Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding

'Shares that contain nudity, pornography, or sexual content are not permitted on Facebook … refrain from posting abusive material in the future.'

This is the standard response hundreds of women have received from Facebook, when photos of them breastfeeding their children were found to be offensive. And it has caused much ado, with a large number of women writing to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to protest and others staging ''nurse-ins'' outside Facebook offices from Tokyo to Dallas to Sydney.

Despite the legal right to breastfeed any time, any place, nursing children in public remains inexplicably controversial. Breastfeeding mothers are still being humiliated, asked to leave stores or to feed in toilets.

The controversy has even hit comic books. Last month the well-regarded illustrator Dave Dorman wrote a post on his popular blog venting his disgust at a cover for the Saga series featuring breastfeeding, although no suckling, nipple or even cleavage can be seen.

In fact, the majority of breastfeeding images deemed ''offensive'' in these various examples show comparable skin to an uncontroversial low-cut top and less flesh than even a standard bikini.

By definition, the nipple is covered by the mouth of a child when a child is breastfeeding. Every magazine stand in the Westernised world and rafts of advertising images feature a sea of exposed female upper body flesh. See that Vogue cover with the plunging gown? Is it offensive? Now imagine that a baby's head is covering the nipple, instead of designer silk. Now is the image offensive? Why?

It's not the skin we have a problem with, but the act of breastfeeding itself. And that response has been taught to us.

It wasn't always this way. Popular American children's program Sesame Street once routinely showed breastfeeding, but since the '90s it has reportedly shown only babies being fed by bottle. In one older episode, for example, Sonia Manzano, who starred on the show as ''Maria'', breastfed her real-life child, and a child actor asked her if that was ''the only way to feed her?'' Maria responded simply: ''Sometimes I feed her with a bottle. But you know? I like this way best. It's natural, it's good for her and I get a chance to hug her some more.''

Children do not find breasts offensive or sexual until we teach them to, and the complaints of people like Dorman, or those who report breastfeeding images on Facebook, reveal a learnt bias that may ultimately be damaging. What is the signal being transmitted here about breastfeeding? Since when did the natural way of feeding your child come to be seen as offensive or controversial?

Our rates of exclusive breastfeeding in Australia are at a low 14 per cent at the medically recommended six-month mark - about half the world average. Most women know about the benefits for mums and babies - lowered cancer rates, fewer infections.

The latest statistics, for example, show that an estimated 53 per cent of diarrhoea hospitalisations could be prevented each month by exclusive breastfeeding. Breastfed babies have 15 per cent fewer doctor visits in the first six months, and since the discovery of stem cells in breast milk in 2009, we can expect to learn more about the role of breast milk in human health in the future.

Despite this knowledge, and despite the fact that about 90 per cent of Australian women are breastfeeding when they leave hospital, they are quitting early. They need to know that breastfeeding is normal and acceptable once life inevitably involves feeding a child outside closed doors - at the supermarket, the park, or the office.

Thankfully Facebook has updated its policy to directly respond to the breastfeeding issue: ''Yes. We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful, and we're very glad to know that it is important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook. The vast majority of these photos are compliant with our policies, and we will not take action on them.''

As South Australia's Minister for the Status of Women, Gail Gago, says: ''Such pictures can help portray normalisation of breastfeeding and be educative.''

Our choices are heavily influenced by what we see and what society portrays as normal or aspirational. It's why advertisers spend billions of dollars a year. In a very real way, visibility is acceptance.

Tara Moss is a bestselling author and the UNICEF Australia patron of breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Health Initiative.