By Monica Kim | Vogue | 10 May 2016
This weekend, a group of some 100 young mothers gathered in Hong Kong to protest the stigma of breast-feeding in public with a simple act of defiance: nursing their babies out in the open. Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Washington, D.C., a troop of active-duty military servicewomen stood on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, feeding their children in uniform. It’s no coincidence that these two disparate groups stood up for a common cause—only proof that support for breast-feeding has become a growing focus for women’s rights activists, the world over.
Lately, it’s everywhere you look: Late last month, eco-conscious fashion brand Reformation featured a nursing model dressed in a floral wrap dress and a spotted slip, drawing both applause and disdain. Then there’s the rise of the “brelfie,” or breast-feeding selfie, particularly among celebrities: From Gisele Bündchen to Chrissy Teigen, who Snapchatted herself mid-feeding on Monday, women are bringing the act out into the open.
According to France Begin, UNICEF’s senior advisor for infant nutrition, the conversation has shifted significantly over the past year, thanks in large part to public figures taking a stand on social media. But even though public breast-feeding is legal in almost all 50 states, it remains, for many, a taboo. “A lot of mothers stop breast-feeding before they want to,” she says. “Whether there’s no paid maternity leave, no policies in the workplace to support them to take nursing breaks, or no space to breast-feed—they don’t have a choice.” In that regard, breast-feeding is inextricably linked to other cornerstones of the women’s rights movement.
In China, initiatives like the 10m2 of Love campaign have led to the rise of public breast-feeding spaces in malls and parks, while on a grassroots level, there is Normalize Breastfeeding, a project started in 2014 by San Diego photographer Vanessa Simmons, which also organized the meetup in D.C. “It’s about bringing the moms to the forefront and bringing the community together,” Simmons says of the series of intimate photographs—a woman in Army green, kneeling on a marble floor; an infant peering up at her mother. And the momentum is growing from there: Next week at Women Deliver, a global women’s rights conference to be held in Copenhagen, UNICEF will hold sessions to address the barriers faced by breast-feeding women, along with a roundtable including representatives from global governments, NGOs, and the private sector. “We’re making noise,” Begin says, “but there’s still a lot to go.”