The photo of a model posing with a baby, breastfeeding it, on the cover of Malyalam magazine Grihalakshmi has caught the attention of the country – and resulted in rather mixed responses.
The magazine chose its March issue to speak about breastfeeding in public, by showcasing model Gilu Joseph on the cover as a breastfeeding mother with the line – “Mothers tell Kerala, please don’t stare, we need to breastfeed”.
The photo soon went viral and was supported and slammed by many in somewhat equal measure; among those against, a Kerala-based attorney filed a criminal case under the ‘Indecent Representation of Women Act’ against the magazine.
On the other hand, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India has honoured the magazine with its '2018 Good Mother Award' on International Women's Day. PETA stated that Grihalakshmi highlighted the importance of human breast milk to infants' health.
Mothers of each mammal species naturally produce the perfect food for their own babies, so human mothers who breastfeed can be proud of their innate ability to nourish their infants... Helping human mothers feel good about breastfeeding their children enables them to keep future generations healthy and strong.Neha Singh, PETA India’s spokesperson
While the reactions have ranged from supportive to ridiculous (like, why was an unmarried model chosen, why was she dressed as a Hindu, why was the breast exposed to that extent) the section of people who can gain the most from the taboo being removed – the new mothers – are all for it!
'Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers' (BSIM), an Indian Facebook forum with over 65,000 members consisting of new moms, to-be-moms, their spouses and families, are backing the magazine’s move wholeheartedly. Adhunika Prakash, 34, a mum of two, is the founder of BSIM and says the forum has been sharing ways to beat the taboo for five years now.
In fact, in a poll that is currently being conducted on BSIM, 10% of the women have reported that they had a negative experience while nursing in public –
“I am glad that Grihalakshmi used this photo on the cover since it has brought breastfeeding to the forefront of discussions. It has been long ignored, considering that it affects every human being on this planet,” says the social entrepreneur who breastfeeds her younger child wherever the need arises.
According to The Lancet, 8,23,000 lives could be saved per year through improved breastfeeding rates. Promoting breastfeeding reduces the healthcare costs of a nation, because not breastfeeding increases the odds of several health conditions occurring in the child and the mother.
For infants, not being breastfed is associated with an increased incidence of infectious morbidity, as well as elevated risks of childhood obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, leukaemia, and sudden infant death syndrome. For mothers, failure to breastfeed is associated with an increased incidence of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, retained gestational weight gain, type 2 diabetes, myocardial infarction, and the metabolic syndrome.
Prakash explains that facing discomfort/harassment while nursing in public is mostly an urban issue – rural women and their families treat it as the norm.
BSIM has, since the Grihalakshmi issue, started a campaign called Breasts4Babies. The idea is for every woman to share their view or experience of nursing in public on their Facebook profile for all to see. Women are supporting the campaign with gusto, with many putting up photos of them breastfeeding along with the post.
One of the women who shared a post on the subject publicly, Chetana Mrunalini, 36, says she got positive comments from most people except one person “who calls himself a patriarchal man and claims that this issue had nothing to do with patriarchy”. A mother of two and a certified lactation educator and counsellor, Chetana believes that the more we see women breastfeeding in public, the more confident future mothers become on their decision to nurse in public.
As a new mother, I did not want to be homebound just because I had a baby to nurse round the clock. But I was also very uncomfortable nursing in public. I would fumble, passing my anxiety to the baby. But a single evening in a park with a dear friend who was nursing her baby confidently changed my perspective. I breastfed my baby along with her and gained the confidence I needed. As my photo of breastfeeding in a flight and my post is public, I hope a struggling mother may see it and be confident to carry on with life while providing for her baby.
Raksha Raghavan, a software developer and a lactating mother, too shared her experience –
I was on a bus with my then one-year-old daughter. It was the end of a long day and she was very tired and wanted to nurse. As it was a very crowded bus, I started nursing her using the two t-shirt method but she kept pushing my top up. I decided to be brave for her sake and continued. One elderly African woman later told me she lauded my hard work and that in South Africa, women breastfed everywhere. That one experience made me bolder and happier.
Raghavan says her #Breasts4Babies post has been liked by men and women who aren't even parents yet.
Hopefully next time, when they see a breastfeeding mother, they will make her comfortable.
World Health Organizaton and the Indian Academy of Paediatrics (IAP) recommend up to six months of exclusive breastfeeding, and upto two years of breastfeeding along with other foods.
We feel that it is important to support nursing in public because we cannot expect the breastfeeding parent to be restricted at home during the course of the entire breastfeeding journey.Adhunika Prakash
The sexualisation of breasts and societal embarrassment must be resisted because breastfeeding is as natural as biology gets. Says Dr Arun Gupta, MD (Paediatrics), central coordinator of Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India and regional coordinator of International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) Asia –
Why this hue and cry when someone wanted to support breastfeeding? Read the title and story – both convey what it means. In the absence of the State promoting breastfeeding among women, taking the magazine to court is deplorable. It is, in fact, a right step towards normalising breastfeeding.
The cover photo has served its purpose by raising the subject to the level of a national discourse.
While some may vehemently protest its need, we need to normalise breastfeeding in public so that a new mother doesn’t feel the need to restrict herself to home or public toilets – consequently leading to a healthier future generation.
(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)