Recently, Gwen Stefani received some attention for posting an Instagram photo of her breastfeeding her five-month-old son Apollo. Many have reacted wondering if the photo was meant as a statement.
As a mother who also breastfeeds, I was heartened by how casual Stefani looked. The picture wasn’t hyperfocused on what she was doing, but neither did Stefani look in anyway embarrassed about nursing her son in public. She just looked like a happy mum doing the most natural thing in the world: nurturing her child.
Stefani is certainly not the first celebrity to share breastfeeding photos. Take Gisele Bündchen, an outspoken promoter of breastfeeding, who last December posted a photo of her and her daughter Vivian “multitasking” while three stylists beautified her hair, face, and nails for an event. Or Olivia Wilde, who poses with her son Otis in the forthcoming September issue of Glamour and adds, “Any portrait of me right now isn't complete without my identity as a mother being a part of that. Breastfeeding is the most natural thing.”
So, if breastfeeding is the most natural thing, why is it a “statement” to post such a photo?
The answer is because many people don’t like to see others breastfeed. I think the technical term is, it squeebs them out. As Denise Albert, co-creator of TheMoms.com, told ABC News, commenting on Bündchen’s photo, “I think breastfeeding is a very personal thing . . . and for her to put this on Instagram while she’s getting her hair and makeup done is a little outrageous, and I think obnoxious.”
This attitude against breastfeeding photos was behind Facebook’s photo policy where, until recently, such photos could be categorized as “nude photos” and not allowed. Facebook’s revision of their photo standards to allow breastfeeding photos is a sign that the culture may be shifting to better accommodate today’s moms and hungry babes.
For some, it’s not even a matter of seeing the breastfeeding as much as knowing it’s happening in their proximity. At least that’s what seems to explain the recent case of a Victoria's Secret employee telling a customer she had to leave the store when she asked to breastfeed her infant in an empty changing room—an event so bizarre that its best news coverage was that of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. “A Victoria's Secret in Texas banned a woman from breastfeeding her son in the lingerie store,” Cecily Strong informed viewers. “Apparently, they don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about what breasts are for.” The humiliated mom left Victoria's Secret and ended up feeding her baby in a bathroom stall.
Stories like these are what fuel people to start ad campaigns to inform the public about the how undesirable it is to breastfeed infants in a bathroom. You only have to do it once as a mom to feel like you’ve hit rock bottom. (Oh, who am I kidding? We haven’t even gotten to what it’s like feeding a fussy baby while knocking elbows with your fellow airplane passengers, or forgetting your breast pump on a business trip and facing the choice between milking yourself like a cow or feeling your breasts explode with pain.)
The point is, nursing mothers have enough crap to deal with—yes, even literal crap—that the last thing they need after nights of no sleep and days of childrearing is to be socially relegated to the outhouse. And the last thing the little baby needs is a tense mommy and a grimy lunchroom. These aren’t second-class citizens; they are our next generation and those making sacrifices to sustain them. They both deserve to be treated like human beings.
Does this mean it’s OK for a breastfeeding mom to just whip it out for all to see? There’s always the story of that belligerent mom who freaked out when shamed for baring her breast in public. Others have raised concerns that the recent rash of celebrity breastfeeding photos creates unrealistic standards for new moms that not only must they breastfeed, but they must look fabulous while doing so.
I think stories of breastfeeding moms who snap at offended onlookers largely indicate how mentally and physically taxing it can be to be a new mom. When one’s baby gives a hunger cry, a breastfeeding mom experiences an intense instinct to meet the baby’s needs. Given this context, I am not surprised some women care less about covering up and just get down to business. Balancing a precarious piece of cloth over your child can be an overwhelming challenge, especially if your baby isn’t cooperating. I myself haven’t completely mastered the art of incognito feeding and feel I need to see my baby’s face to make sure he’s feeding right. But that’s why I’m thankful for practical nursing covers like Bébé au Lait's that hang over your neck and keep things just between mommy and baby.
The way I see it, if I’d like others to respect and accommodate my breastfeeding in public, I should respect and accommodate those who feel uncomfortable seeing a bare breast in public. Breastfeeding in public—or sharing a breastfeeding photo on Instagram—need not be an opening salvo in the milk wars. The Jamie Lynne Grumets who flaunt their exposed breast on the cover of TIME are the outliers. The majority of us just want to feed our children while maintaining a shred of dignity.
So if Gwen Stefani’s photo tells us anything, it’s not that breast is necessarily and always best, it’s not that everyone need celebrate breastfeeding, and it’s certainly not that breastfeeding is always beautiful and glamorous. It’s much simpler: It’s that a mom nursing and nurturing her child in the beautiful outdoors, not a bathroom stall, is a happy mom. As she should be.