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Breastfeeding in Public

I will never understand why so many people feel offended by the sight of a woman feeding her child. There is nothing whatsoever sexual about breastfeeding. Absolutely nothing. Women everywhere should be allowed to and encouraged to feed their child in a safe and convenient location. There are plenty of places in the world where this is socially acceptable, so there is no reason why it cannot be so universally.

When I was living in Chile, a country typically considered more conservative than the US, I noticed that breastfeeding was not nearly as taboo there. I even saw a woman feeding her child on an advertisement in the subway at one point. This isn’t to say that it had a utopia level of acceptance, but the majority of people were less offended by this act than where I’m from. It was understood by a greater number of people that feeding a baby is a normal, natural act.

This question is often asked: If breastfeeding is so natural, why is there such a widespread sentiment that it should be hidden? Anybody who thinks breastfeeding a child is in any way sexual does not understand basic biology. Just because breasts are attractive and responsive to touch doesn’t mean their sole purpose is sex. Butts are also sexy, and can be responsive to touch. That doesn’t make pooping inherently sexual.

Throughout much of history, breasts were not commonly sexualized, and even today there are cultures where this idea is less prevalent or even nonexistent. Both men and women have mammary tissue; women just typically have more fat cells in that area, and they are able to produce milk. There was a time when European culture thought that large breasts were matronly, and wealthy women would hire wet nurses to breastfeed their children to maintain a smaller, perkier bosom. In relatively recent history, at least compared with the history of the world, breasts boomed in popularity. Long story short, fetishizing breasts and assigning higher than average value to their beauty spread and became a social norm over time in western culture. Globalization has caused this to be even more widespread.

Some people might wonder why it matters that breastfeeding in public places isn’t considered socially acceptable. What is the big deal if a woman has to feed her baby in a more discreet manner? The most obvious issue is the safety of the baby. Most places do not have specific areas for breastfeeding, so a dirty bathroom is the only option. This is an especially high health risk for an infant, who does not have a strong immune system yet. Carrying around a blanket to cover the act brings its own set of problems. If the blanket gets dirty, or is forgotten at home, it’s rendered useless. The other issue is that treating breastfeeding as something that needs to be hidden creates a sense of shame surrounding a natural, beautiful process.

Really, the fact that a woman can create a baby from scratch inside her body then produce a nutrient-rich substance to feed it is incredible. The process of having and feeding a baby takes a huge toll on the body, and then there are people who use varying levels of shame to insinuate that there is something wrong with breastfeeding. (Unless the woman is using formula to feed her baby. Then suddenly people can appreciate how wonderful breastfeeding is.) Aside from the fact that mothers deserve to feel confident feeding their babies in public, open and unashamed, it is very useful to future mothers to be able to witness the process. Many people who haven’t had children don’t realize that breastfeeding takes some work to get right. Some people catch on faster than others, and some have legitimate medical issues making it more difficult. Having the opportunity to observe breastfeeding leading up to motherhood can help women understand the process better and the general sense of openness can make it easier to ask each other questions and get advice.

The fact that feeding an infant can be controversial is ridiculous. Women deserve to be able to feed their children in clean, non-judgmental environments. If we can stop being so easily offended by normal bodily functions and find ways to be more open about breastfeeding, it will be good for parents and babies everywhere. Open up the conversation: In the comments, either tell a story about your experiences breastfeeding or ask a question about the process. The best way to create change is to dismantle the stigma, and we can do that by sharing and listening.

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I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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