Flash 'em: how breastfeeding got political

Maternity special

Women - and children - gather in Brighton to make a very public statement

An exclusive interview with Claire Jones-Hughes - the woman behind Brighton’s now famous breastfeeding flash mob. By Matilda Lee

Breasts. In our sexualised society, the bigger they are, the flashier, the better. All hail the hooters when they are used to sell millions of tabloid newspapers on a daily basis, or sports cars, or just about anything else. But, while we are besotted with bosoms, something about the female mammary gland is also very threatening. Breasts, used in their functional capacity as a life-giving organ, aren't acceptable in public. As soon as a woman needs her breasts, i.e. when it's a question of nursing a newborn baby, the flash of a nipple or a bit of flesh becomes taboo.

Advertisements with newborns are more likely to have a baby sucking on a bottle rather than a breast.

All of which makes what happened to Claire Jones-Hughes in a Brighton café understandable, but not acceptable. One morning last December, Jones-Hughes stopped in to the Wai Kika Moo Kau café for a bite to eat with her four-month-old daughter. They had just been swimming and were both hungry, so while she sat munching on a plate of pancakes, she fed her daughter at the same time. As she explains it, a group of five people were leaving the café, when a lady leaned in to speak to her. ‘I thought she was going to say, "Oh, what a lovely baby, or something like that" but I was really shocked when she said, "That wasn't very pleasant watching you feed your baby" I can't remember the words exactly because it all went a bit hazy, but she did use the word unpleasant. That stuck in my head.'

Although another gentleman stepped in to defend her, Jones-Hughes, alone with her baby daughter was no match for the group, who continued to insist that she wasn't being discreet, that she should have covered up better and used a towel. ‘I am very self-conscious, I don't like to bare my breasts in public, so I made sure I was covered. They were trying to put me in my place. They wanted me to shrink into myself,' she says.

Many breastfeeding mums will sympathise with the fear and embarrassment that can come with breastfeeding in public. While 81 per cent of new mothers in the UK start out breastfeeding their babies, less than half of mothers are still breastfeeding at six weeks and only a quarter are still feeding at six months, the period recommended by the World Health Organisation. According to the National Childbirth Trust, more than three quarters of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six months would have liked to breastfeed for longer. The perception that breastfeeding is not acceptable in public places is one of the factors leading women to give up.

‘Women have a choice to make, they either stay at home, which isn't an option in our modern lives, especially if you've got another child, or you have to feed in public. It seems that society wants women to be self-sufficient, proactive, and working but then no one wants to see us breastfeed in public,' she says.

Breastfeeding bonanza

Rather than shrink into herself, Jones-Hughes was emboldened, and angry. A self-described social media fanatic, she went home and ‘had a rant' on Facebook and a local mums website, Brighton Mums, that she runs in her spare time.

‘I asked, right is it time for a flash mob now? Immediately I had about two or three of my friends respond. Even if the four of us had just turned up it would have been fabulous. Then I put it on twitter and got myself a hash tag. We set a date. I didn't realise it, but women were spreading it around the web. It was before Christmas so we were under pressure to do it before it got too cold,' she says.

She borrowed the idea of a breastfeeding flash mob from National Breastfeeding Awareness Week, which included events London and Manchester last June drawing women in the hundreds. The fact that after 18 years National Breastfeeding Awareness Week has just had its funding cut from the Department of Health is another blow to would-be breastfeeding mums and highlights the overall lack of practical, psychological, and social support to encourage women to stick with it.

With the 2010 amendment to the Equality Act, the right to breastfeed in public - in restaurants, parks, theatres and on public transport - is explicitly protected. Yet a law doesn't address the underlying societal issues that make women less likely to breastfeed in public.

‘People need to take a step back and think about what life is like for a new mother in those first six months. What if I had been suffering from post-natal depression? What if I had been trying all morning to get my child to feed? What if I had had many problems breastfeeding? The more I thought about it, the more it stood out that what the woman did was wrong. It doesn't make sense that people should have issues with feeding mothers,' Jones-Hughes says.

Brighton bares all

At 1pm on December 15th, some 60 women gathered underneath Brighton's Clock Tower, the centre of the shopping district and fed their babies, openly and unabashedly in public. The Brighton Flash Mob attracted instant media attention with the local press, the Press Association, and the Guardian picking up the story.

‘So many women wrote to me afterwards saying, gosh if I'd have known I'd have been there. We could have easily doubled our numbers if we'd have had a bit more time to organise it' she says.

Have a lot of other women confessed to similar experiences while breastfeeding? ‘I got emails from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. I heard all kinds of stories. Many women said that nothing like this ever really happened to them, while some stories were a lot worse than mine. The common one was someone asking them to go to the toilet to feed their babies. One of the ladies was quite succinct and replied, "well, no, you go and eat your lunch in the toilet".'

‘You've got a very short time span to make the decision to breastfeed or not, it all comes down to your birth circumstances and how confident you feel at the time.'

Baring a breast in public to feed a newborn is not a crime, nor should it be considered in any way indecent. Way to go Claire Jones-Hughes for sticking up for the right to nurse her newborn on the hop. Don't like it? Suck on it.

Further information:

Breastfeeding Flash Mob VIDEO

National Breastfeeding Helpline
Brighton Mums

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