The Politics Around Public Breastfeeding Need to Change

 photo karleshathurman_zpsbd8ea314.jpg
by Evan Seymour

A couple of days ago, while I was sitting in a meeting at work, one of my coworkers leisurely pulled out her breast-pump, stuck it under her shirt, and started pumping. I sat across from her in a state of shock. In order to keep from laughing, staring, or having some other inappropriate reaction, I had to intently focus on not looking in her direction.

At first, I was of the opinion that it was totally inappropriate for my colleague to whip out her breast pump and use it during our meeting. Had she actually been nursing her child, I’m sure I would have felt differently, but I strongly felt that she could have headed to the bathroom, or some other place in the building to do her bottle prep. In a room in front of 20 other people? Not so much.

I posted my opinion on my Facebook page, and a very interesting conversation ensued, with most of the participants being friends of mine who are, unlike me, mothers. The only male to participate in the discussion is a friend of mine who attended Morehouse College. He posted a picture of a black woman, in cap and gown, breastfeeding. Not long thereafter, my entire opinion regarding my colleague’s choice of location for pumping completely changed.

The young woman in the picture is Karlesha Thurman, 25, a member of the class of 2014 at Long Beach State University in Southern California. Karlesha, who got pregnant during her senior year, continued pursing her studies in accounting, and on graduation day, she decided to hold her 3-month-old daughter, Aaliyah, so they could experience her special moment together.

Well, during the ceremony, Aaliyah got hungry, and Karlesha, who is a breastfeeder, did what she usually does – she pulled out her breast so that she could feed her daughter. One of Karlesha’s friends, who thought it was wonderful that Karlesha was breastfeeding, despite what those around her may have thought, asked Karlesha if she could take a picture of mother and nursing baby. Karlesha agreed without thinking anything of it.

While Karlesha is a fan of public breastfeeding, there are many in our society who are not at all of the same opinion. A couple of days ago, Karlesha decided to post on the Facebook site Black Women Do Breastfeed the picture of her breastfeeding at graduation, her breast hanging out of her black gown as she coddled and nursed her daughter. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

The picture went viral on social media, and many people on Facebook and Twitter described the picture, and Karlesha, with words like disgusting and ratchet.

“It’s not disgusting. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a negative thing. It’s the best thing for my daughter. More people should do it.” Karlesha said during an interview with The Today Show, which was a result of the social media firestorm behind the photo, which Karlesha has since removed from her Facebook account.

Even though she’s taken down the photo in the aftermath of her unintentional moment in the spotlight of public opinion, Karlesha says she has no regrets.

“I was proud of the fact that not only did I graduate, but that I got to share the moment with the one person who is the most important to me, and that is my daughter,” she also shared on Today.

Kalesha’s story, and the opinions voiced by my friends on my Facebook post about my coworker, made me completely reconsider my position.

I have always been a proponent of a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, and I can easily see myself breastfeeding in public should I have the honor of being a mother one day, but for some reason, I thought of my co-worker’s breast pumping in a different light. Fortunately, I was quickly able to identify what I now consider to be a serious error in my thinking about the situation.

All day, every day, we are, as a society, inundated with images of scantily-clad women with their breasts – real or silicon filled – hanging out of whatever skimpy piece of attire they might be wearing. Women like Modern Family’s Sophia Vergara are celebrated for their voluptuous breasts. But breastfeeding mothers who bear a little skin to provide nutrition for their babies? That, in many people’s eyes, is unacceptable and disgusting.

The politics surrounding the female body are so complicated, and so antiquated in many ways. If our bodies are being sexualized, that is acceptable, exploitable, and laudable; and those of us who question these images are often labeled with the F-word -- feminist. As someone who embraces that label, I was disappointed that I let my discomfort with my co-worker’s breastfeeding cloud my views on her rights as a mother, and her rights as a woman to do what she chooses to with her body.

Breastfeeding is not a disgusting thing, or anything about which to be uncomfortable, and really, Karlesha – and my coworker – are activists, bravely exercising their right to bear breasts, in the name of feeding their children.

There are currently 48 states that have laws on the books regarding breastfeeding, and there are many locations nationwide where the practice is prohibited, treated as indecent exposure much like public urination. And in the court of public opinion, many American women are convicted every day of being disgusting because of their choice to feed or pump in places other than bathrooms, their cars, or an uninhabited space at the office.

The fact of the matter is that breastfeeding provides nutrients and anti-bodies to babies, is easier for them to digest than formula, and is a less expensive option for new mothers than buying formula that can cost anywhere from $25 to $100 per can. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, breast milk can also help to lower rates of respiratory infection in infants; and obesity, asthma, and Type 2 diabetes later in life. The DHHS also asserts that the bond between mother and child is strengthened when breastfeeding occurs.

Despite its numerous benefits, according to a 2013 report released by the CDC, breast feeding rates among African American women, although on the rise since the study behind the report began in 2000, are significantly lower than their white and Hispanic counterparts.

Maybe, if we all lifted up and celebrated the actions of Karlesha, and women like her – whether they’re pumping or feeding – these numbers would increase, meaning more happy, well-fed, well-bonded babies.

So, to my friend from Morehouse, and to the mothers in my life on Facebook, I say thank you for enlightening me. And to my co-worker, Karlesha, and breastfeeding mothers everywhere, I say – pump on and feed freely! Hopefully, the rest of us will eventually see the beauty in your decision to nurture your babies while embracing your body as your own.

Photo: Facebook

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