Why does breastfeeding cause so many to react in anger or distaste at the site of a mother feeding her child?

Have we as a society accepted the unnatural as natural, and the natural now seems obscene to many? Women’s bodies are used every day as objects, exploited to sell products, but when we use it to nurture our children, most mothers encounter reactions of anger, disapproval or disgust.

Whether we chose to breastfeed or not, we are all in this together. We are all responsible for protecting each other. The world changes and shifts when women protect other women. It is time for women to rise, together.

angela mcelwee 2Angela McElwee with Kirra, 13 months, Austin, Texas.
Mother. Vice President of Sales Operations, Gaia Herbs.

I have nursed my daughters on trains all over Europe, on flights across the US, on boats in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, in the fields of organic farms, and in Gaudí’s spectacular Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, while tucked into a quiet alcove. I have also nursed far more frequently at home, up all night, sitting in the rocking chair, half asleep, weary, and wondering if sleep would evade me yet again. The intensity and totality of having an infant depend on your body for their every meal is deeply profound, and also incredibly sacred. It’s a spiritual practice of sorts, I think. A moving meditation.

It didn’t take long before I realized that my decision to feed my baby with my breasts (which were designed for just this purpose) was highly offensive to some, despite being profoundly natural to me. We were in a small town in the Texas Hill Country, visiting a pumpkin patch. My daughter was hungry, and at only one month old, I was feeding her constantly. I stopped and sat down to nurse, mostly covered by a white and pink blanket. A couple walked past us, the woman snorting with disgust. “That’s revolting!” she said. The man with her responded, “What kind of person does that in public?” I was stunned. Normally assertive, I was so shocked by their comments that I couldn’t even muster the words to defend my baby’s right to eat in public. They walked away, and she continued to nurse, eyes closed, mouth working hard to take in enough of my milk. A sigh escaped her lips, and she began to relax, tiny fists unfurling and softening, trusting me to cradle her as she drifted into sleep. This is the act that had been so insulting? All those months of nourishing her from my body, all over the world, at all hours of the day and night. The movable feast that I brought with us everywhere, always ready to feed, soothe, and nurture. So controversial and polarizing in our modern culture, but as old as the human race.

My baby needs to eat, and so I feed her. This is not a political act, or a stunt for attention. If you saw me on the beach, you’d see more of my breasts there, but somehow the act of breastfeeding causes some to feel angela mcelweeuncomfortable enough to react in anger or disgust. I am proud of my strong, healthy, imperfect body, and the fact that it has grown and fed our daughters. I am grateful that I can nurse to satiate my baby’s hunger, to calm her teething fevers, to soothe her when she is overtired. I am thankful for the time I have to connect with her like this, and the trust that she has because of our bond.

This is what a strong woman looks like. Empowered, confident, and unapologetically herself, whether that is in the act of breastfeeding her baby, leading a business, running a marathon, or planting a garden.

Angela is an executive, mother, wife, and lover of Life. She has been writing poetry for 22 years, loves ethnobotany, vegan baking, and tending her overgrown organic garden. When not burying her hands in the dirt or responding to a million emails, she can be found practicing hot vinyasa yoga, making salted maca cacao truffles, and going to bed early. Angela lives with her husband Jeremiah and their four young daughters.

molly venterMolly Venter, New Haven Connecticut

Why do you think many in our culture treat public breastfeeding mothers negatively?
I’ve noticed several people become uncomfortable when I’m nursing in public. I imagine some of them are a bit turned off by seeing a breast in a way that’s not explicitly sexual, just a boob in a baby’s mouth! I also think arousal is somewhat mysterious, and that some find the scene a little bit… stirring, and are made uncomfortable by that. The impulse is to shut it down. But this whole messy human experience, especially anything around procreation, is inherently a little bit sexual. Better to learn to feel and hold whatever feelings arise for us than to shame that which stirs us. Side note: I’m lucky that breastfeeding works for us, some moms can’t and then get shamed for bottle-feeding. Good grief!

Photo: Anthony Decarlo

Nicole Riviere, Woodland Hills, CaliforniaNicole Riviere

What have you faced when trying to breastfeed in public?
We were out at a restaurant the other night for an early dinner. It was me and my family, plus maybe one other couple in the restaurant. My son needed to eat, and I opted to make him a bottle instead of breastfeed because I felt it was too intimate and quiet of an atmosphere to feed him in public. I was afraid I’d draw too much attention. I told my husband, “If it were busier, I’d feel more comfortable.” In hindsight I regret that decision because it’s well within my right to feed my son in public no matter what and I don’t need to protect the public’s feelings or make them comfortable with it.

