Is it shameful to breastfeed in the open?

1Chitra Ramaswamy

Shock, horror! A woman has bared part of one of her breasts (let’s say 35% of total breast area) on a magazine cover in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Not for the sake of titillation but lactation: to feed a baby. The model gazes out at the reader with a defiant half-smile. The baby feeds on, blissfully unaware that its food source is also an international site of objectification. The cover line reads: “Mums tell Kerala: don’t stare – we need to breastfeed.” The response? Lots of staring, debate, outrage, accusations of sensationalism and one indecency case launched against the magazine, Grihalakshmi. Which is ironic because feeding a baby is pretty much the definition of human decency.
The cover was inspired by a photo of an Indian woman, Amritha, publicly breastfeeding her daughter, which went viral on Facebook. Amritha says she was told off for breastfeeding her baby in hospital and advised that if she fed without covering her breasts, her milk would dry up. But, before we start congratulating ourselves for our more evolved attitudes, remember that the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and women are still not permitted to nurse in the House of Commons chamber.
Breastfeeding is bloody hard work, and I write this with my own seven-month-old on my breast, not for authenticity’s sake but because she is hungry. It takes patience, practice, commitment, physical strength, good humour, multiple tubes of Lansinoh cream, and enough chutzpah to withstand the stares, unwanted advice and general opprobrium that come your way whenever you need to feed your baby while out and about. This is why a third of women feel embarrassed breastfeeding in public, according to one UK survey.

I’ve breastfed both my babies; my son until he was nearly two (go on, judge me). This has meant feeding on the bus, in cafes, on park benches, in front of my dad, and – on one particularly fabulous occasion – on stage while I was discussing Anne of Green Gables. I have felt embarrassed, vulnerable and exposed. Once, I retreated to the toilet. It’s not easy whipping out an intimate and sexualised part of your body that has doubled in size and developed the ability to shoot multiple jets of hot milk from its core. This should incite praise, compassion and awe, as opposed to accusations of indecency.
The only shame in breastfeeding is in the misogynistic attempt to turn the simple, free, loving and necessary act of feeding our babies into a dirty secret.