I breastfeed, therefore I am a good mother

Yes, it’s wrong for Facebook to censor breastfeeding photos – but why do some moms make such a public display of nursing?

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

The ‘Nurse In’ – a protest in which outraged mothers gather to breastfeed their children en masse – has become a fixture of American life.

In recent years, small armies of nursing moms have protested against Delta Airlines, Toys-r-Us, television host Barbara Walters, and the Applebees restaurant chain, usually because a nursing mother was asked to leave one of these establishments, or, in Walters’ case, because she made a disparaging remark about nursing in public.

Lately, nurse-protesting has gone virtual. In December, mothers on the 140million-strong social-networking site Facebook held a virtual nurse-in to protest against Facebook’s removal of pictures of moms breastfeeding their babies. Facebook claims the photos were removed in accordance with its policy prohibiting content that is ‘obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit’. Spokesman Barry Schnitt told the New York Times: ‘We are reviewing thousands of complaints a day. Whether it’s obscene, art or a natural act – we’d rather just leave it at “nudity” and draw the line there.’

Something seems terribly amiss at Facebook. A perusal of photos of breastfeeding moms on the protesting Facebook group ‘Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!’ reveals that they are just that: not obscene. They are quite sweet, most of them, and it seems silly, shortsighted and frankly boneheaded of Facebook to remove them, much less threaten to revoke the accounts of the parents who posted them – no matter how many complaints it has received.

As Stephanie Knapp Muir, one of the organisers of the virtual nurse-in, rightly points out: ‘The vast majority of the removed images were in people’s private profiles – you’d have to look for them to find them.’ She added: ‘You can opt not to do that.’ In other words, Facebook should get a grip, exercise a little common sense, and credit its members with the competence required to navigate away from things that they don’t want to see.

Clearly Facebook’s censorship is the main issue here – and yet in some ways it is the least interesting aspect of the story. More intriguing is what this controversy reveals about rights, identity, and the softening line between public and private.

Facebook maintains that it makes the rules of the clubhouse because it owns the toys, but with 140million users, Facebook is public. Moreover, tensions between Facebook users over breastfeeding photographs closely resemble tensions about public nursing in the real world. In one sense, images of breastfeeding shouldn’t be controversial at all. It is a rare cave-dwelling hermit who has not come across the slogan ‘breast is best’. It is not just in books about parenting and pregnancy, on the walls of doctors’ offices and on government handouts – it has also appeared on the sides of buses and on billboards. It is displayed in the manner of a disclaimer at the bottom of adverts for infant formula milk (to remind formula-feeding moms that they’re only ‘second-best’, maybe?).

Sixty-four per cent of American women breastfeed initially, and though rates tend to drop off as they return to work, 14 per cent are still nursing by the time their infants are a year old. So it’s not really the breastfeeding itself that is the issue, so much as how it is done in public.

It’s true enough that there is an annoying degree of prudishness about public nursing in the US, but thankfully incidents like one in Colorado – where a woman was ticketed by park rangers for breastfeeding her baby behind two umbrellas and under a towel – are becoming less common. Laws vary by state, but the trend is for breastfeeding to be explicitly deemed Not Indecent. This doesn’t mean everyone is comfortable with it, or accustomed to seeing women expose their breasts to feed junior. When disputes arise, it’s usually because nursing women have been asked to cover their breasts when others complain.

It is, of course, very important for women to be able to feed their infants in public. In the absence of affordable childcare, for many women public feeding means the difference between social engagement and isolation in the home. It is a practical solution to a practical problem. The baby is hungry; you feed it. Women should be able to get on with their business unharrassed, and in any way that works for them.

On the other hand, infant feeding and breastfeeding in particular have become highly politicised issues; a once private and personal decision about how to feed baby now keenly interests everyone from government officials to the old lady down the street. It’s not at all unusual for strangers either to balk at the sight of a woman breastfeeding, or on the flipside to praise women who breastfeed and console or even chide those who do not. Breastfeeding has become a matter of public interest.

Many mothers are as eager to share as others are to know. Nursing in public has become more than a means to an end. It is a statement that says: ‘I am a good parent.’ Perhaps this is why nurse-ins place so much emphasis, not just on breastfeeding, but on breastfeeding as publicly as possible. It’s not just about the practicalities of nursing, it’s about asserting parental identity in public. And if others find the public performance of this identity jarring, then they are portrayed as anti-breastfeeding, prudish or sex-obsessed. This is especially clear on Facebook, a virtual world where, of course, nobody is actually getting fed.

Reading through some of the threads of discussion on Facebook and elsewhere, it is clear that the protesters’ concern is less about disputing Facebook’s censorship on principle and more about articulating the ‘right’ to express one’s identity as a parent. One mother, posting on the parental blog Parents’ Dish, explained it this way: ‘This image epitomises the love I feel for my child and my identity as a mother – [the] new person I have become.’

Many threads on the protesters’ Facebook group go a step further, disparaging people who do not share their beliefs about parenting. In a thread interestingly entitled ‘To those who oppose breastfeeding and sleep sharing’ (emphasis added), a mother opines: ‘I think it’s selfish that most women can’t find the time to bond with their child, to rely on supplements [infant formula] (except when necessary [for] iron requirements or allergies).’ She goes on to question whether it is ever right not to co-sleep, thus depriving babies of ‘the only security they have had, for our own or hubby’s comfort. It’s not natural!’ In other threads, mothers lament that infant formula is available without a prescription.

The intolerance of formula-feeding on Facebook has its counterpart in real-world ‘lactivism’, which not only advocates for breastfeeding but also against bottlefeeding. Indeed, the free bottles of infant formula that used to be given out to new mothers are are now banned from public hospitals in many parts of the US, much to the delight of militant lactivists.

Of course, not all parents go along with the idea that breast is always best. Many go out of their way to be supportive of formula-feeding and reject the idea that it is somehow ‘selfish’ or puts babies at risk. Some are also pragmatic about the awkwardness many people feel about breastfeeding in public and don’t equate nursing discretely with being somehow ashamed. Others are sceptical of the notion that making breastfeeding more visible should be a goal in and of itself. Sadly, however, sentiments like these tend to get lost in a discussion that is fast becoming more about asserting breastfeeding as a public virtue than about women’s right to participate equally in social life.

To put this in perspective, it is worth recalling that not so long ago, the potential for women to accomplish anything in their lives beyond motherhood was severely limited. They dreamed of a world in which they could participate in social life not as mothers but as human beings who might happen to be mothers. This is what makes nursing as an expression of public identity so very ironic. Ultimately, it may be that what women really need is not the right to assert their identity as parents in public, but a situation in which they can get on with the business of feeding their babies without needing to make any ‘statement’ at all.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill told militant lactivists to get their hands off Jordan’s breasts. Jennie Bristow denied the idea that pregnancy will damage your child. Jane Sandeman asked: Do we need the ‘right to breastfeed’? Ellie Lee asked: Is bottle-feeding a mark of bad motherhood? Mick Hume said you shouldn’t lose your bottle in the face of militant lactivism. Or read more at spiked issue Breastfeeding.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today