Social media posts campaigning for acceptance of public breastfeeding have always confused me. Isn’t it completely acceptable now – even encouraged?
This illusion fell away last week when I was asked to move from a gym where I was breastfeeding my seven-week-old baby. The young, male personal trainer, whose bootcamp I have participated in for nearly two years, came rushing over to tell me to move, because “whilst it doesn’t bother me, it might bother my clients”. I was so taken aback that I meekly responded that I couldn’t move now that I’d started, and then sat there for the next 10 minutes feeling completely mortified - before the outrage set in.
This personal trainer’s behaviour was exceptional. Most people have been either unfazed or approving of me feeding my baby in public. But it’s people’s reactions to hearing about this incident that have made me realise there’s still work to do in changing attitudes.
A male friend attempting to console me shortly after the incident said “it sounds like he just asked you politely not to feed there”. In fact, the personal trainer was far from polite – a few minutes later he threw my baby carrier down next to me, saying that I’d left it in the way. But whether he was polite or not is beside the point. However nicely a restaurant owner asks a gay couple not to hold hands in her restaurant, she has still done something wrong. And it’s still likely to make the couple feel ashamed when they have nothing to be ashamed of. The same holds here: simply asking me to move so as not to offend others was itself wrong.
Another friend offered me her special tent that she used when she was breastfeeding. A kind offer, but I carry around enough baby equipment as it is, without also transporting a pop-up tent to hide under every 30 minutes (sometimes less). More to the point, this wrongly implied that there is something that I need to change in order to fix the problem.
One person joining in our discussion said that they were okay with breastfeeding in public, but there was no need to “flaunt” it. But this comment suggests that they’re not really okay with it – as it’s not clear how feeding at the place where you happen to be is ‘flaunting’ it.
Others have responded by saying how great it is that I am so “proud” of breastfeeding. But for me, breastfeeding in public is not a display of pride. I’m just doing what I need to do – feeding my baby – whilst not remaining confined to the home. This week the Sun reported on a woman “shamed” for breastfeeding at Disney World, and included a picture with the caption “She is so committed to the cause that even being a bridesmaid didn’t stop her feeding her child”. Aside from the fact that it would be a bit weird if being a bridesmaid changed someone’s infant care routine so fundamentally, the language used here seems wrong-headed. Seeing public breastfeeding as a “cause” or feeding at a gym as “making a statement” suggests a departure from the norm, a norm where nursing mothers stay at home.
All of the above responses are from people who would fall into the 72% of people who say that they “support” breastfeeding in public – yet their attitudes are still far from satisfactory. Breastfeeding is flipping hard, yet this is not something that’s widely understood. Most nursing mothers don’t want to expose themselves, but when you’re a new Mum struggling to get your baby to latch, sometimes that’s what happens. Add to the difficulties of breastfeeding the sorts of passing comments like those made to me in response to the incident at the gym, and it’s no wonder that only a quarter of babies in England are exclusively breastfed at 6 weeks (falling to 1% at 6 months).
Some sort of education initiative aimed not at parents, but at wider society, is needed. The personal trainer appeared to have no idea that what he said was unacceptable, let alone that his behaviour was illegal. Small businesses like his need to be made aware of the law. In the meantime, I hope that women will keep nonchalantly breastfeeding in public so that this is normalised for the next generation. That way, experiences like mine last week will become even rarer.