Ostentatious breastfeeding

Nigel Farage has been in the news again (when isn’t he?), immediately giving birth to a new hashtag on twitter, #OstentatiousBreastfeeding, which seems to have proved quite popular. This follows an incident earlier this week when posh London hotel Claridges attracted considerable criticism from some quarters (and it must be said, support from others) for insisting that a breastfeeding woman place what looked like a large napkin or a small tablecloth over herself and her child, on account of its policy that breastfeeding mothers should cover up. Farage gave an interview on LBC radio, when he said:

“I’m not particularly bothered about it, but I know a lot of people do feel very uncomfortable, and look, this is just a matter of common sense, isn’t it? I think that, given that some people feel very embarrassed by it, it isn’t too difficult to breastfeed a baby in a way that’s not openly ostentatious.”

First off, it’s odd that he starts off saying he really isn’t that bothered by it, before then explaining why in fact he is bothered by it because it bothers other people and so it’s common sense to just not upset them. But the word “ostentatious” also seems odd. Why “ostentatious”? It suggests that, rather than merely being a convenient way to feed your child without having to (a) stop what you are doing and go home or (b) hide in a toilet or some other corner, away from whoever you happen to be with (be they your friends, your partner or possibly even your other children, should you have had the temerity to bring them out in public too), your act of breastfeeding is primarily a way of showing off to the world at large. Having said that, I suspect what he thinks of as “ostentatious” is in fact what I would consider just “not being ashamed”.

The arguments seem to have been polarised into two camps. On one side: breastfeeding is natural, it is good for children and therefore should be encouraged, people should get over it, we are not the Victorians, if people have a problem it’s their problem not the mother’s, we are not doing anyone any harm. The double standards of Page 3 have also been brought into the debate: If boobs are ok for public consumption (see what I did there?) when the purpose is titillation, why not for feeding babies? On the other side the argument seems to be: oh, we’re not actually offended as such – we’re not prudes you know; it’s a question of dignity, manners, propriety, discretion, etiquette, call it what you will but generally a preference for not inflicting what ought to be a private act on the eyes of polite society, in breach of established standards of behaviour.

But etiquette is not an immovable standard. Standards of behaviour change as society changes. Women have started to say “this breastfeeding lark is definitely a good thing for my child, as society keeps telling me, but I’m damned if I’m going to hide away from the rest of society while I do it”. I seem to remember with my children, breastfeeding taking half an hour to an hour in many cases. Doing it in private could make it very difficult to get out of the house at all. And having come out of the house (and in the process participating in society in an economically useful way by spending money in cafes etc) there’s a tendency to say “I’m damned if I’m going to be ashamed of breastfeeding, what with it being such an unfettered good, so why should I cover up? It’s not like I’m doing anyone any harm, or corrupting anyone’s morals.”

The last ditch argument (again, based on dignity or propriety) seems to be that some people just don’t like it, and mothers should, out of politeness, respect that, and be discreet. But most mothers are discreet, very few would see public breastfeeding as an evangelical act. (The exception to this rule seems to be the breastfeeding protests that tend to arise whenever a woman is asked to cover up while breastfeeding or, quite often, simply told to go elsewhere. The one outside Claridges later this week being a good example).  But when the injunction to be discreet becomes more than just “try not to wave it in people’s faces more than necessary”, but more “cover up or go elsewhere”, we are back to the same, centuries-old problem, society telling women what to do with their bodies, for no good reason.

The inconvenience (if that’s what it is) suffered by the “etiquette” brigade in being reminded of what breasts are actually for, is nothing compared to the inconvenience of having to remain indoors for the first six months or more of your child’s life, or more fundamentally the indignity of being made to feel ashamed of your own motherhood when you do venture out in public, by being asked to make it less conspicuous, more invisible. As for the idea of putting a little cloth over the baby/boob area: you remember those little knitted Victorian ladies in large dresses that used to go over the toilet rolls in your grandmother’s house about 30 years ago? It’s like that. A pointless and anachronistic attempt to pretend that certain essential bodily functions don’t actually exist.

When I said earlier that standards inevitably “change”, I don’t mean “drop”. Society’s increasing tolerance for breastfeeding mothers is very much a change for the better in my book. And this is not just, as some have suggested, a view that holds good for the “North London liberal brigade”. A YouGov poll suggests most people in society agree with me, and that view holds good for people of all ages and political persuasions. Even The Times.

Also I can’t help but think there are conflicting standards of etiquette here. What about the very British attitudes of minding your own business, ignoring things that don’t really concern you, not making an undignified fuss? If I owned a cafe, I would have a policy that anyone making a fuss about things that should not concern them, like breastfeeding, should be required to wear a silly hat that is slightly too large, and covers their eyes.

All in the interests of propriety, you understand.

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About Mrs Markleham

Employment lawyer, discrimination lawyer, mildly peevish old woman.
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