Uncomfortable with mothers breastfeeding in public? It says more about you than them

A campaign targeting mothers' insecurities about breastfeeding, rather than a squeamish general public, reveals society's neuroses about breasts.

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I’m writing this in a café where I may have just offended over a quarter of the clientele. This is because mere moments ago I stuck a hand down my jumper, unclipped my bra, exposed the bottom half of an engorged breast and put my baby onto it to feed.

Unfortunately I do not look anything like a Disney Princess when I breastfeed. I look like a woman who is sitting awkwardly and could do with a cushion. My baby’s head does not neatly cover up any exposed breast, and my nipple intermittently comes into view when my son latches off (which he has a habit of doing when the flow gets too fast, sending thin arcs of watery milk across the keys of my laptop).

At two months old he is finding the world an interesting place, so has started to combine feeding with taking in the sights, clamping his mouth down on the nipple while glancing from side to side, stretching me in ways I am quite clearly not meant to be stretched. All the while I’m trying to write with one hand, none of which makes the act of feeding particularly discreet. Sorry, fellow coffee drinkers.

According to a poll conducted by Public Health England’s Start4Life campaign, 28 per cent of people do not support breastfeeding in public. This means that 72 per cent do – and that’s the figure on which most news reports are focused, with the implication that this should provide reassurance for the 34 per cent of breastfeeding mothers who feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.

Now, call me a glass half empty kind of person, but I still can’t help thinking of that remaining 28 per cent. And of the 52 per cent who failed to agree with the statement that “a woman should always feel comfortable breastfeeding in public”. Plus the 56 per cent who do not agree that it is “acceptable to breastfeed anywhere”.

It seems the support of many on the pro-breastfeeding side is no more than partial. I ask them: just who do you think you are? Of all the things of which one could disapprove, surely a mother feeding her baby – no matter where she is doing it – ought to rank pretty low.

I understand fully that we’re not always in control of the things that disgust us. For instance, I don’t like slugs; just the thought of their creepy, brainless bodies makes me shudder. But whereas I can think of valid reasons for my revulsion (you can’t always tell they’re there until they start moving, plus I once trod on one barefoot, which was admittedly worse for it than me) I can see no justification for objecting to a woman nursing her child.

There is nothing unpleasant or unhygienic about it; the regular comparisons with urination and defecation are plainly ridiculous. I can only conclude that much of the offence comes from feelings that lie hidden below the surface.

A café-goer suckling her young reminds us that, for all our human arrogance, we remain simply mammals. No matter how many of the body’s functions we keep behind closed doors, no matter how far we twist language to accord ourselves a special status, the way in which we breed and feed is not special, and neither is the manner in which we age and die.

A baby on the breast forces us to acknowledge the necessary nature of human dependency. We’re not all self-defining individuals, forging our own paths and forming only relationships of our own choosing. Our bodies have needs that change over time and these needs make us weak and vulnerable. The intense, deeply physical interaction of breastfeeding offers no space for a wholly separate self.

And yet the female breast has been co-opted as nothing more than a sexual object beneath the male gaze. That being so, the sensuality of breastfeeding may give rise to all sorts of feelings of envy and insecurity in those external to the mother-child dyad.

Of course, I can say all this but what the breastfeeding objectors are probably thinking, at least on a conscious level, is nothing more than “urgh! Put it away!”

This may be why the campaign in response to the Start4Life poll is to be aimed, not at the objectors, but at breastfeeding mothers themselves. It would no doubt be harder to come up with something aimed at bringing those offended by public breastfeeding face to face with their own inner demons (although my personal preference would be a close-up shot of a lumpy breast at the point of let-down, milk just starting to spurt, alongside the caption “We’re mammals, sucker! Deal with it!”).

Instead of this, Start4Life will be releasing a series of animated short films, in which mothers share real-life experiences of breastfeeding in public, alongside expert tips and advice.

I have mixed feelings about this type of campaign. It draws on a peer support model which has been proven effective in encouraging breastfeeding uptake. Moreover, it does help to know that other women have similar experiences, that you’re not being unreasonable and that yes, other women have walked the length of Sainsbury’s café to put a tray away without realising they’d not quite put their left breast back into their top (to be fair, this isn’t in any of the films, but if they’d asked me it could have been).

It does seem to me that the right to breastfeed in public is discussed far more today than when I had my first child, and things are moving in a positive direction. However, I would hope that this campaign does not add to the pressure on women who either cannot or do not wish to breastfeed due to reasons unrelated to feeling embarrassed in public (the poll suggests one in ten women who do not breastfeed are influenced by the worry of doing it outside the home).

I also hope this campaign does not fall into the trap of suggesting to women that the problem is all in their heads, as so often happens with campaigns seeking to alter how women feel about their bodies.

If 21 per cent of women feel that people do not want them to breastfeed in public, this isn’t because they’re projecting their anxieties onto others. There are indeed people who don’t want to see women breastfeeding their babies and, ultimately, it is these people whose thinking needs to change.

I do, however, sense that the only way to change those minds may be through a form of stealth exposure therapy. Which is what you could say I’ve been engaged in just now, suckling my baby while ensuring that any hidden objectors are obliged to suck it up. Let’s hope that more and more breastfeeding mothers feel secure enough to do the same.

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