Public breastfeeding is a norm in many sections of Indian society, where it is not an uncommon sight to see a fully covered woman from head to toe, with only her breasts uncovered, to feed her child.
However, although public breastfeeding is legal in India, in many parts, it carries a tremendous social stigma. Ironically, this is prevalent in the most elite and educated pockets of not just our country, but also the world.
Here’s citing a few examples!
There was a protest by women in Kolkata in 2018, over a mother who was mocked by the employees of a mall for public breastfeeding. She was asked to feed her baby in the toilet instead.
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 eventually apologised to the mother.
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 or thinks about the impact on their children.
But when we see a photo of a mother breastfeeding her child, like the Grihalakshmi magazine cover, all hell breaks loose. And then comes the moral lecturing and the supposed impact of cleavage on young adults and children.
The cleavage of the model was acceptable to us, the public, but, when we see mothers, exposing their cleavage, to nurse their babies, we somehow, find it unacceptable.
Public breastfeeding is such a controversial issue all over the world, because woman’s breasts, including breastfeeding, has become sexualised. As a result, breastfeeding mothers are forced to cover up, often choosing to conform to societal norms, over nurturing and nourishing their babies in public.
Many mothers have cited giving up breastfeeding altogether and choosing formula milk instead for the sake of public convenience and their mental peace. And what about the baby? Has anyone thought about the poor baby? Anyone who has tried to cover a baby while breastfeeding, can vouch that it’s impossible to contain a fidgety baby who’s flailing their little arms, and creating a fuss for their lack of space and ventilation.
Why should mothers and babies suffer? Unfortunately, women’s breasts have become a sexualised commodity for profit-hungry businesses. But, nobody questions this, because the sexualisation of breasts has become the norm. After all, sex sells and breasts are big business-right? But, is that the only purpose for women’s breasts?
Here’s a news-flash for you! The true biological reason and importance of women’s breasts are to feed human babies. Eureka! There’s nothing sexual about breastfeeding a child. A mother breastfeeds her child, not to flaunt her cleavage, not because she seeks your attention, and not to try and turn you on. The only reason a mother breastfeeds is to nourish and nurture her baby. Nothing more, nothing less!
So, the question is, why should the mother be discreet about breastfeeding her child? Unless it is her choice alone, do we need to meddle our noses 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 penises 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 secondary sex characteristics. They are not part of the female reproductive system 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 nature intended breasts to be. Not the complicated love-hate relationship that society has with breasts. On the one hand, people love looking at, taking comfort in, and sexualising breasts. On the other hand, they tell women to hide their breasts from public view when breastfeeding.
From a logical point of view, nobody would shame men for exposing their Adam’s apples. So, why shame mothers for exposing their breasts to do what nature intended for them in the first place?
Let’s get this straight once and for all – Public breastfeeding is not equal to flashing the penis, having sex, or peeing in public.
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.
On the contrary, there are societies in the South Pacific and parts of Africa even today, where women walk around with bare breasts, and the men are entirely indifferent.
So, the sexualisation of breasts is more cultural than biological and this has been proven by various research studies.
It’s culturally acceptable to see women’s cleavage in mass media, or in public places like beaches. Still, it is scandalous to see mothers breastfeed their children in public.
Why are we categorising women as “good” or “bad” based on their outfits, or choices, and teaching the same to our children? Why are we teaching our girls to breastfeed indiscreetly like it’s something that they need to be ashamed of? Heck! It’s just feeding a baby!
Breastfeeding is not just a feminist but a parental issue; a child feeding and human rights issue.
The only way forward is for our children to get accustomed to seeing more 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 black lung disease, a condition that affects coal miners!
The future generation needs role models to grow up around. They need to see women breastfeeding at restaurants, at cricket matches, on buses, trains, airplanes — everywhere.
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 treated 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 are the mothers of the future. They should have the agency and feel confident about their choices. As mothers, they know best what’s good for their baby. Whether they are mothers who feel comfortable and confident in their skin or choose to cover up, they should be proud of their bodies and minds and what they can do.
We need a world that is more breast-friendly, has flexible workplaces, more breastfeeding rooms, and affordable childcare to accommodate all kinds of mothers.
Calling it a wrap with Julia Roberts’ iconic line in the movie, “Notting Hill”:
“Seriously – they’re just breasts; every second person has them.”