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breastfeeding and the myth of choice



I blame Kochie. I blame Kochie for perpetuating what I like to think of as the “myth of choice” when it comes to breastfeeding, because it seems that somewhere along the line, ordinary people (people with breasts, people without breasts; people with babies, people without babies) got super distracted about breastfeeding. Distracted by strange concepts like “manners”, “discreteness”, “appropriateness” and “choice”, rather than grasping the basic notion that breastfeeding is only ever about nutrition, necessity and a pesky thing called the law.

And choice has very little to do with any of it.

You see, every couple of months, another woman in Australia is shamed as she breastfeeds her baby. She’s shamed for doing it wrong — in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong way. This week, a Melbourne woman spoke to the media about her experiences of discrimination at her local hairdressers after she started breastfeeding her five month old daughter beneath the hairdressing smock. According to Cassie Hanlin, she was made to feel ‘embarrassed and humiliated’ about breastfeeding — her hairdresser stopped cutting her hair and did not return to complete the cut, instead making Cassie wait for close to half an hour without service until eventually being told that a junior hairdresser would take over. According to Cassie, the original hairdresser explained that she couldn’t cut her hair ‘while she was breastfeeding’.

This most recent example only serves to confirm that time and time again, the media frames cases of breastfeeding discrimination as a “breastfeeding in public” debate. And this indirectly creates a myth of choice that seems to forever circle around the issue. The very classification of breastfeeding discrimination as a breastfeeding in public debate automatically asks us to distinguish breastfeeding from other daily activities, setting breastfeeding up as “other”, as particularly and spectacularly distinct from other life necessities and ultimately, and most significantly, as a “choice”. It seems strange to me that we even refer to breastfeeding as “breastfeeding in public”. It’s breastfeeding. We don’t “sit in public”. We just sit. We don’t “walk in public”. We just walk. And thus, we just breastfeed.

The breastfeeding in public debate further implies (by the notion that it is, in fact, a “debate” and therefore logically has an argument for and against) that women have a choice — a choice to decide whether their breastfeeding is a private or public matter. But if you are a woman who breastfeeds, there is little choice regarding when this breastfeeding occurs. Which generally means where you breastfeed is not a choice. It has to be wherever you are, while you do whatever you’re doing (unless of course we’re all conveniently confined within the safe walls of our house).

And this notion of choice seems to be conveniently appropriated by those who discriminate despite the fact that choice has very little to do with anything. The owner of the hairdressing salon at the centre of this case of discrimination said of his staff member:  ‘She didn’t want to cut her hair while she was breastfeeding, which she is entitled to do’. The thing is, she’s not entitled to do so. Implying that his employee has a choice about whether to provide a service to a woman breastfeeding blatantly disregards the law. In fact, there is both federal and state law protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed. Anywhere. And protecting a woman’s right to receive a service while doing so. And just like every other law in our country, you don’t have choice about adhering to it (unless of course you wish to be prosecuted for it). In Victoria, breastfeeding is a protected attribute under the Equal Opportunity Act. This means that the law protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of a range of protected attributes — age, breastfeeding, gender, disability, marital status, pregnancy, race, religion. In other words, as someone delivering a service, it is never your choice to determine whether you do or don’t deliver a service to people based on these attributes. The owner of the hairdressing salon would be wise to spend his time educating his staff about the law and his obligations as a service provider rather than defending his employee’s non-existent choice.

It’s time to dispel the myth of choice surrounding breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public is not a choice in the same way that delivering a service to a woman breastfeeding is never a choice. So stop pretending it is.

4 thoughts on “breastfeeding and the myth of choice

  1. Great piece! This whole issue saddens me greatly. Although I was strong minded enough to never be dissuaded as to where and when I breastfed my son (for 2 1/2 years), I thankful never had any negative comments or reactions (that I’m aware of). Perhaps other women are not so brave and this kind of thing only fuels their insecurities etc. I just hope that these stories at least raise awareness and indeed empower women further.

  2. it saddens me to think that 27 years after my 1st baby was born and we strove to get Breastfeeding ‘normalised’ for want of a better expression, it still comes up as media bandwagon, why are’nt formula Mothers picked on as much as Breastfeeding mothers, choice? smoice!!!, as a society, mothers in particular, still like to divide, we are all mothers and should be allowed to do what we want where and when we want and leave each other alone. we should be encouraging breastfeeding where we can and help mothers to achieve it,

  3. I’d like to see a piece on the reverse situation, where women who can’t or chose not to breastfeed get harassed in public. I can’t breastfeed because of the medication I take and have had a woman comment (“No wonder he’s so small”; actually he’s a perfectly healthy length and weight and why is it your business?) and a five year old who’d obviously been indoctrinated by his mother (“Is that baby crying because he has to drink from a yukky bottle, not mummy milk?”)

    • So glad you said this, rabbitwithfangs – I find that really problematic too. A friend did her honours thesis on the issue of breastfeeding, and how the ‘Breast is Best’ mantra can be really debilitating and difficult for women who either can’t breastfeed, or choose not to for personal reasons, or even for children who can’t process breast milk.

      I completely agree with a woman’s right to breastfeed in public (it’s also her legal right), but I also think women can make informed decisions on how to feed their children, and that formula is not the evil incarnate. I’ll definitely try to get a post up on that topic soon!

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