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As the Taj Mahal is about to create history for setting up the first baby feeding room among India’s 3,600 monuments, by end of July 2019, we look at the public v/s private breastfeeding argument again.
The Taj Mahal, considered among the new Seven Wonders of the World, is not just a symbol of eternal love, but also a monument dedicated to Empress Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth.
A dedicated breastfeeding room is thus an earnest endeavor to help the millions of mothers across the world who visit the ancient monument with their babies.
Much like Arunachalam Muruganantham, male Indian crusader for removing the taboo against menstruation in India, Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, high official at the Archeological Survey of India in Agra, is responsible for this feat, after he spotted a mother hiding under the staircase of the Taj Mahal, and trying to feed her baby discreetly.
“I could see it was so difficult for her to feed her child, which is a basic motherhood right. So I thought we have to do something.”
India grapples with the problem of poor infrastructure where even toilets are a luxury in many parts of the country. Public breastfeeding is a norm there, where it is not an uncommon sight to see a fully covered woman from head to toe, with only her uncovered breasts to feed her child.
However, public breastfeeding, though legal in India, carries a tremendous social stigma where women, including mothers, are expected to be covered from head-to-toe. Ironically, the stigma attached to public breastfeeding is prevalent mostly in the elite and educated pockets of not just our country, but also the world.
A mother was expelled from Corral del Carbon, Spain in 2015 for nursing her baby in the monument. Another mother was asked to cover up at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 2017; however, in this case, the director apologized to the mother.
There was a protest by women in Kolkata in 2018, after a mother was mocked by the employees of a mall for publicly breastfeeding her child, who then asked her to feed her baby in the toilet instead.
When we see the cleavage of a hot model on the front page of a magazine cover, Page 3 section of the newspaper, billboards, or in item songs, nobody bats an eyelid.
But when we see a mother breastfeeding her child, like had been depicted on the Grihalakshmi magazine cover, all hell breaks loose. Out comes the moral lecturing and the impact of a cleavage on young adults and children.
The cleavage of the hot model was acceptable to us, because such women are the poster-child for the quintessential ‘bad’ woman. It’s convenient for men to justify their misbehaviour because why else would these women flaunt their cleavage unless they wanted their attention? We are also cool with our children seeing the cleavage of ‘bad’ women and dismissing them as poor role-models for the Society.
But, when we see Mothers, the ‘Holy Grail of Good Women,’ exposing their cleavage, to nurse their babies, our minds cannot accept the ‘blasphemy’ and we are often tongue-tied explaining it to our children.
Women’s breasts are a sexualized commodity which profit-hungry businesses milk to the last drop. But, nobody questions it because the sexualization of breasts has become the norm. After all, sex sells and breasts are big business.
Public breastfeeding is such a controversial issue over the world, because women’s breasts, including breastfeeding, has become sexualized.
As a result, breastfeeding mothers are forced to cover up, choosing to conform to the ‘Good Girl’ image bestowed by society on mothers, over nurturing and nourishing their babies in public.
I put up a Facebook post about this a while ago, and the responses were interesting, and were a great help in formulating this article. (Editor’s note: Quotes are reproduced verbatim, without an edit.)
Dr. Shevonne Matheiken, Psychiatry Registrar (UK) and mum of two says,“I wish that fewer mums would give up on breastfeeding early on for reasons of inconvenience in public, rather than it being an informed decision, knowing all the benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby.”
So, is that the only purpose why women have breasts? A masturbation/sex prop to titillate people, and to sell products and services?
Here’s a news-flash for you! The true biological reason and importance of women’s breasts are to feed and nurture human babies. A mother breastfeeds her child, not to flaunt her cleavage, not because she’s seeking your attention, and not to try to turn you on.
Dr. Shivani Salil, Clinical Microbiologist, says, “I believe no one’s interested in flashing her wares. It’s an emergency and people should understand that. If they can’t help her, at least don’t judge or ridicule her.”
So, the question is: why should the mother be ‘discreet’ about breastfeeding her child? If it is her choice alone, do we need to meddle between a mother and her baby?
