Normalizing Breastfeeding in Public – Kanan

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A woman poses on the cover of a magazine, the top half of her body uncovered. She’s holding a baby at her breast.

Immediately, the comment section explodes. How can she show her body like that? Doesn’t she have any modesty?

Celebrities are, in order to make breastfeeding a normal sight, confidently posing with their babies on the cover of the magazines, but they are sexualized and objectified. This is exactly what happened with the recent Grihalakshmi magazine cover of Gilu Joseph, a South Indian model, who posed with a baby at her breast. As expected, many were offended by this, calling it indecent and shameful, because this was one of the first magazines to do this in India. A case was also filed under the “Indecent Representation of Women Act”.

Whether in the other parts of the world or in India, breastfeeding openly and freely is uncommon. The sight of a woman breastfeeding makes people uncomfortable, as the nakedness of a woman has always been questioned morally, especially when a woman shows her chest.

But why is something as natural and necessary for a baby’s growth as breastfeeding so uncomfortable for others?

This is embedded in the idea of ownership. I don’t mean this literally, but in the sense that women are expected to move and dress in a way that society deems “modest” and acceptable. If society can comment on a woman’s body, then, her body doesn’t entirely belong to her. She is not free to show what she wants; if she shows her legs, men stare. If she doesn’t wear a bra under her shirt, she is considered to have a bad character. If she realizes that her baby is hungry and needs to breastfeed, she can’t show her bare breast because it makes others uncomfortable.

Why is it that a man’s chest is not offensive and a woman’s is? The female breast is seen only in a sexual manner, a part of a woman’s body that is meant to be for a man’s pleasure. It is not seen objectively, as the male chest is. And it is time to change that, because a woman’s body belongs only to herself – not to society to comment on and not to men to consider theirs. Breastfeeding is a choice, and if a woman wants to feed her baby in public, it should be seen as an objective act.

The only way to make breastfeeding a normal sight in public is for more women to do it fearlessly. Then, perhaps, the breast can be seen not only sexually, but as an integral lifeline for a baby as well.

In America, the “Free the Nipple” movement aims to make the male and female chest equally inoffensive. Just as a man’s chest can be freely displayed in public, a woman’s should as well.  This movement is not yet popular in India, but has made an appearance, primarily through singer Anushka Manchanda’s photo series on Instagram, in which she showed a series of topless men and women. The photos were taken down by Instagram. Are we, as a society, open-minded enough to accept such photos, of Anushka and of Gilu Joseph? If not, then how can we be?

However, there is more to the story of the Grihalakshmi cover, and this is where the bold move sparked further debate. While the pose itself is bold and necessary, complaints were made against the magazine because this was not Gilu Joseph’s baby. People were concerned about the baby’s rights. While the magazine’s intent of normalizing breastfeeding is well-intentioned, is the method of doing also?

Do you believe that the magazine is wrong in showing Gilu Joseph like this? If so, why?

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