Breastfeeding In Public Is Hard. For Plus-Size Women, It's Even Harder

Plus-size mums reveal the highs and lows of their breastfeeding journeys.
Suz Gillies-Smith, the body acceptance activist behind the <a href="https://instagram.com/plussizebreastfeeding?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=" target="_blank" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="@plussizebreastfeeding " data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="62975015e4b0b1100a5f045d" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="https://instagram.com/plussizebreastfeeding?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="0">@plussizebreastfeeding </a>Instagram account, feeds her son at a TJ Maxx.
Suz Gillies-Smith, the body acceptance activist behind the @plussizebreastfeeding Instagram account, feeds her son at a TJ Maxx.

Breastfeeding in public has become increasingly normalised over the past decade and yet, according to a 2019 survey, one in four people in the US think feeding or pumping in public is “inappropriate.” But a baby has to eat when a baby has to eat, whether that’s in a store, at a restaurant or on a plane.

Mums who feed in public sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of dirty looks, eye rolls or rude comments from strangers. For plus-size moms, breastfeeding in public can be even more daunting, as they risk being shamed not only for feeding their babies out in the open, but also for existing in a fat body.

In an essay for Romper, journalist Marie Southard Ospina wrote about a time when a man called her “fucking disgusting” – among other cruel things – for breastfeeding her eight-month-old daughter on a train.

“Although I have no experience breastfeeding in public as a thin woman, this exchange reified my fear that breastfeeding in public when you’re fat is even more negatively received than doing so when your body is culturally deemed ‘acceptable,’” she wrote.

Of course, there are mums of all different sizes who are able to breastfeed in public without incident – which may have to do, in part, with attitudes toward breastfeeding where they live.

But sometimes just the fear of having a confrontation like Ospina’s is enough to keep nursing women at home or, when they do go out, feeding their babies in public restrooms, the car or hidden beneath breastfeeding covers.

What plus-size mums deal with when they breastfeed in public

Kenda H., a mother of four, said we need to normalize breastfeeding in public for people of all sizes.
Kenda H., a mother of four, said we need to normalize breastfeeding in public for people of all sizes.

For plus-size mums with larger breasts, just getting the baby into a comfortable and effective feeding position on the go can be cumbersome – especially if they usually need to use props like nursing pillows or are trying to do it without showing a lot of skin.

“Sometimes I see my smaller-boobed friends and wish I could leisurely lift my shirt and attach my baby so smoothly and gracefully. But I can’t,” Kenda H., a mother of four, tells HuffPost. “As a plus-size nurser, if I lift my shirt, this belly of mine hangs out. That’s cause for anxiety for me. And as a big-boobed nurser, I’ve got to fully expose dang near my full breast in order to latch. Nipple and all. There’s just no graceful way to do it, and the nervousness makes it worse.”

Suz Gillies-Smith is a body acceptance advocate and mother of two who runs the @plussizebreastfeeding Instagram account. She said she’s received her fair share of judgmental glares when nursing out and about.

“As a fat person, I’m used to being looked at or judged while in public, and I think this made me more resilient to judgments about breastfeeding,” Gillies-Smith tells HuffPost. “I received many dirty looks with my first baby and if I’ve learned anything about parenting, it’s that no matter what you choose to do, someone is always going to have an opinion.”

Suz Gillies-Smith often wears her baby in a ring sling carrier when nursing in public.
Suz Gillies-Smith often wears her baby in a ring sling carrier when nursing in public.

She eventually figured out how to breastfeed while wearing her baby in a ring sling carrier, which allowed her to more easily and discreetly feed on the go.

“This provides some additional privacy,” Gillies-Smith says. “It also helps with the physical aspect of having to hold baby in place. With larger breasts that point downward, just holding baby to my chest isn’t effective.”

Sharing photos and stories about her breastfeeding journey on social media has also made Gillies-Smith a target of harassment online.

“I frequently get nasty comments and people DMing me telling me I’m disgusting,” she says. “All these nasty experiences tell me is that I need to keep doing what I’m doing because the general public still doesn’t respect the needs of both the breastfeeding infant and the breastfeeder.”

Katie Cloyd was initially "terrified" to feed in public because she wasn't comfortable in her body. Over time, though, she was able to breastfeed anywhere "without one bit of fear or hesitation."
Katie Cloyd was initially "terrified" to feed in public because she wasn't comfortable in her body. Over time, though, she was able to breastfeed anywhere "without one bit of fear or hesitation."

Writer Katie Cloyd, a mother of three, says she was initially “very uncomfortable” breastfeeding in public with her first child. But that discomfort dissipated over time.

“I wasn’t comfortable in my own body, and the idea of showing any of it to the world was terrifying,” she tells HuffPost. “I got more comfortable with my second, and by my third, I didn’t even own a nursing cover. We wrapped up our nursing journey a few months ago, but before that, I breastfed my baby in any public place without one bit of fear or hesitation. ‘Boobies are for babies,’ and when mine needed to eat, I was not going to deny her, regardless of how society feels about my body.”

How to support breastfeeding mums of all sizes

As curve model and new mum Hunter McGrady told Yahoo Life last year, “We rarely ever see plus-size women represented in any regular [everyday] life, let alone breastfeeding, pregnancy, none of it.”

For that reason, just seeing mums with different body types nursing out in the world – and in media – can be powerful. Case in point: the period underwear brand Thinx recently featured a plus-size mum nursing her baby girl in one of its Facebook advertisements. The effusive comments on the post show how rare – and meaningful – this kind of representation is.

“This representation matters SO MUCH,” one woman wrote. “We always see thin mothers nursing in the cradle hold. Seeing a curvy, woman of colour, nursing in the way that works for her body and her child. I am forever here for it!”

Why am I crying? I am currently sitting here feeding my 2-month-old and have NEVER seen a woman in an ad that embodies me so much,” said another.

Charli Michelé, the model featured in the ad, tells HuffPost she has received a lot of love for the campaign – especially from other plus-sized mums who said they appreciated seeing a more realistic postpartum body.

“They also loved the representation of me being a brown mama breastfeeding,” Michelé tells HuffPost. “There is a lack of media coverage of brown breastfeeding mums – especially plus-size – so I was happy that I was able to represent this category!”

She says she often feeds her daughter in public, but there’s been a few occasions in which a stranger has asked her to cover up. “I responded back and asked them to put a napkin over their mouth every time they took a bite and see how they feel. They didn’t say much after that,” Michelé says.

Charli Michelé, a dancer and model, feeds her daughter on the go.
Charli Michelé, a dancer and model, feeds her daughter on the go.

Another way to show your support for breastfeeding mums? Gillies-Smith suggests that when you see someone breastfeeding in public, consider taking a second to tell them they’re doing a good job.

“Nursing in public can be difficult for many reasons,” she says. “Judgment from others shouldn’t be a reason it’s challenging.”

Both Gillies-Smith and Cloyd also mentioned the importance of advocating to make public places more nursing-friendly by providing comfortable chairs and lactation rooms.

“Most public spaces are not set up to accommodate breastfeeding, plus-size or not,” Gillies-Smith says.

Kenda offered some words of encouragement for plus-size mums apprehensive about nursing in public: Tune out the noise around you so you can just be present with your baby.

“Let go of the fear of what others think and just feed that baby!” she says. “It may not be as seamless [for you] as some other mamas... but it’s such a beautiful time. And just because we don’t look like a model doesn’t mean we don’t deserve the right and joy of being out, enjoying life without feeling like our baby will get hungry and someone will see [our bodies].”