it is an intimate bonding ritual, akin to meditation. Like meditation, I cannot focus on my baby or us in the midst of people glaring overtly and covertly at my breasts in public especially here in India.
Public breastfeeding is a controversial topic and it has been banned in several countries and states. I might be in the minority but I see open breastfeeding also as an element of public etiquette. Would my act cause some form of discomfort or embarrassment to others in the public space? I remember how uncomfortable I felt when a random man flashed his private parts in public. While breastfeeding is completely a natural process, we need to be mindful of everyone’s sentiments in a public space. I’ve heard women in favour of public breastfeeding argue that when we can feed a child in public with rice or candy, why can’t we breastfeed a baby in public openly? And, I totally understand their rightful argument as well.
It is a common sight to find women from the less privileged strata of the society breastfeed their babies in public spaces freely without any disturbance or objection from anybody. They have no access to toilets, leave alone breastfeeding rooms. Yes, women hailing from the privileged classes of the society don’t breastfeed their babies in full public view as they have easy access to private breastfeeding rooms. And, that unfair distinction and prejudice is a major problem that needs to be addressed and resolved.
Looking at it from that purview of public etiquette and not through the lens of patriarchy alone, I am in favour of exclusive breastfeeding rooms that are accessible to every woman on this planet. By the way, I have attended to nature’s call among the trees while on bus trips and even breast-fed in public when there were no exclusive breastfeeding rooms around. I can vouch for the fact that it is not such a blissful experience after all. We definitely need more public toilets as well as breastfeeding rooms for our own comfort.
Ideally, it is great to have everyone view breasts and more so, breastfeeding in a non-sexual light. I think the photo is aesthetically shot and shows breastfeeding in a beautiful light. As a mother, I find nothing offensive about it. But it is a tall order to demand (and many may argue, an impractical one as well) and expect everyone to view the photo in the same light. The more practical solution which is also the need of the hour is more public breastfeeding rooms for women across all strata of the society.
Image via Unsplash/magazine cover pic
First published here.
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Winner of the Rashtriya Gaurav Award (2019) in association with the Government of Telangana for ‘
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