Many moral pundits are ready to dole out unsolicited advice and argue that if mothers can expose their breasts in public, then men can flash their penis too.
Firstly, such people should be given an introductory book or workshop on human biology. Unlike the penis, breasts are not sexual organs.
Breasts are mere secondary sex characteristics, and appear during puberty like wide hips, or like the male equivalent of Adam’s apple, deepening of the voice, and facial hair.
Yes, that’s how simple Nature intended breasts to be. Not the complicated love-hate relationship that society has with breasts, where men ‘masturbate to’ breasts, and on the other hand, shame breastfeeding moms by telling them how cheap, and shameless they are, and to hide their breasts from public view as all ‘good women’ should do.
From a logical point of view, nobody would shame men for exposing their Adam’s apples. So, why shame mother for exposing their breasts to do what Nature intended for them in the first place.
Mythily Hergaarden-Nair, Independent Copywriter, says, “The problem is that the focus is on the wrong subject. It’s not the breasts that should be looked at but the fact that the baby is hungry and for a lot of them, their food is in the breast. You don’t expect them to wait to pee or poop, and similarly demand food. It’s an instant need that needs instant action. It cannot be equated to public sex or public peeing etc. because we aren’t talking about adults who can impose self-restraint.”
Let’s get this straight once and for all – Public breastfeeding is not equal to flashing the penis, having sex, or peeing in public. It is not just a feminist but also a parenting issue.
There was a time in The Republic of China when women’s small feet aroused Chinese men, who described the little feet as invoking a ‘voluptuous feeling’, and admitted to having ‘evil thoughts’ upon looking at them. Chinese women were subjected to binding their feet so tight, to attain abnormally tiny sizes for the male sexual pleasure.
It’s culturally accepted to see women in skimpy outfits in mass media, on the streets, semi-exposed and exposed breasts on beaches, but it is scandalous to see mother breastfeed their children in public.
On the contrary, there are societies in the South Pacific, and in parts of Africa even today, where women walk around with bare breasts and the men are completely indifferent.
So, the sexualization of breasts is more cultural than biological, and proven by various research studies.
What message are we sending to the next generation?
The only way forward is for our children to get accustomed to seeing more good (no pun intended) role-models around them.
Like Larissa Waters, Australian senator who created history for breastfeeding her 14-week-old baby, Alia Joy, while addressing the Parliament on the black lung disease, a condition affecting coal miners!
The future generation needs good role models to grow up around. They need to see women breastfeeding at restaurants, at cricket matches, on buses, trains, airplanes — everywhere.
Lakshmi Priya, Leadership Coach, says, “Isn’t it cruel on the child to cover them up, only because we live in a dirty society? I hate this norm that people have developed; men will be men. People will obviously stare. That has to change for the sake of human evolution. A mother feeding her child is the purest form of love, and when people find it disgusting or arousing, that’s a problem with them not with us.”
We need to teach our children that female breasts do not exist only for male pleasure. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting sexual pleasure from breasts, but there’s everything wrong with having a man’s erection get in the way of a woman wearing a low-cut/no top, and a mother trying to breastfeed her child.
It’s about time the world treats women as individuals with needs and desires of their own, rather than just objects whose sole purpose is to oblige and satisfy the desires of men.
Today’s girls, the ones who choose to have a child, are the mothers of the future. They should have the agency and feel confident about their choices. As mothers, they would know what’s best for their baby. Whether they are mothers who feel comfortable and confident in their skin or choose to cover up, they should feel proud of their bodies and minds and what they can do.
We need a world that is more breast-friendly, have flexible workplaces, more breastfeeding rooms, and affordable childcare, to accommodate all kinds of mothers.
Let’s support mothers and make them feel comfortable, irrespective of their choice.
Calling it a wrap with Julia Roberts’ iconic line in the movie, Notting Hill:
“Seriously – they’re just breasts; every second person has them.”
Throwing the ball in your court – What’s your take? Should public breastfeeding be encouraged or discouraged?
Image source: pixabay
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Tina Sequeira is a marketer and moonlighting writer. She is an award-winning author, poet,
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