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National NOW Times >> Fall 2006 >> Article

U.S. Lacks Support for Breastfeeding Mothers

By Rose Afriyie
Field Organizer/Chapters & States

U.S. Lacks Support for Breastfeeding Mothers

Cover, Babytalk Magazine. August 2006.

The cover of Babytalk Magazine made national news after readers complained about the woman's breast in the image.

Amy Swan, a Kansas native, refused to let others' norms dictate when, where and how she would feed her baby. After a man complained that the sight of her breastfeeding in a gym would negatively influence his son, she lobbied the Kansas state legislature for three years to pass a law guaranteeing a woman's right to publicly nurse her child. In March of 2006, Kansas legislators approved House Bill 2284, which incorporates support for breastfeeding mothers into the state's official policy.

For many new moms, dirty looks from passersby, the fear of being asked to leave an establishment, and other expressions of public disapproval often deter them from breastfeeding, leaving their babies without the essential nutrients in breast milk that help fight infection. Although permitted by federal law, mothers are often discouraged from breastfeeding in public places because of the over-eroticization of women's breasts, equating the act of feeding a baby to a demonstration of indecency. Further, some mothers may be discouraged by their own husbands from breastfeeding in public.

Consider the controversy spurred by the August edition of Babytalk magazine, when its cover depicted a baby suckling at its mother's breast. The photograph was only a close-up of the baby's face and a profile of the breast. A huge backlash from the public ensued, demonstrating that many believe the image of a woman's breast is inextricably bound to her sexuality. Additionally, a poll conducted by the magazine revealed that 25 percent of its readers—comprised largely of mothers—found the cover inappropriate, supporting the argument that mothers themselves sometimes perpetuate a stigma against breastfeeding.

Antipathy toward public breastfeeding comes as no surprise. Scarce are the images of breasts in the media relating to their physiological function. However, there is an overabundance of images of breasts eroticized on television: Jennifer Lopez and her infamous dress, Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, and those slow-motion dashes down the beach in re-runs of the breast-obsessed "Baywatch."

Leaders in media outlets are responsible for the images, news, and talks shows covering the titillating exposure of women's bodies, all of which shape public perception. The end result is a societal consensus that women's breasts, whether on the red carpet or attached to a newborn, are twin symbols of female sexuality.

The sobering reality is that many mothers breastfeed in public because they do not have any other place do so when they are away from home. Such is the case of "Dina," who posted on 007 Breasts (a website that monitors public opinion on breastfeeding internationally) that she was told by an employee that feeding her hungry child—at a children's hospital, no less!—was insulting. Only after complaining did she receive an apology; but her first thought to nurse her child away from home will forever be followed with a second thought of hesitation and doubt. Many may argue that Dina was fully capable of nursing in the bathroom, perched on a toilet seat in a narrow stall. But why should she have to?

Breastfeeding in private is a luxury not afforded to women who live with large families, work at places that do not have private facilities to pump or for women who must travel with their newborns on public transportation.

Effecting change through legislation is half the battle. Even after NOW wins the fight for paid family leave, women-friendly workplaces, and increased funding of programs for low-income mothers, many babies will not benefit from the nutrients in breast milk unless their mothers feel comfortable and secure in breastfeeding. The encouragement of family, the support of friends, and public acceptance can make our world a healthier place for babies.

Pending legislation in Congress needs your support too. S.Res.403, introduced in March, calls on states to recognize the benefits of breastfeeding by implementing programs and acknowledges the economic and social benefits of supporting mothers in breastfeeding. H.R. 2122, introduced in May of 2005, provides tax incentives for breastfeeding mothers and holds all breast pumps to a gold standard of performance. Although neither is likely to pass in this Congress, we look forward to starting anew with a House and Senate that will be more sensitive to our concerns, and more women-friendly.

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