Laura McKenna was a 22 year old nursing student. Jordan was a glamour model. Both got their breasts out in public, one to breast feed her baby, the other for male titillation. Guess which one was thrown off the bus for offending the driver?
Last month a privately owned café in Surrey put a “polite” notice in its window informing breastfeeding mothers that they were welcome to breastfeed in their new, expansive… disabled toilet. For their convenience, the sign read, a chair would be left outside. Groups of breast feeding women were welcome (in the toilets but not at the table). As long as they were happy to sit on the toilet/floor and take their own disinfectant, presumably.
Last week a breastfeeding mother in top London hotel, Claridges, was lectured about “discretion”. The manager helpfully provided a starched white linen napkin for mum to hide, not just her boob but her baby too. Ironically, the ridiculous, indiscreet starched shroud is what drew everyone’s attention to the woman, who said she was made to feel humiliated and uncomfortable by the hotel’s intervention.
Breastfeeding in public is not some perverse form of exhibitionism. It can be a daunting, intimidating experience. Although around 80% of women start off breastfeeding their baby, by 12 weeks the percentage still exclusively breastfeeding drops to 7%. Only around 1% of women are still breastfeeding when their baby is 6 months old. It’s not surprising given that women who dare to breastfeed in public are labelled “tramps” on social networking sites, such as Facebook.
Perversely, TV coverage of the Claridges story showed a photo of a female guest with her bare boobs on show in a see through dress. I have a feeling she wasn’t asked to sit in the corner and cover up. I somehow doubt that she was lectured on “discretion” by the waiter
Becoming a mother for the first time is a joyous, exhilarating experience but it’s also overwhelming and all consuming. In those early days, weeks, even months, I worried that I’d break my baby if I held him too tight. New mothers are preoccupied every waking hour by doing the best for their baby. Yet, we can’t do right for doing wrong. “Breast is best” we’re told, but the social stigma attached to breastfeeding in public is too much for many women to endure. If it’s not prats like Ukip leader Nigel Farage lecturing us about sitting in the corner, it’s the hostile starers, the tutters and the complainers.
I’m no shrinking violet but it took me weeks before I had the courage to breast feed in public. Anxiety about judgemental comments/glares was preventing me from going out. When I arranged to meet a non lactating friend in a well known high street coffee chain, I got there early so I could feed my baby in a quiet corner before she arrived. A few minutes later, the waiter approached and told me a customer had complained about my “offensive” behaviour.
In a state of perma sleep deprived comatose, I doubted my own sanity. Had I in fact just done the lambada on the table in my off white Mothercare bra and elastic-less pants? Had I forgotten to put any pants on and caused offence by inadvertently exposing my rear? No, I was definitely wearing pants because the woman in the chemist told me my skirt was tucked into them at the back, so it couldn’t be that (I untucked the skirt but was too jaded to give a flying feck as to how many people saw the off white undies). Dignity is the first thing to go when you become a mother. Or is that just me….
Being in the aforementioned comatose state, the best I could muster for the waiter was a glazed gait like stare. Clearly irked by my not cottoning on to the sub text, he told me I’d either have to cover up or leave. His tone, more than the words, struck a chord. I found my pre baby brain and asked the waiter who had complained. Realising from my tone that he had crossed a line, he pointed at a man in his 60’s sitting with a woman the same age. He was reading The Sun and I could see it was open on page 3!
I pointed this out to the waiter but the irony was lost on him. Why? Because, as a society, we have normalised the visibility of surgically enhanced, pneumatic breasts gratuitously exhibited for male sexual titillation. So much so, that breast exposure for this purpose has become acceptable. For the frivolous purpose of feeding a baby, however, it’s “scandalous”, “exhibitionism” and “tramp” like behaviour. There’s something seriously wrong in a society in which a nursing mother is considered an aberration.
I told the waiter that I was “offended” by the complainants’ ogling of pornographic images of a woman’s naked full frontal boobs in a public place and asked if he could please request that the man either be more discrete or leave. Incensed that I clearly had no intention of being bullied, the man and his female accomplice left in a huff. The waiter scowled at me in a “see what you’ve done now” manner. By the time my friend arrived I felt like I had done 10 rounds with Mike Tyson (I came out for a coffee not to fight my corner). Yes, I was able to hold my own, but it’s the last thing myself and my newborn needed. Confrontation is stressful but rolling over and accepting being discriminated against as inevitable is no fun either. It’s not what any nursing mother needs. It only happened once but the anxiety of a recurrence lingered.
Eighteen months after this experience the Equalities Act 2010 made it illegal to do what was done to me, i.e. discriminate against a woman for breastfeeding. For the avoidance of doubt, it is illegal to approach a woman breastfeeding in public and tell her to be “discrete”, or to cover up, or to sit in the corner. Mothers, fathers, midwives and supporters staged a protest outside Claridges Hotel on Saturday to remind the management of this legal duty. It was co-ordinated by Free to Feed, an organisation set up in March by Emily Slough after she was described as a “tramp” on Facebook for breastfeeding in public.
The following spoof poster is doing the rounds. I can’t not share it:
BREAST FEEDING MUMS WELCOME
If you are a Ukip supporter we politely ask, for the comfort of other customers, that you eat in the corner, or in the toilet, or under a large tablecloth that we can drape over you.
We’re sure you understand that, when people are eating, they don’t want to have to look at a complete and utter tit.