Are some people still offended by public breastfeeding? KLM seem to think so

Tweet from Dutch airline asking mothers to cover up while feeding children goes viral

“We really are weird over breasts, despite the fact that 51 per cent of the population has them (or will have them).” Photograph: iStock

“We really are weird over breasts, despite the fact that 51 per cent of the population has them (or will have them).” Photograph: iStock

 

Perhaps KLM’s social media account is currently being run by a very enthusiastic, slightly misguided work experience person. Or maybe their policies are still rooted in another century. In any case, the airline raised a few eyebrows on Twitter on Wednesday when they replied to an innocent enough query about their policy regarding in-flight breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding is permitted at KLM flights,” the tweet read. “However, to ensure that all our passengers of all backgrounds feel comfortable on board, we may request a mother to cover herself while breastfeeding, should other passengers be offended by this.”

Permitted? Well, that’s nice of them, isn’t it? (In Ireland, by the way, you can legally feed where you like.)

Naturally, it’s their consideration that other passengers be offended, not to mention their prioritisation of said passengers, that has rankled. Just so everyone is aware, the sensitivities of a few people who might inadvertently spot a woman’s nipple takes precedence – officially – over an infant that needs to be fed. Passengers, in this instance, breastfeeding passengers, need to be respectful of other people’s cultures. Have you ever tried to explain culture, or how rubbernecking prudes transcend culture, to a screaming, starving baby?

Besides, I get massively offended when airline passengers spread out their broadsheet newspapers, play Candy Crush on their phone, tilt their seat back, or drink coffee near me. You don’t hear me lobbying to enshrine this in airline policy, just to make my trip a little more comfortable.

Air travel with a baby is complicated and stressful to begin with
 

It’s not entirely KLM’s fault: a follow-up tweet noted that passengers do in fact complain in the presence of an exposed breast, as though it’s inappropriate or something. Not looking at a woman breastfeeding doesn’t appear to have occurred to them. I know air travel can sometimes make some of us take leave of our senses but – really?

It’s one of life’s greatest paradoxes. We really are weird over breasts, despite the fact that 51 per cent of the population has them (or will have them). Images of breasts are everywhere; we carry billions of them around on our phone. And maybe because it’s of this that they are seen not so much as essential kit for feeding the young, but as erotic, siren-like sex-globes; not quite luring a man to his death, but definitely causing the blood to rush southwards from his head.

Bout of judgement

I say “man”, and women of course find breasts sexy too. Do they get offended by breastfeeding women? Quite possibly. Why some people lose their reason when breasts are put to their foremost nurturing function, I cannot say.

The sort of person to who gets offended by a woman exposing a nipple to feed her child is a none-too-distant relative of the person who tuts when men hold hands in public, or when kids cry in restaurants. They’re just fond of a healthy bout of judgement. It enlivens them, but their insistence that something be done about it is couched in a weird sort of shame. Ergo, they can’t wait to make it someone else’s problem, too. Yet in the year of our lord 2019, the conservative evidently still hold plenty of sway.

The over-sexualisation of women’s bodies is a cultural behemoth
 

Full disclosure: when I was planning to breastfeed my own daughter before she was born, I was quite looking forward to getting out in public and leaving my boobs out everywhere, even when not entirely in service. Not because I have an exhibitionistic streak, but mainly because I was hoping to dare someone to tell me what to do with them. I was rather looking forward to that particular encounter.

In the end, though, I personally found breastfeeding difficult, physically and emotionally. I still find myself surrounded by several breastfeeding women in public, though. Happily, no-one pays too much attention when a baby unlatches to have a look around and a nipple is duly freed. No-one complains. No-one is titillated. The world keeps turning.

The thing is, air travel with a baby is complicated and stressful to begin with. There are a dozen variables tied up in it, and breastfeeding should ostensibly be the one straightforward element of it. But sometimes it isn’t. It’s not easy whipping out a part of your body that shoots out milk, in a small uncomfortable seat. If a baby demands a feed in a small, enclosed and noisy space, a mother usually wants to get this done quickly and without too much bother. Asking her, in an official airline policy, to add another layer of complication for the benefit of a few strangers, is just bizarre.

The over-sexualisation of women’s bodies is a cultural behemoth that is likely to going to take years, if not centuries, to unpack and recalibrate. Encouraging women not to hide away when feeding is a good start. I may not be a breastfeeding mother, but even I know that those who do would benefit greatly from a society in which it’s supported. Or, at the very least, seen for what it is: the most natural thing in the world. It’s just eating, people.

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