Breastfeeding Protests – aka Revolution of the Tits

One of the protests, in Milton Keynes

One of the protests, in Milton Keynes

I write this blog whilst watching the response to my latest Facebook post roll in. Saturday (15 March) saw breastfeeding protests  popping up all over the UK, with news sites  providing striking photos of the thousands of women and men reported to be taking part in the protests.

What did I write in my Facebook post?

“Oh no. New mothers’ TITS are showing up all over the UK. Reportedly thousands of them! What is the country coming to? We could have a revolution on our hands. Ooohh… Scary.”

The original photo of Emily Slough, feeding her baby.

The original photo of Emily Slough, feeding her baby.

Tits? Revolution? What’s this all about? When did breastfeeding become something that fed-up women had to hold protests for? Why has Emily Slough’s experience earlier this week prompted such uproar –- when she discovered that she had been secretly photographed whilst breastfeeding her daughter and the photo posted anonymously on Facebook, along with the comment that she was a “tramp” for showing her nipple in the middle of the town.

And when did we have to get the police(!) out to manage such gatherings, with the Daily Record reporting that a police spokesperson confirmed that they would “do what they could to facilitate peaceful protest”.  Was there a risk of rioting?

All the health evidence shows that breastfeeding is good for babies. We know that. Mothers know that. A wealth of health professionals have worked hard over a number of years to get out that message. Yet the UK still has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe. Professionals’ attempts to address this have yielded a secondary problem: we’ve ended up with tons of women feeling guilty if they can’t or don’t breastfeed. This conflict is captured perfectly in one of the comments posted (by Sue Fleming) in response to my Facebook post:

Mothers — made to feel inadequate by Health Professionals if we don’t, and vilified by narrow minds if we do!!”

So what are these national protests telling us? They are saying that breastfeeding is about much more than babies’ health. That’s a rather obvious statement, and I’ve said it before in earlier blogs,  but its worth stating again. Much of the breastfeeding literature focuses on creating more informed mothers. The protests are saying that what we need are more bolshie mothers.

I recently picked up a copy of the 2013 edition of the NHS Scotland Breastfeeding Guide, entitled Off to a Good Start.  A 60-page document, it is full of information about how to breastfeed, the hormones underlying emotional changes associated with breastfeeding, how to pump and store milk, and the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mum and baby.

What it doesn’t talk about are the cultural tensions that every nursing mother walks right into, given that the relation between her female body and her wider culture has inevitably altered. How could the NHS talk about cultural tensions? As a health service, it’s appropriate for us to expect it to stay narrowly focused on health messages, right? Wrong.

The NHS would serve new mothers and babies better if it could find a way to talk about the cultural pressures that women find themselves operating within, once the baby has arrived. That’s what these protests are telling us.

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This is of course from Sesame Street — a children’s TV programme!

Lets face it, putting your milk-laden, enlarged ‘assets’ on display these days has become an inherently conflictual act. It wasn’t always that way. Just last month, the blogger Kendra put together a photographic restrospective to remind us of that. She pulled together 25 historic images that show women breastfeeding in public. And she had this to say in her post, which she “scandalously” entitled Boobs.

The number one biggest roadblock to my ability to successfully nurse my daughter was, without a doubt, my insecurity about nursing in public.”

We aren’t used to seeing functioning mammary glands anymore. Their purpose has become decorative. Tits are there to make women pretty, sexy, desirable. The cultural craziness that now confronts us is captured perfectly in this 2012 offering by political cartoonist Horsey:

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Our problem isn’t the tits themselves.Tits are everywhere. The problem is emotional intimacy. We have become uncomfortable about public displays of emotional intimacy between mothers and children that involve parts of the body that can be sexualized. As a society, we’ve got ourselves feeling uncertain about where emotional affection ends and where sex begins. We try to resolve the discomfort, or at least sweep it under the carpet, by drawing lines of propriety. We call that ‘decency’.

That discomfort has become so great that it stretches beyond the realm of mothers and babies and nipples, though. It extends to adults and children in general, encompassing professional, voluntary, and community settings. We have policies prohibiting touch in nurseries, schools, summer camps, Girl Guide gatherings, respite centres for disabled children, and the homes provided by foster carers. These are all affected by the same problem. We have sexualized affection. ‘Touch’ and ‘inappropriate touch’ are synonymous these days. We have made ourselves fearful of the very form of contact that is needed to keep ourselves sane and healthy as human beings. We call this ‘child protection’.

We have made ourselves so anxious about these issues that mothers find themselves ‘encouraged’ to seek out ‘privacy’ for their baby in the comfort of a smelly toilet cubicle. Hollie McNeish describes the humiliation of such a request in her rap poem Embarrassed.

But after six months of her life, sat sitting on lids


Sipping on her milk, nostrils sniffing up piss

Trying not to bang her head on toilet roll dispensers

I wonder whether these public loo feeds offend her?

Cos I’m getting tired of discretion and being ‘polite’ 

as my baby’s first sips are drowned drenched in shite,

The duo Sparrow Folk do so as well, in their cheeky new single Ruin Your Day,  which is about new mothers’ exhibitionist tendencies. The music video features a father retreating to a toilet cubicle to bottle-feed his baby. The duo sing out at that moment:

And I’m not going to retreat

to the comfort of a toilet seat.

No, no. I’m happy to stay out here

where everybody else eats.


Blogger Kendra  also recalls the bathroom experience, describing it as “stinky”, “disgusting” and “unsanitary”, a place where she didn’t want to “bare her chest”. She asks a straightforward question: why should a baby have to hide to eat? None of the rest of us do.

If we are going to create the kind of world that I presume those of you reading this blog want to create — or you wouldn’t be following my stuff — then we need to be brave enough to rethink the intersection of breastfeeding, affection, sexuality, and cognitive discomfort. We need the NHS and every other organization and individual professional in charge of caring for children to be creative enough to take part in that rethink. This is not up to mothers alone to solve.

Bravo to the thousands of women and men who have started us off, by taking part this past weekend. As one of the other respondents to my Facebook posts (May Hamilton) put it:

“Something negative has turned into something really positive.”

Thank you, Emily Slough, for being a bolshie mother. Your courage to speak up was contagious.

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