When Did India Become Ashamed About Breastfeeding in Public?

Gender

When Did India Become Ashamed About Breastfeeding in Public?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

M

onths before I gave birth to my first child, I was bombarded with lessons on the benefits of breastfeeding: A colleague advised me to pinch my nipples to ready my breasts for the “great awakening” and the nurses in the hospital kept saying, “Rajputro ke shara din doodh khavate hobe, bujhle (The prince has to be fed milk all day, understand?)” Once I returned home, my mother-in-law poured sabu dana doodh down my throat every few hours while my Ma insisted I eat rice with roasted kala jeera, all foods that were supposed to enhance my body’s production of breast milk. From the maalishwali to the relative I saw only once in my entire life, everyone, including Dr Spock, had only great things to say about breastfeeding.

As any new mother, I was a little apprehensive about welcoming a new being that would upend my life – and body – in several ways. But it was only a few days after giving birth, when the effects of a Caesarean section wore off, that I truly realised the importance of everything I was being told. And how amazing breastfeeding was. The more my baby sucked on a breast, the more my body produced. It nurtured and soothed him and strangely, it soothed my postpartum blues away. It was the kind of magic you know nothing about until it happens to you. I found myself breastfeeding my child at all hours of the day, dealing with heavy letdowns, bitten nipples, and finally, breast pumps when I left for work a few months later. The journey was as exhilarating as it was tiring, but at the end of the day, it was a deeply private yet obvious thing to do.

It was only when I set foot out of the house and nursed in public that I realised what new moms are up against. One time, I was taking a three-hour flight with my five-month-old and was constantly stared at by a member of the cabin crew while breastfeeding. I stared back at him, to tell him leching wasn’t okay, but he’d be gone a few minutes and then be back again. Another time, at a restaurant, I took a corner seat at the table and started to breastfeed my cranky one-year-old only to realise several eyes were on me. But these incidents didn’t deter me; I went on to breastfeed in autos, at airports, at vacations abroad. My conviction was simple: Baby hungry, baby gets food.

When did India, a primarily breastfeeding-friendly nation, get so coy? When did we begin to attach shame with it?

As a child, I remember my aunt breastfeeding her younger one while chatting away with her relatives. My sister nursed like a badass, be it on long drives or at the movies. In fact, the Vedas state that “the milk and the breast are symbols of longevity”. Even ancient Ayurveda texts like Charak Samhita (400-200 BC) illustrate the importance of breastfeeding and believe “breast milk to have vivifying power”.

Nowadays I find Indian mothers being asked to move to the bathroom to feed their babies in restaurants or being told off by aunties because “Bhartiya sanskaar”.

Last I checked, breastfeeding was perfectly normal in our culture that otherwise advocates modesty for women. Possibly because we celebrate and eulogise motherhood to such an extent that we’ve completely denuded an exposed breast of all sexuality. And in this respect, we’re miles ahead of the most powerful country in the world.

America made breastfeeding in public legal in all 50 states only this year. The country has been historically hostile to mothers nursing in public – especially since corporate interests are aligned in opposition to it. A study in The Lancet found that breastfeeding can prevent 8,00,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced healthcare costs. But it didn’t stop the US from opposing a resolution that encourages breastfeeding at the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly in May this year.

We seem to have borrowed the worst of their traits. Nowadays I find Indian mothers being asked to move to the bathroom to feed their babies in restaurants or being told off by aunties because “Bhartiya sanskaar”. Earlier this year, a man filed a writ petition against Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi that put a nursing mother on its cover. He called the image “obscene, insulting to women and in violation of child rights”. A few others lodged complaints against the model – who was unmarried and not a mother – for posing on the cover. What gives? At least the Kerala High Court acted like a badass, when it slammed the case, declaring that “shocking one’s morals” is an “elusive concept”, and that “one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.”

Breastfeeding

Earlier this year, a man filed a writ petition against Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi that put a nursing mother on its cover.

Image Credit: Mangalore Today

Is this pinhead coyness or voyeurism an urban problem? I routinely find women labourers and vegetable sellers breastfeeding in the middle of noisy markets without inviting any stares. It is only in places we might term as uppity, like parks, malls, restaurants that I see new mothers being dissed or sermonised for breastfeeding in public.

Turns out, this transformation has something to do with commercialisation. “The advent of formula manufacturers slowly and steadily made breast milk take backstage,” says Adhunika Prakash, the founder of Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers (BSIM), a 80k strong community on Facebook. “Years of marketing convinced the previous generation that formula is just as healthy as breast milk. They went to the extent of saying that breast milk wasn’t enough. Further, as more mothers started working, the gimmick of formula feed picked up momentum.”

Still, it’s ironic to witness this recoil to breastfeeding, when breasts could not be more sexualised or ubiquitous in the media that we consume. We’ll happily devour visuals of a “Chikni Chameli” but find a mother’s exposed breast obscene.

That said, it’s important to hang on anyway. Facebook forums like BSIM are Zen communities where women read each other’s stories, learn and draw strength from them. Taking a leaf out of Kerala High Court’s book that dismissed the pathetic writ petition, women too need to dismiss naysayers and requests to feed their baby uncomfortably inside some bathroom.

As Leilani Rogers, photographer and founder of Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project says, “The more we see women breastfeeding, the sooner it will get normalised.” It’s a little disheartening to have to repeat this in a country that hasn’t really had a problem with breastfeeding.  

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