It’s a HOT day in North Queensland. The families flock to the public pools. Bright umbrellas, laughter, the odd cry and colour everywhere. It’s a beautiful day in Australia.
A young boy is in the toddler pool with his mother and another two children. He is bigger than the others. And louder, but in a strange way. He grunts, loudly, frequently, shouts but the words are unintelligible. He lies on his stomach and splashes. And occasionally punctuates the cheery noise with “No, no NO.”
One little girl in pink swimmers with a frilly skirt and blonde pigtails frowns at the boy and then whispers in her mother’s ear. Her mother gazes thoughtfully at the other family and then slowly but purposefully walks to the kiosk.
Minutes later a young staff member in a yellow polo shirt approaches the family. “This is a toddler pool. Your son is too big to be here. We have had a complaint that his behaviour is upsetting other pool users. I think you would be more comfortable in the other pool.” The mother explains that her child has a mental and physical disability and that she is concerned for his safety in deeper water. The staff member apologises and leaves, and later returns with complimentary ice-creams for the whole family. He smiles and says “I am so sorry – we didn’t intend to discriminate against you or your son.”
This is a story. But the discrimination issue is real. For people of other racial backgrounds, for people who live with disability, for women, and men, and those of some sexual orientation, and for breastfeeding mothers.
Our society is aware discrimination is illegal. That you can’t refuse to serve a person in a restaurant because of the colour of their skin. That public buildings need wheelchair access ramps. That you cannot be refused work because of your religious beliefs.
So why is breastfeeding so different? When an incident occurs which is brought to the attention of the media (like the one at Bribie Island last week) why is the response in popular media a survey which asks “Do you think breastfeeding in public should be banned/allowed?”.
What is it about this issue which means a mainstream TV commentator feels he has the right to say that breastfeeding in a “high-traffic area” like the edge of the pool is not on and it should be done “more discreetly”?
We don’t expect people to be “more discreet” about their racial background (let’s ask Asian people to wear sunglasses, or people of colour to wear long sleeves because it would be “more discreet”) so why should breastfeeding mothers continue to hear public discussions about whether their natural feeding relationship with their child embarrasses or offends others?
Our society equates breasts with sex and generally people are pretty blasé about seeing breasts in skimpy bikinis or spilling out of low-cut bras. But breasts weren’t designed with a sexual function in mind, they were designed to nurture our young.
The mother who feeds her child in public is not judging your choice to breastfeed (or not breastfeed – often bottle feeding mothers feel judged when using a bottle to feed their baby in public). A mother’s choice about how and when to feed her child is personal and should be respected by all of us. Breastfeeding in public is protected by law regardless of the position the baby is held in or the manner in which the mother exposes her breast. So how about we recognise discrimination when it happens and as a community we say “No. This isn’t right – let her feed her child her way” and get on with our own lives?