Is breastfeeding in public inappropriate?
- According to the CDC's 2020 Breastfeeding Report Card, 84% of babies in the US are breastfed for some amount of time.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) states that women should exclusively breastfeed infants during their first six months of life, a feat which only 40% of infants reach.
- Merriam-Webster defines 'indecent exposure' as 'intentional exposure of part of one's body (such as the genitals) in a place where such exposure is likely to be an offense against the generally accepted standards of decency.'
- Women in Colonial America regularly breastfed in public without scrutiny, but the practice faded when alternatives to breastmilk, including bottles and commercially-made formula, were gradually introduced and accepted by the 20th century.
- The sexualization of breasts is thousands of years old, with some origins in Ancient Greece. A version of the epic Helen of Troy story explains that Menelaus dropped his sword upon seeing Helen's exposed breasts--not her reportedly beautiful face.
About one in four individuals find breastfeeding in public inappropriate. And interestingly, 25% of them are actually women! In fact, 28% feel uncomfortable seeing a woman breastfeed in clear view of the public.
One of the reasons for their stance is that the act is too personal. Breastfeeding is a physically and emotionally intimate act that should remain private--especially when lactation rooms are so readily available.
While those supporting this argument find nothing morally wrong with the act, they don’t feel comfortable being part of such an intimate moment. And though it may sound easy to try averting one’s gaze, it may be hard not to sneak a peek at a cute, cooing baby. After all, brains are hardwired to react to cuteness.
On the other hand, some believe that clothes are worn for public decency. So, mothers exposing a private part of their anatomy in public are wrong. And 19 states, such as California, agree as they haven’t exempted breastfeeding moms from public indecency laws. This may be related to the fact that breasts have become sexualized despite their primary function being to feed babies. And while straight men may have a sexual interest in breasts, numerous women (but not all) use them to measure or validate their worth.
Public nursing may also lead to awkward social interactions. For instance, children witnessing this act may ask adults inappropriate questions. Moreover, babies may make loud noises that make others in their surroundings uncomfortable.
With alternatives to breastfeeding directly and readily available, mothers should consider using them while in public for their sake and that of the people around them.
Though decades of studies exist imploring mothers to breastfeed, women remain demonized if they feed their babies in public--forcing them to weigh its health benefits against patriarchal social mores.
Breastfed children receive better nutrition. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 'Breast milk provides abundant and easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants, enzymes, immune properties, and live antibodies.' The health benefits of these nutrients include fewer instances of allergies, asthma, diabetes, obesity, and childhood leukemia.
Breastfeeding also benefits society. Studies estimate that if mothers exclusively breastfed during their first six months, America could save $13 billion in healthcare costs annually. Additionally, breastfeeding helps the environment by using fewer resources and producing less carbon than formula.
The stigma surrounding public breastfeeding hinges on the sexualization of the female breast. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, 'representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view.' With men accounting for a disproportionate amount of representation in our government, our ideas of 'decency' are governed exclusively by male sexual proclivities--with little input from the women affected.
While every state has a law allowing women to breastfeed in public, 19 still do not exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. This puts women in precarious situations that could have a chilling effect on their willingness to breastfeed. Studies reveal that 'Empowerment of mothers is an important factor for continuing breastfeeding.' If we normalize public breastfeeding, we empower mothers. Doing so will benefit our entire society.