Why are a woman’s breasts becoming objects of shame in Africa?

I had never really encountered negative attitudes towards female breasts and breastfeeding until adulthood, particularly in middle class settings.

RECENTLY, South African clothing retailer Edgars had to apologise for asking nursing mother Tasneem Botha to leave because she was looking to feed and change her baby in-store.

Dozens of mothers later staged a nurse-in at the Cape Town address where the incident reportedly took place in a show of support. 

The incident is not an isolated one, in other regions it has been examined widely. But perhaps in Africa it could be gaining currency with the growth of multinationals and those who aspire to their standards.

It is genuinely baffling the amount of negative sentiment expressed by both men and women towards breastfeeding in public. On one hand they say they support human rights, but then abandon their stand when that right is a basic human need to feed, purely because it involves a woman’s breasts.

Women are too often scolded and shamed for providing nourishment to their infants, especially in public spaces. Many restaurants will for example not allow female patrons to breastfeed on their premises, citing it as offensive to fellow patrons. It is grating how babies are prohibited from feeding naturally, while their adult counterparts are encouraged to over-indulge, as babies look on in hunger.

As suggested by the Cape Town incident, the same attitudes prevail in malls, public parks, churches, and even surprisingly, in our very homes.  

In many African cultures, seeing a bare-breasted women is quite the norm, and until contemporary times female breasts were seen as just that; a part of the female anatomy  rarely associated with perversion.

Unnatural conditions

In the West however, religion and Victorian cultural prescripts have seen women’s bodies being unjustifiably policed by ill-informed patriarchal attitudes,compelling women to cover up. Consequently, through the Westernisation of Africa, negative attitudes towards breastfeeding in public seem to have been adopted as the “norm” in some African societies, to such an extent that we sometimes shame women for breastfeeding their babies, forcing them to do so under the most unnatural of conditions.

We go as far as asking women to cover their breasts while breastfeeding, or ask them to feed their babies in designated rooms, but which then include public toilets. How dehumanising is taking your meal under a blanket, or in germ infested toilet spaces?

Having grown up in the township, for me catching sight of a mother breastfeeding her infant in full view of others - men, women and children alike - was a non-issue. This method of feeding an infant was standard, and still remains so in many black communities.

If a baby is hungry, then the baby should be put to the breast, either for nourishment or for soothing, and not have to be limited by time or place, in the same way that adults eat because of hunger, or for enjoyment.

Sexualised

I had never really encountered negative attitudes towards female breasts and breastfeeding until I reached adulthood, particularly in multi-cultural, middle class settings, where I confronted with narratives that sexualised and perverted female breasts.

But it wasn’t I had until I had my first child that I learned just how repulsed people are by a woman breastfeeding in public without half suffocating her baby under a blanket.

Notably, some of these attitudes are expressed not just by men, but by women too. Some will speak down on women who choose to breastfeed, yet ironically compare the “best bottle brands”, ranked according to how the rubber teat and shape mimic the natural feel of a mother’s breast.

In the absence of evidence of anyone hurt or psychologically traumatised by a mother publicly breastfeeding, women should disregard such attempts at body policing. The breast is by nature designed for this function—there really couldn’t be more distance from the pornographic images that it is often likened to.   

Not all women opt to breastfeed in public, or even breastfeed at all, therefore to each their own—the principle must remain that of choice.

Happy breastfeeding.

—The writer is an avid traveller and commentator on social issues in Africa. She lives in South Africa.

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