During five years of breastfeeding, I have fed my babies on buses, trains and park benches, in cinemas, cafes and restaurants. I have a vivid memory of feeding my son, perched like an Elizabethan lady riding sidesaddle, on a fallen log in Richmond Park in London while my dad stood beside me, his eyes respectfully skyward, as I felt all the feelings known to humankind. A few years later, I breastfed my one-month-old daughter on stage at a book festival in Scotland while discussing Anne of Green Gables, which was like some divine coalescence of all my favourite things. Afterwards, the audience, mostly made up of women of a certain age, lined up to congratulate me and shake the newborn’s tiny hand. They would never have been able to do such a thing in their day, they said. What progress we have made.
I look back on all this now and feel lucky that no one took a photo of my breasts mid-feed. At least not as far as I know. This is a strong indicator of how low the bar remains for us undervalued and oversexualised mothers: that one is genuinely pleased not to have been sexually harassed while feeding one’s baby. Had someone taken out an SLR camera, attached a telephoto lens, taken closeup photos, and, when approached, refused to delete them on the grounds that it’s a public place and therefore his right, I wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it.
This is exactly what happened to Julia Cooper when she breastfed her baby in a Manchester park. She reported the incident to the police and was told no crime had been committed. The Voyeurism Act, passed in 2019, banned the taking of non-consensual photographs of genitals or buttocks (upskirting) but did not cover photographs of the upper body. Which itself tells a short, grim story about how the law, and the world it enshrines, delineates women’s bodies. Bit by bit. First buttocks, then breasts.
Thanks to Cooper, who took the matter to her Labour MP, Jeff Smith, as well as Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy, people who photograph or film women breastfeeding without consent now face being put on the sex offender register and jailed for up to two years. This is welcome and, like most incremental changes, bigger than it looks. In a more reasonable world you might even think the home secretary, Priti Patel, would thus be inclined, for the sake of consistency if nothing else, to take another look at, say, her nationality and borders bill, which will have a devastating impact on female survivors of violence. But this is not the world in which we live, nor the direction Tory U-turns tend to take.
The proposed change to the law around breastfeeding in public follows a reform campaign led by Creasy and Smith to criminalise the behaviour under the slogan Stop The Breast Pest. Breast pest, unfortunately, is one of those catchphrases that the warped British brain can’t help but visualise as a mildly titillating tabloid headline. I don’t need a trivialising end-of-the-pier rhyme to give a damn about breastfeeding voyeurism. Can’t we just stop objectifying breasts instead?
Creasy was also photographed while breastfeeding her baby, in her case by a “laughing” teenage boy on a train in north London. She spoke about the “horror” of it months before she was reprimanded for bringing her baby in a sling to a parliamentary debate. The two incidents together form a perfect microcosm of how mothers and their babies are treated in this country. Not welcome in the mother of parliaments. Not safe on a train. Or, for that matter, a plane. (Yes, KLM, I’m looking at you.)
For those who haven’t experienced the joys and hardships of breastfeeding, it’s like riding a bike: really hard until it’s really easy. Mostly, the stage at which we do it out and about is when the baby is small, needs feeding at least every two hours (or is that two minutes?), and we’re still learning on the job. Going on a bus is an exploit of Everest-sized proportions. Nipple shields, creams and soul-destroying wrestles with muslins in an attempt at “discretion” might be involved, not to mention the baby in her infernal nest of buckles and straps. Then there’s the worst pain of all: the scorn of society, should your milk project on to the back of a stranger’s neck or, worse, your baby cry. The vulnerability factor is off the scale.
For all this to coincide with the possibility of being stared at, laughed at, photographed and harassed, can be stressful to the point of off-putting. For some it means feeding in a toilet cubicle while trying not to bang your baby’s head on the loo roll holder. For others, it means not going out at all. The unending fetishisation of breasts, in whatever context they happen to be, is the mark of a misogynistic society that still hasn’t got to grips with the most basic facts of life. Babies need to be fed. And a woman’s breasts are, like the rest of her body, her own.