My mom had my little sister, Tess, when I was nine years old and that’s when I started hearing the debate about whether or not women should be allowed to breastfeed publicly. Public breastfeeding was brought to my attention once again, a decade later, when the topic swept across social media outlets, starting fights and lighting fires among people of all ages and backgrounds. Most people would get behind the fact that breastfeeding is natural and is usually what’s best for the mother and her child. However, even though the general public agrees that breastmilk includes antibodies and bacteria necessary for a child’s immune development that can’t be found in a can, people still have a problem with women breastfeeding in public.
The arguments against public breastfeeding often stem from the rampant sexualizing and fetishizing of breasts in our culture. Naysayers argue that breastfeeding is immodest and that breasts should be kept for the privacy of the home and the pleasure of a woman’s husband. Not only is that argument extremely heteronormative, it also ignores basic science. Breasts exist for the nutrition of offspring. They are sex characteristics, yes. But they’re secondary sex characteristics like facial hair, Adam’s apples, and body hair. The sexual purpose of breasts is to portray fertility. The practical purpose is to feed a woman’s child. Arguing that a woman’s breasts should be kept private in order to honor her husband objectifies her and negates her choice as a woman to breastfeed.
The point is often made that people “don’t want to see that” and, therefore, women should have to feed their children in the bathroom or, at the very least, throw a blanket over their babies while they nurse. I’m a big proponent of the counterpoint “if you don’t want to see it, don’t look.” Beneath the self-important silliness of the argument, there is a layer of disrespect and inconsideration festering. By telling a nursing mother to go to the restroom to nurse or to cover her baby, one shames that woman for doing something completely natural because it makes one uncomfortable. Nursing is a very important part of raising a child in that it helps the mother and baby bond as well as creating a healthy relationship between food and the child. Forcing a mother to cover her child up or go to a potentially dirty or uncomfortable space creates a negative association in the child’s mind between feeding and being uncomfortable. The argument that a woman should have to hide her nursing is disrespectful and just plain selfish; it asks too much of women.
Nursing mothers are often told that they should just switch to formula if they want to bring their baby everywhere with them. Putting aside the medical and scientific research that has been done examining the benefits of breastfeeding, that’s just plain expensive. A 40-ounce tub of generic powdered baby formula runs around $20 to $25 at places like Target and Walmart depending on what kind you get — there’s fortified, sensitive stomach, iron enriched and countless others. Typical babies drink 6 ounces of formula about four times a day. A 40-ounce tub of powdered formula makes about 300 liquid ounces of formula. Let’s do some math, shall we? 6 x 4 = 24. 300 / 24 = 12.5. So $25 of formula lasts your baby exactly 12-and-a-half days. Most children don’t move past breastmilk or formula until they are around one year old. Maintaining a formula feeding habit for an entire year costs about $1,200. Yes, many mothers choose to bottle feed their babies — a completely valid choice. But it’s exactly that: the mother’s choice. Telling a woman that her choice to breastfeed her baby is wrong or bad in some way is inappropriate and nobody’s place but the baby’s or her doctor’s.
Many people ask why mothers don’t just pump and bring their milk in bottles to feed the child if they don’t want to deal with people getting upset at them. The easy answer is that breastmilk has to be kept refrigerated after leaving the body and it’d be really inconvenient to have to lug around a cooler as well as a baby and a diaper bag. The more pertinent answer is that mothers shouldn’t have to. Women shouldn’t be asked to change their behavior — especially behavior that is totally natural and often necessary — to accommodate the social comfort
Natalie Dulka is a sophomore English Writing and Theatre Art double major from Minneapolis, MN. She keeps herself occupied by holding the position of Chief Executive Officer of Feminism Club, being involved with the theater, and writing plays. Her passions include sarcasm, wool socks, and equality.