Why Is Breastfeeding in Public Still so Taboo?

Anyone averse to breastfeeding in public would have been wise to steer clear of West 26th Street in New York City Monday morning. That’s where a clutch of 30 women were stationed in front of the studio of "The Wendy Williams Show", defiantly nursing their babies to protest the host’s dissing of Karlesha Thurman — the 25-year-old graduate whose breastfeeding photo stirred a maelstrom of criticism recently.

“I am all for breastfeeding, but do not like breastfeeding in public,” Williams had said on her show Friday. “I don’t want to see it at my kitchen table, I don’t want to see it at Target, I don’t want to see it at Starbucks, in the airplane — and I especially don’t want to see it at graduation.”

Her comments rankled mommy bloggers and tweeters across the Internet and inspired Monday’s nurse-in, dubbed “Milkies in Manhattan” by organizer Patricia Villaverde, a breastfeeding advocate. “I found it so hypocritical that she says she’s fine with breastfeeding but that she doesn’t want to see it,” Villaverde told Yahoo Shine in between nursing sessions with her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, whom she carried in a front pack. “Why is she making a nursing mother feel like her only option is to hide?” The idea behind the nurse-in, she added, was “not meant to be a breast-is-best thing” but simply an attempt to “normalize what’s normal.”

Women at The Wendy Williams Show nurse-in on Monday. Photo: Patricia Villaverde
Women at The Wendy Williams Show nurse-in on Monday. Photo: Patricia Villaverde

The show did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo Shine. But Williams’s opinion and the rancor regarding Thurman’s photo were only the latest chapters in an ongoing, polarizing discussion about public breastfeeding.

Over the weekend in Connecticut, for example, a nurse-in drew more than 50 moms and babies to a Friendly’s restaurant in Norwich. The women came out in support of Tabitha Donohue, who says she was eating lunch and nursing her 8-week-old daughter at a table there last week when a manager asked her to either cover up or stop breastfeeding. “I told them I didn’t want to do either of those things,” Donohue said in an interview with Fox CT. “What’s offensive about breastfeeding?”

Friendly’s corporate office responded to the situation through a public statement, which was released to Yahoo Shine. It read: “We are a family restaurant and want all of our guests to be comfortable while dining with us. We honor each state's laws and welcome all breastfeeding moms and their children… We will use this as an opportunity to train all of our team members in Norwich, and all of our restaurants, as to how to appropriately accommodate breastfeeding moms.”

The issue has been playing out virtually, as well, particularly on Facebook. The social media site has previously come under fire for removing breastfeeding photos it deemed too revealing. And though Facebook has “always allowed breastfeeding photos,” a spokesperson tells Yahoo Shine, the company recently updated its help page on the topic. It now reads: “We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.” That headline-making change in language, the spokesperson explains, reflects that now, “Photos that show a nursing mother's other breast will be allowed even if it is fully exposed, as will mastectomy photos showing a fully exposed other breast.”

Diane Spatz, professor of perinatal nursing at the University of Pennsylvania said she believes that until public breastfeeding becomes more mainstream, the act will continue to be viewed as “socially deviant” to many. And the basis of that reaction, she says, is simple. “Our culture views the breast as being for sex,” she tells Yahoo Shine, “not for food.” And changing that idea — rather than re-enforcing it, as was done through Williams’s comments — is necessary to foster a supportive environment for nursing moms, Spatz says.

“If you’re a woman who has made a fully informed, confident decision to breastfeed, getting harassed in public won’t bother you,” Spatz explains. “But if you’re on the fence, not supported, not really confident about your decision, it may only take one nasty look to shoot you down.”

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