Sigh. Here we go again.
People are currently in an uproar over a photo of a mother breastfeeding her daughter taken while at her college graduation. 25-year-old Karlesha Thurman posted the photo to the Black Women Do Breastfeed Facebook page, which reposted it for her, and it quickly went viral. Many people were shocked and appalled at what they saw.
Here’s what I saw. I saw a woman who managed to make it through an undergrad program with a young baby and still managed to figure out a way to breastfeed. I saw a woman who is also a mom and a student doing her thing and being proud of it. I saw someone normalizing something that should already be seen as “normal” in our society, but sadly isn’t.
I also saw a little bit of myself in Thurman’s picture. I was in grad school when I got pregnant and handed in my thesis project only weeks before giving birth. When it came time for graduation, I had a five-month-old, and while timing worked out that he didn’t need to feed during the actual graduation, I did proudly nurse him during a special luncheon following our graduation, before giving a speech to my fellow graduate students. This was before social media was really big, but had it happened more recently, I may have posted a selfie while nursing. Graduating while parenting is an awesome accomplishment, and I certainly understand Thurman’s pride.
Her photo, however, got the usual bashing from people who somehow take umbrage with a baby being fed in public when the feeding involves breasts instead of bottles. Time and time again pictures or stories like Thurman’s pop up, spurring an inevitable freakout over breastfeeding. Why is that? Have we become so conditioned to viewing breasts solely as sexualized body parts that anything outside that immediately causes people to wave their Puritan flags in protest?
Beyond normalizing breastfeeding as part of daily life, Thurman has also provided one more visual for Black women in particular, which is significant. Black babies are breastfed at lower rates than white babies, and many health and advocacy groups have struggled to find ways to help increase those rates within the Black community. As the Black Women Do Breastfeed Facebook page pointed out in the wake of Thurman’s viral photo:
“The dominant narrative surrounding Black women breastfeeding (in the US, particularly) was that we don’t do it. It was as if the community of Black breastfeeding women, that I knew existed, was all but rendered invisible. There were (and still are) other bloggers out there trying to do the work of promoting breastfeeding among Black women. I thought that this page would be my contribution. I wanted to show that even though there are lower rates of breastfeeding for Black women (in the US) when compared to other races, that there are still more than a few of us that DO breastfeed. I wanted other Black women to know that they are not alone, even if they feel like they are the only Black woman in the their family that has breastfed in generations. I wanted Black women to know that it is a viable option for us. Breastfeeding doesn’t just belong to other races or cultures.
So if Thurman’s jubilant photograph provides one more positive visual for women of color? Even better.
Thankfully for Thurman, the Black Women Do Breastfeed page and other breastfeeding pages like it, in a stunning turn of events, Facebook just recently amended their policies in order to allow pictures of nursing mothers, even if there’s a hint of nipple. In the past, Facebook has had no problem with deleting pictures of women breastfeeding, or suspending users who have posted pictures of themselves nursing.
Time will tell if Facebook actually lives up to this change in policy. But it can be a huge step in helping to normalize breastfeeding for all women, because clearly, we have a long way to go.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamfesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.