Chelsea Richer_OwenChelsea Richer + Owen

What have you faced when trying to breastfeed in public?
The first time I breastfed in public, I was at a restaurant with a few of my girlfriends. I had always been a fierce supporter of public breastfeeding. During pregnancy I often envisioned myself telling off anyone who might discourage me from feeding my baby openly. For some reason, though, when my moment came, I got nervous. Despite feeling quite encouraged by those close to me, I used a scarf to cover myself. I think about that moment with fondness: a short blip in time of feeling what so many women before me have felt, the innocence with which I operated out of fear that a stranger would judge me; the recognition that I had a challenge to overcome. It took a few more public tries before I began to own the fact that covering myself further embeds the impulse that breastfeeding is taboo. Shaming of public breastfeeding is learned, not inherent. People who have learned to feel uncomfortable by seeing a woman feed her baby are the ones in an unfortunate position. Not me. Only if we collectively and openly speak the breastfeeding language will the future hold space for more women to feed their babes with comfort and confidence. I am incredibly fortunate to be given the gift of nurturing my little one now with such unbounded joy and freedom.

Photo: Kate Broussard

Melissa D’Antoni + Sophia Flora,7 Days Old, Martha’s Vineyard, MassachusettsMelissa D'Antoni

Why do you think many in our culture treat mothers breastfeeding in public negatively?
I think we shame women for their bodies as a way to control them and keep them covered and hidden or repressed. We are conflicted because of clashing religious and cultural beliefs about women. Often referred to as the
Madonna and the Whore complex in modern psychology, the role expectation to be either portrayed as the virtuous Virgin Mother or the sex object responsible for fulfilling every desire, but rarely are both aspects allowed in one feminine persona. As we evolve as a society, we must integrate these two parts of a woman’s psyche on both the individual and collective level. Women need to embrace all aspects of their feminine nature to truly express their wholeness. Men need to empower women to express their full selves as they embrace and learn to trust the feminine. Nurturing, as embodied in breastfeeding, is a core essence of feminine power. Empowered mothers nurture healthy attachment in children, setting the foundation for healthy development and an empowered world.

Photo: Traeger di Pietro

Jaden DavisJaden Davis, Austin, Texas

Why do you think many in our culture treat mothers breastfeeding in public negatively?
Breasts have always been a haven for baby mammals. However, we humans have branded breasts as sexual objects, which often is what people see them solely as being. I think that many people subscribe to the patriarchal belief that a woman’s body is not her own. This belief has perpetuated the concept that women do not get to make the rules around their own bodies, including how they feed their babies. Somehow, our culture’s ideas about women has created this story that a woman must always be hypersexual and a virgin, all at once. Perhaps this is why breastfeeding is so controversial? Perhaps it is that a baby suckling at a breast is a clear indication that this woman is breaking those subtle patriarchal rules. She is, at once, NOT a virgin and is living proof that her breasts are not (solely) sexual objects. The act of breastfeeding is political because it shows that a woman is more than just a sexual being. It shows that a woman’s body is not reduced to being only for the enjoyment of others. It shows that her body is a monument, a work of art, a source of nutrition and a safe haven for her children. Most importantly, it shows it is her own.

Photo: Samantha Larson

Jenn Falk, Somerville, Massachusettsjenn falk

Breastfeeding has been one of the most profound and deep experiences of my life. A version of yoga that goes far beyond the mat. The power that it gives me as a woman is remarkable. I have now solely nourished two humans to life! The connection I have with my children is indescribable. The entire experience has made me so proud to be a woman and more willing to support and fight for women’s rights than ever before.

Photo: Cara Brostrom

HeatherGallagher_Breastfeed_OriginsMag_05Heather Gallagher, Austin, Texas

Breastfeeding is my greatest gift to my child and to myself. It keeps us connected to our bodies needs and it roots us in nature. It is easily taken for granted, but when I’m able to step back and look at our whole experience, it makes me so incredibly proud of my body, my will, and the bond my son and I have formed.

Photo: Heather Gallagher

Nicole M Henning McNeil + Collette, Shanghai, Chinanicole m henning mcneil and collette

Breastfeeding means to me trusting in and falling in love with my body and nature. For 20 years I didn’t love or trust my body. I hated what my body looked like and accordingly didn’t properly fuel it or listen to it when it was fatigued or aching. When it said it was hungry, I told it it was wrong. When it showed signs of fatigue and pain, I didn’t listen and kept doing what I was doing only to experience an injury or complete exhaustion. When this breakdown happened, it would only confirm my hate for my body. During those 20 years I allowed the media to tell me what it thought was best for my body: processed, “fat free” food, diets, diet pills, powders, shakes, etc. I experienced what seemed like an endless cycle of hating, starving, binging, and hurting my body with every new “fad,” product, diet, or food. In 2011 I decided to put an end to the hurtful cycle. After this epiphany and after three years of infertility, my body and nature gave me one of the most precious gifts, my daughter Collette.

Even after years of treating it badly, my body provided me with a beautiful daughter. When she came into this world, I took my newfound realization of love for my body and nature and put it into action through breastfeeding, and again my body and nature provided. Breastfeeding provided all the nutrition and antibodies that nature intended, and my milk changed according to my daughter’s needs. We built an amazing bond. A bond so wonderful that words cannot express its beauty. Breastfeeding to me is getting back to the basics, trusting and loving my body and knowing that if you allow nature to lead, the results are magical.

