The first time I was shamed for breastfeeding in public as a fat woman, I was on a train with my three-month-old baby. It was our first big day out together after a difficult birth, painful recovery, and six to eight weeks of still-traumatic latching struggles. My body was still sore, but my mind felt even more tired. I was sleep-deprived, sure, but I’d also been leading an incredibly insular and withdrawn entrance into motherhood. Luna and I had barely left the house, and I knew that my mental health might benefit from a trip to the neighboring city—a day away from piles of dirty laundry, beds stained from that relentless yellow newborn poo and a laptop that hadn’t been opened for work or fun in months (ever the reminder that I felt as though I had virtually no time in which to do anything outside of caretaking).
Of course, I hadn’t been out of the house in a while and subsequently hadn’t thought to plan a super-nursing-friendly ensemble. I wore a T-shirt and leggings, which meant that when my daughter needed to eat, I needed to lift up my top in a less than “discreet” manner.
“No one wants to see that,” I heard a teenager not-really-whisper from the seats directly across the corridor from mine. “Ugh,” his girlfriend replied. “I would never take my clothes off if I looked like her.”
If I hadn’t been deep in the throes of postnatal depression and anxiety, maybe I would’ve said something to them—something about the importance of feeding my kid, or bodily autonomy, or fat people’s right to exist and procreate and nurse their offspring, or the fact that publicly breastfeeding is not an invitation to treat someone’s body like public property. Instead, I choked back my tears and tried to get through the rest of the blessedly short journey.
Five years and two children into motherhood, I’ve come to realize that these hateful displays are not uncommon. They exist as prime examples of the intersection of breastfeeding shame and fatphobia.
This was the first but certainly not the last instance of jarring public ridicule associated with my choice to nurse. I met an elderly man at the doctor’s office once who, upon seeing me nursing my kid, said, “A lady your size should really do that in the bathroom, dear.” Approaching my daughter’s first birthday, I took her to the park. It was there that a group of thin, conventionally attractive mothers (some of whom were breastfeeding their own babies) snickered and giggled in my direction when I raised my own clothes. The sight of my side rolls no doubt scandalized them.
Five years and two children into motherhood, I’ve come to realize that these hateful displays are not uncommon. They exist as prime examples of the intersection of breastfeeding shame and fatphobia. I’d like to believe that as conversations about the right to nurse become more and more discussed in public dialogue, the stigmatization around this wholly typical act is decreasing. Thankfully, I know a lot of thin mothers who’ve never faced judgment for it at all. Unfortunately, I don’t know any fat mothers who’ve never been criticized for daring to display some of their bodies while also feeding their kids.
In combination with a lack of plus-size breastfeeding representation in media and the difficulty of finding nursing-friendly plus-size apparel, the messaging feels clear and, experientially speaking, unforgettable to me. Socioculturally speaking, there are many people out there who simply don’t want to see or think about fat folks’ bodies, let alone slightly exposed fat folks’ bodies as they nurse a child. It has taken decades of activism for the act of breastfeeding in and of itself to be considered suitable for public environments. It’s taken decades for the idea that nursing isn’t “dirty” or “untoward.”
Even in an era of increased fat-positive or body-positive influencers, journalists, actors, musicians, authors, and educators, however, one could argue that the idea that fat people are dirty, unattractive, flawed, and burdensome is still alive and well. The people who shamed me over the course of my two breastfeeding experiences with my daughter were never specifically shaming me for nursing in public, after all, but for nursing in public at my size.
Perhaps it isn’t just a case of seeing slightly exposed fat bodies in a culture that hates fat. If I delve more deeply into people’s compulsions to snark at fat breastfeeders, there might be something more sinister at play still. In the vast majority of cases, fat people who breastfeed have likely birthed their children. Fat people who have birthed their children have, usually, had to engage in intimate encounters in order to become pregnant with those children in the first place. This means that all around the world there are fat people who are having sex—fat people expressing their sexualities, fat people being desired and desiring, fat people refusing to deny themselves pleasure regardless of existing in bodies so regularly condemned.
I don’t know how conscious the vast majority of the people I personally encountered were of their biases. I never really know how conscious anyone is of the prejudices they maintain, particularly when it comes to the pervasive anti-fat variety. I do know that I hope to see more conversations about the intersection of fatphobia and breastfeeding-related shaming. There weren’t many to be found when I had my eldest daughter, and it was easy enough to become paranoid that I was exaggerating or imagining these interactions that had made me feel so terribly uncomfortable. I wasn’t, though. In the same way that people have fought for their right to nurse in public, I hope that we can fight for our right to nurse in public, regardless of how “pretty” or “fit” we may be considered to be.