Just basic acceptance of women and their children would do for starters. Photo: Getty
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Should mothers have to be thankful that businesses “welcome” breastfeeding?

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.

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.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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