I was only four-years-old when I stood on my tippy toes to gaze into the hospital room that held my baby sister. I pressed my hands and nose to the wide expanse of glass separating me from the new addition to my family. Born slightly premature, my sister was magenta, shriveled, and, above all, mysterious to little-me as she slept in her incubator. My father held my other sister to the window as we watched the tiny person breathe. All of us were silent, just taking her in. In that moment, I understood that babies were special.
In the two-plus decades since then, my love for children has only grown. Though I am the only one among my close friends to feel this way, I genuinely want to be a mother. But I am full of fear—fear that I won’t realize my professional dreams, fear that childbirth will permanently damage my body (medically, not aesthetically), and fear of the shame and disrespect that mothers face. While prejudice toward working mothers is finally starting to get widespread attention, the dangers of childbirth and the ways mothers are treated in public spaces are less often discussed. While I’m still holding out hope for the former, there’s good news in regards to the latter: The United Nations recently endorsed breastfeeding selfies, also known as “brelfies.” That’s huge progress in a world that largely embarrasses mothers for doing something so inherent to motherhood as feeding their babies.
Breastfeeding is healthy, natural and good for the baby.
You would think that nursing wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, what’s a mother supposed to do with her hungry baby? Wish its hunger away? While I’m sure there are many mothers who would happily take that superpower, it’s not realistic. Hungry babies must be fed. And the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the benefits of formula feeding. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health, breastfed babies get sick less often and bond more closely with their mothers, among other advantages. Breastfeeding even benefits mothers personally. It helps their bodies recover from pregnancy and childbirth faster, and reduces their risk of breast and ovarian cancer, too. It may even help moms lose weight.
But women’s bodies are sexualized and breastfeeding moms are bullied.
Heaven forbid women do anything “right.”
Mothers are bullied for breastfeeding because of society’s Madonna-whore complex. Women’s bodies are sexualized against their will on the regular and, thanks to rape culture, even when we want sex, consent somehow isn’t considered “sexy.” Once those women become moms, however, many people cease to see them as sexual beings. Yet here’s the other paradox: Breasts are always sexualized. There are many beautiful things about sex, but its power to dehumanize is not one of them. When a woman breastfeeds, some people just see ‘boobs’ They don’t see a human who is trying to meet another human’s basic need. If a mother doesn’t feed her baby, that child will get sick and eventually die.
The fact that babies must eat is just common sense. Yet to breastfeeding bullies, mothers are somehow perversely exposing themselves in public when they breastfeed, even when they take measures to feed their babies discreetly. In other words, the whole business of shaming women for breastfeeding is full of sexism and hypocrisy.
Not that I’m surprised. As women, we can’t “win.” Men have it better in just about every way. My husband doesn’t worry about being underpaid. My husband doesn’t worry about being the target of sexual harassment. My husband doesn’t worry about putting his career on hold when we have children. He doesn’t worry about these things because the statistics are in his favor. I’m the one who has to worry about someone kicking me out of a department store because I went off to a corner to feed my crying baby. I’m the one who has to worry about the inevitable judgment that comes with motherhood but not fatherhood.
The breastfeeding selfie matters.
This is why brelfies matter. They’re not silly and they’re not vain; they’re a subversive act that challenges a culture that denigrates women in every aspect of life. Women have the right to take themselves out of the male gaze and portray themselves the way they wish to be seen. Taking breflies is one such way for women to assume control over their image. If women want their Instagram followers to see them as mothers who choose to breastfeed, that should be up to them. That isn’t anyone’s choice but theirs.
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Here’s another reason why brelfies matter: Breastfeeding is already a normal phenomenon; just ask the millions of women who do it everyday. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it from looking at mainstream media. That’s why we have to normalize the image of a breastfeeding mother. The more we as human beings see an image, the more we gradually learn to accept and even embrace it. As brelfies become more commonplace, our culture will gradually learn to accept breastfeeding. Then mothers will no longer feel the need to hide or experience shame.
By the time I have children in a few years, breastfeeding may no longer be a controversial issue. If it is, I cannot and will not allow shaming to prevent me from nursing my children. As a woman, I’m already constantly told what not to do. Yes, society has a duty to treat women equally, but until the day of complete equality arrives, I must muster the power to be and do as I see fit. Succumbing to the cookie-cutter mentality of what a woman should do and be only harms women.
I probably will never feel 100% ready to have children, even if I 100% know I want to have them, and society is in part to blame. Why would you want to be a mother if people make it so hard to just be a mother, let alone a “good” one? Part of living a full and meaningful life requires facing my fears, including my fear of people shaming me for how I mother my children. That’s easier said than done when sexism is a reality of our culture and that’s also exactly why we need brelfies.
My choice to be a mother—and one who demands basic respect as a human being—is worth fighting for. Because no matter what the trolls say, all women have the right to define womanhood for themselves.