You’d be forgiven for forgetting that breasts have a purpose other than, say, providing titillation for men and boys or brightening up a dull music video. The biological function of breasts as vital nutrient givers seems to have been at best downplayed, and at worst willingly misunderstood (with some analogising breastfeeding to urinating or public sex). One woman on the receiving end of this prejudice and misconception was Melissa Jean Wilbrahan, who uploaded a seemingly innocuous photo to her Instagram, MelissaJeanBabies, during World Breastfeeding Week, depicting a baby being breastfed, only to have her account closed for violating the websites terms and conditions.
This event follows a trend not relating solely to social media. The internet is awash with case upon case of women being asked to ‘cover up’, whether it be at a high end London establishment or a local cafe. Even though the 2010 Equality Act made it illegal for breastfeeding women to be asked to leave a public place, many women still face comments and scorn when they brave breastfeeding in public.
Whether it is online or offline, telling women to cover up, or covering their breasts up by banning their accounts and removing their photos , continues the narrative that women’s bodies are shameful unless they are sexual, and thus must be removed from public sight. The ramifications of this can be great. Women may feel reluctant to breastfeed with others in the room and so, with their activities restricted, stay at home, isolating themselves. Women may even give up on feeding altogether, switching to formula or simply stopping. With the World Health Organisation recommending babies be breastfed (with other food) for the first two years of their life, this is hardly ideal.
Increasingly women are seeking out an online community for breastfeeding support, whether that be for factual information and guidance, or as an emotional outlet, to celebrate in the miracle of life and birth and also share in the truth that motherhood can be hard work. The reality of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, often sanitised to hide the stretch marks and sagging, is now documented online in an effort to normalise other women’s experiences. Women who look at their bodies post-pregnancy and feel disheartened or confused at the change can find solace in these online communities. It is therefore vital that these forums are not only free from stigma and criticism but also are just given the space to exist in a format accessible for all women.
Whilst her page was reinstated, alongside an apology issued by Instagram, Wilbrahan’s experience is indicative of a larger cultural issue we have with women’s bodies. Women are routinely encouraged to ‘get their tits out’, either by men literally yelling it on the street, or by our misogynistic society that values women largely for what we possess on our chest.
However, as soon as breasts are not presented solely as objects for the male gaze, the word ‘indecent’ is bandied about. There are those who are happy to read their copy of The Sun on the train, with page three on full display, yet would be disturbed by a woman breastfeeding two seats down.
It serves as proof of how sexualised women’s breasts are that Instagram is unable to distinguish between an image of breastfeeding and pornography. The discussion goes far deeper than breastfeeding, mirroring wider conversations being held in society over who is entitled to comment on women’s bodies and who is entitled to tell women what they can and can’t do with them.
Image: Chris Alban Hansen