At primary school I had a friend called Pamela. I knew she was my friend because she told me this on a regular basis, albeit rarely without the qualification “even though everyone else says you’re really fat and ugly”. Plucky, brave Pamela. Without her, I may never have known companionship, given all that was offensive about my appearance. Without her, I may never have realised just how repulsive a body like mine must have been. Without her, I might have carried on assuming, if only for a little while longer, that I was alright, really. Thanks, Pam. I am grateful for your “friendship” – but that’s what you wanted, right?
Thirty years on, a poster in my local chip shop brings back memories of Pamela. I’m waiting for my cod bites when a bright pink slogan declaring that that this business “welcomes breastfeeding” catches my eye. Obviously I approve of this. Cod bites can take a while to cook and you don’t want to be stuck with engorged, leaking breasts and a screaming, hungry baby while you wait. If I was still breastfeeding, I wouldn’t have hesitated to do it there and then. Yet up until that point, it had not crossed my mind that my chip shop even felt in a position to grant permission. It all feels a bit “I’ll still be your friend, you fatso”; “I’ll still take your £4.25 even though you’ve been brazen enough to bear your veiny areolas in my humble establishment”. Should breastfeeding mothers be thankful for this? Is our freedom of movement – and to buy chips – so dependent on the largesse of others?
It’s not that I don’t understand the motivations behind the Gloucestershire Welcomes Breastfeeding scheme. As a new mum, I felt incredibly self-conscious about breastfeeding in public, hence my first child endured plenty of miserable feeds in cramped toilet cubicles and baby changing rooms that stank of dirty nappies. In a society that both sexualises women’s breasts and offers them slut-shaming advice on how to avoid sexual violence, it feels counter-intuitive to just sit down on a bench and whip your tits out for all to see (and no, I don’t buy the “it can always be done discreetly” line. Babies wriggle; it can be hard to get into position for latching on; sometimes, oddly, one’s own arms and knees seem to get in the way; a whole new wardrobe of breastfeeding tops is prohibitively expensive; achieving let-down occasionally requires a bit of a squeeze; and no, a “modesty apron”, hiding both breast and baby from view, is not the ideal solution to any of this). It was only when I had two children under two that I was stressed and distracted enough to think “sod it” and breastfeed anywhere and everywhere: on park benches, by roadsides, in shops, at people’s houses, in workplaces. I was lucky, I suppose, that no one ever challenged me (it may be that my accompanying weaponry – a double buggy the size of a military tank – was enough to ensure potential critics kept their distance).
Since 2005 it has been an offence under Scottish law “deliberately to prevent or stop a person in charge of a child from feeding milk to that child in a public place or on licenced premises”. In England and Wales the 2010 Equality Act states that it is against the law for women to receive less favourable treatment if they are breastfeeding when receiving services (there is, however, no right to breastfeed at work). So, ladies, unless you are trying to sneak in a quick feed under the till or by the photocopier, it looks like you can relax: you cannot legally be discriminated against for trying to feed your own baby. Hooray! But this does prompt the question: what kind of culture is this, in which we need laws in place to ensure that something so fundamental – the very stuff of life – is not openly rejected and condemned?
Much of the rejection of breastfeeding in public strikes me as out and out misogyny; breasts are for the enjoyment of heterosexual men and we mothers are “spoiling” them by exposing them in all their leaking, squirting, nurturing glory. I think, however, this rejection also fits in with a more general view of motherhood as “other”. Raising children is essential to the continuation of the human race and yet it is sidelined in a male-dominated, wealth-obsessed culture. Mothers of young children are granted access to public spaces and workplaces on sufferance. We are told off for taking up too much space with our buggies, criticised for the noises our children make, shamed for “harming” businesses with our maternity leave and our flexible working hours. Women who have done nothing wrong and simply want to participate in society are put in a position of feeling grateful for every tiny concession granted to them. We tell ourselves this is because we chose to have children (even though not all mothers are mothers by choice). That we should not have to pay such a high price is rarely considered.
On the whole I am happy that my chip shop welcomes breastfeeding. It is better, I suppose, than not doing so. Nonetheless I find myself thinking of all the Gloucestershire businesses who could have taken part in this scheme and chose not to. Why was that? Did they just not have any space for the poster? Did they not read the email? Did they find it patronising (as I do)? Or did they make a decision against actively welcoming breastfeeding mothers on their premises? That one should be asking these questions at all says something depressing about our attitude towards mothers, motherhood and the value of our work. A healthy, humane culture should have space not just for the idea of us, but for our bodies, our children, what we are and what we do. Extra chips – to cope with the increased calorie requirements of breastfeeding – would be a bonus, but for now just basic acceptance would do.