The Disturbing Trend I Noticed When My Breastfeeding Story Went Viral

I am truly afraid of what it means for our society that adult women find it acceptable to insult and belittle other women for breastfeeding in public -- basically for having breasts and using them as nature intended.
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You may have seen my photo on your Facebook newsfeed recently. In case you missed the story attached to it, here's the five-second version: I went to Starbucks with my 5-month-old to grab a coffee. He started to fuss, I sat down to nurse him to calm him, and a middle-aged woman asked a teenage barista to get me to stop breastfeeding, loudly calling it "disgusting." He took care of it -- by offering me a free refill, a voucher and an apology for the unpleasant experience as the complainer fled the scene. Yes, I'm the woman who shared this positive breastfeeding story with my local parenting group. It went viral in 24 hours.

At first I was excited that there was such an overwhelmingly positive response to my story. Friends told me that it popped up on their newsfeeds all over the world, usually with a caption like "Awesome!", "Go, Barista!", "Good job Mama!" or "Someone raised that kid right!" How lovely, I thought, especially since, as a midwife (when I'm not on maternity leave), I work hard to ensure my clients who choose to breastfeed have the best chance to successfully do so. Then I made the mistake of looking at some of the reader comments. The vast majority were positive, but there was a much darker side as well.

That side ranged from the absurdly uninformed ("Neanderthals breastfed in public, we should evolve up not down!") to the sickeningly misogynistic ("Yeah, I'd stare at those titties if they were flapping around in Starbucks") to the needlessly crass ("I don't pull my pants down and piss in public, why should you whip out your tits and breastfeed? Attention seeking b*tch"), with a whole lot of "Why don't women cover up when they're breastfeeding?" in between. It took me a few hours to sort through my feelings about all of this, but now that I have, I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you.

What shocked me most in all of this is how many of these negative voices came from women. From the original complaining customer to those posting their comments online, I am truly afraid of what it means for our society that adult women find it acceptable to insult and belittle other women for breastfeeding in public -- basically for having breasts and using them as nature intended. On the topic of breastfeeding, the science is clear: Healthy for babies, healthy for mothers. Natural. Nutritious. Nurturing. The best way to encourage breastfeeding is for a generation of children to grow up actually seeing mothers nurse. If women put up barriers to this, how will this normalizing ever happen? But even more than missing out on the potential health and bonding benefits of breastfeeding, here's what worries me: many of these women are mothers already or will be one day. What are their kids going to learn from them posting these vitriolic anti-boob comments? That cyberbullying is OK? That disapproving of a woman for being a woman is fair game for online mockery? That feeling uncomfortable with public breastfeeding means it's open season for digital abuse? Those comments are circling around the globe right now, just like the original story did, and they will leave their footprint online for years, even decades to come, even for their own kids to look up years later. If women are jumping on the hate-fest over something that is so very much a women's issue, how on earth can we expect to raise a generation of kind, gentle, thoughtful and inclusive boys and girls?

For me, more insidious than the outright written abuse was the barrage of comments saying that a woman should cover up when she's breastfeeding. Or go to her car or the bathroom -- or not leave her house -- if she thinks her child will get hungry. Part of me wanted to answer these with some snappy comebacks: Cover up, you say? It's 39 degrees C (102 F) here in Ottawa today; I am not going to suffocate my child to save you from the potential glimpse of side-boob. Go to my car? Oh, you mean my portable oven? Did I mention 39 degrees? Breastfeed in the bathroom? Gross. Stay home? Wow, now who's evolving down? You're telling all nursing mothers that we shouldn't leave the house in case our babies get hungry. Let me just hang out barefoot in the kitchen until my husband comes home from work to get me pregnant again.

These comments made me angry. Not just because they treat a nursing breast like a sexual object (which is by itself pretty disturbing when you are likening feeding an infant to what's going on in your pants), but because they suggest that women should hide themselves away during certain periods (pun intended) of their lives. What you're saying when you tell a woman to cover up is that her body offends you. This to me isn't so far removed from sending women to the Red Tent (and I don't mean the store in Toronto) when they're menstruating. The vast majority of these comments came from women. Other women, with the same hardware I have and who are or may one day become mothers. Are you so upset by the thought of your own body that you can't even contemplate seeing a small part of another woman's? If you have a daughter, is that how you want her to feel about her body? That it is only fit for public appearance provided it is doing nothing distinctly female? If you have a son, is that how you want him to think about women, about their bodies, about motherhood? As so dangerously sexualized that they must be feared and derided, even deliberately hidden from the world? As parents, you have the greatest influence over your kids and what kind of people and parents they will become. You are writing a blueprint for the next generation. Please think about the message you send before you suggest that women, en masse, should hide themselves away for fear of being seen for exactly what they are.

For the record, here is what I looked like on the day I nursed my son in Starbucks, and how I look every time I nurse my son. It is natural and absolutely non-sexual and it's also a legally protected right. I have nothing to hide. Neither do you.

rebecca balfour

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