I’ve had many different reactions to breastfeeding in public. I’ve had stares, unsolicited advice and pointing. Well-meaning friends have turned scarlet and tried to cover me up with muslins, making me feel like I’m Pret a Manger’s answer to the Turin Shroud. I’ve had comments ranging from “You’re brave!” to “Don’t you want to go somewhere more private?” Thankfully I’ve never - to my knowledge - had someone try and photograph me. That would be crazy. But what’s really crazy is that until today they wouldn’t even have been breaking the law.
It’s both depressing and bizarre that “breastfeeding voyeur” is now phrase, but today it was announced that people who photograph or film women breastfeeding without their consent could be placed on the sex offenders register and jailed for up to two years. This legal reform came about after a woman in Manchester called Julia Cooper tried to challenge a man taking photos of her nursing in a park and was told by police she had no legal recourse because there wasn’t a reasonable expectation of privacy. Two Labour MPs then took up the cause under the campaign Stop the Breast Pest, one of them - Stella Creasy - having herself been snapped breastfeeding on public transport.
It’s mindblowing to me that showing about a fifth of your breast (and not even the nipple because that’s being chomped on by your baby) would be considered so erotic that someone would feel compelled to get their long lens out. Have these weirdos not been on the internet? There are literally boobs all over the place should you want to find one.
But perhaps it’s not really surprising that we need a law like this to protect breastfeeding mothers, given that in our culture breasts still mean titillation and not lactation. It’s why Instagram still hasn’t freed the nipple. It’s why women are still not permitted to breastfeed in the House of Commons and why the airline KLM recently told women they’d need to cover up while breastfeeding on flights.
We need to get over our inherent belief that this part of a woman’s body is automatically up for objectification
There is nothing remotely sexual about breastfeeding and as a society we need to get over our inherent belief that this part of a woman’s body is automatically up for objectification. I realised that I’d internalised the male gaze the first few times I breastfed in public. I felt self-conscious and exposed and vulnerable and also a bit chilly. It took practice and patience to become totally au fait with whipping my breast out on the reg. So I completely understand why I have friends who said they’d rather die than do it in front of their father-in-law. Or why my mate from my NCT class went straight on to formula after breastfeeding on a bench and a man coming up and asking her “Is it my turn next?” *Shudder*
Although I experienced my fair share of surprising and strange reactions to breastfeeding in public, on the whole I found that most people didn’t bat an eyelid. Whether it was black cabbies driving me and my baby home, or a group of builders sat opposite us in a cafe. If I ever felt uncomfortable I tried to focus on my daughter and channel her vibe. She has always been blissfully unaware that what we were engaged in was a potential source of embarrassment, shock or indecency. For her it was just lunch.