Photo: Barefoot Photography·

837_SHP_0313-1289Jennifer Andrau Shpilsky, Los Angeles, California

Breastfeeding represents a great achievement for me, and an experience that was beautifully primal and fulfilling. Early on, in the throes of postpartum isolation, it represented an opportunity to connect with the purest living form that I will ever come in contact with in my life, without the distraction of the too-busy world around us. It slowed me down and in that presence I was able to truly understand the gravity of this being in my arms. We were enmeshed with each other while the world around us faded and blurred into the background. With both my children it was not easy in the beginning: there was frustration, doubt, and feelings of inadequacy, but when I overcame the dependency on breast shields and bad latches, I felt a cathartic freedom and bliss in my ability to nurture and feed my child. There are so many emotions in those first few weeks and months after childbirth. In the end, what matters is the hungry mouth that needs to be fed and a mother that is answering that call whenever and wherever that may be.

Photo: Studio SLB

Kylie Ruszczynski, Paris FranceK.RuszczynskiJUL11

Breastfeeding for me was the chance to give my baby the fullest of my mothering capabilities, to know that I was doing everything I could to feed this new little person with everything she needed. To give her a share of my friendly microbes for her tiny little gut, to have the privilege of bonding with my daughters, being their everything. I can’t imagine not having been able to give my milk to my babies. Every child deserves to be fed naturally by its mother, if possible. Of course it requires time and sacrifice, staying at home every night because they need their mummy to fall asleep, or popping out a boob on a busy bus to give them some comfort. They need to know their mummy is there and being present. Feeding them my milk communicates this.


victoria alvarado-haase
Victoria Alvarado-Haase, Austin, Texas

Breastfeeding to me is so much more than feeding a child. They are moments spent nurturing a human life. As a mother, these moments are filled with a sense of calmness that mirror a meditative state, where time stops and the world around me melts away as my child and I engage each other in gaze, feelings of safety, comfort, and where mutual love is communicated. So much happens during a nursing session, from physical and chemical changes in the brain, to emotional exchanges that create deep-seated roots between a mother and child. The growth of a child goes beyond the nourishment from a mother’s milk. For me, it is the purest exchange of unconditional love and nurture that provide incomparable developmental value. It is life-sustaining and primal; it is what my breasts were meant for. There is no easy way to educate those with an ideology that continuously depicts breastfeeding negatively. There is something wrong with our society when people are more accepting of women walking around topless, but a woman breastfeeding should cover up. If the possibility of everyone experiencing nursing their child existed, maybe then our culture would see a paradigm shift in the objectification of breasts, but more importantly, women, mothers, and the gift of nursing a new life.

Photo: Lara Gale

megan disabitino
Megan DiSabatino, New York, New York

Breastfeeding has been one of the most magical experiences of my life. I wouldn’t trade this peaceful time bonding with my daughter for anything. I am proud and feel empowered every time I nourish my baby girl in private or public. Breasts are beautiful! If feeding my baby makes someone uncomfortable, then they don’t have to look. It isn’t my business what others think. When my baby is hungry I feed and cuddle her. I don’t need anyone’s approval. This is what our bodies are designed to do. It is my right, my duty, my pleasure. Mother’s milk is incredible, by far the healthiest choice for both baby and mom. I have never felt more strong, sexy, and content in my entire life.

kassondra coxsonKassondra Coxson, Mount Dora, Florida

What have you faced when trying to breastfeed in public?
I get a lot of looks when I am nursing in public. Not only am I feeding my child (or children) but I happen to be a plus-size woman of color and I don’t fit the crunchy, peaceful, mother nature look that many people associate with breastfeeding. My breasts are large. Nursing a small child is difficult in the most comfortable setting, but manipulating my breast in an unfamiliar place is really tough. I’ve received all kind of looks—annoyed, confused, disgusted—and that made it difficult when my first child was young. I was not confident in my abilities and I’ve always been self-conscious, so people looking at me was something I tried to avoid. After a while though, I decided I didn’t care about people’s thoughts on the subject. They need me for food and/or comfort. I am here for them. I am also my own person and what I need is to not hide out at home for however
many months or years my children need me to breastfeed them. My family needs to have nice dinners out and go to the zoo and shop and do all the things that other families do, and we deserve to feel just like everyone else when we do them. Now if I get a look when I am nursing in public, I just smile pleasantly in return. They can waste time and energy getting upset. I won’t let them ruin my day.

Photo: Jen Pritchett

Click titles below.

1. Public Shaming for Breastfeeding Moms. Raising Awareness and Acceptance through Art.
2. Indecent Exposure – A Culture of Shame Against Breastfeeding Mothers
3. ORIGIN Photographer’s Feature: The Bodies of Mothers by Jade Beall

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