Target is in hot water again after employees at a Houston Target store harassed a breastfeeding mother, in contravention of their own corporate breastfeeding policy. Michelle Hickman was Christmas shopping on the evening of November 29, 2011 and had a basket full of planned purchases when her baby woke up and needed to be fed. Hickman found a quiet space to nurse her baby (as in the image above) and was harassed and humiliated by Target staff for doing so. When she complained to Target guest relations about the incident, she was further harassed by the woman on the phone and accused of “flaunting it” and was then dismissed by that woman’s supervisor too.
Nursing Mom Harassed by Target Employees, In Store and On Phone
Hickman told her story to the Best for Babes Foundation, an organization that works to beat the “booby traps” that prevent moms from meeting their own breastfeeding goals. Describing the scenario in the store, Hickman wrote about what happened after she sat down and started nursing her baby, using a nursing cover that completely covered him:
Two female employees came and verbally asked me to move. The 2nd one told me that Target employees had been told/trained to interrupt nursing and to redirect mothers to the fitting rooms. Even after I informed the 2nd employee of my legal right to nurse in public she still suggested me moving closer to the jean display, turning to face another direction, and also turn my basket a certain way which would have put me practically underneath the jean display and totally barricaded me in. Employee #2 even hinted in a threatening way “you can get a ticket and be reported for indecent exposure” when nothing was being exposed and there was more boob showing from low cut shirts several shoppers were wearing that night.
As this was happening, another three or four employees were standing around watching, shaking their heads, and “making a spectacle” or her nursing. Hickman notes that no one other than store employees even saw her nursing.
The next day, Hickman contacted the Target corporate office and spoke to a guest relations officer. She wanted to notify them of the situation and suggest that they inform their employees of a woman’s legal right to nurse in public. She describes what happened on that phone call:
The lady (I wish I would have gotten her name) told me that she and Target were aware of our legal rights as nursing mothers, but that Target has different policies because they are a family friendly public place. I can’t think of a more family friendly act than breastfeeding and providing the irrefutably proven healthiest diet to my baby. She continued to inform me repeatedly that Target’s policies were different than the law and even went as far to say several times that just because it is a woman’s right to nurse in public even without a nursing cover like I was using doesn’t mean women should walk around “flaunting it” and was extremely rude.
Hickman asked to speak to the woman’s supervisor, but didn’t get any further with the supervisor either.
Target’s Breastfeeding Policy
This isn’t the first time that breastfeeding moms have been harassed at Target. It happened in 2006 in Minneapolis and in 2009 in Michigan. Despite these incidents, Target insists that it supports breastfeeding in its stores. In a 2006 statement on its corporate policy, Target wrote:
Target has a long-standing practice that supports breastfeeding in our stores. We apologize for any inconvenience the guest experienced and will take this opportunity to reaffirm this commitment with our team members. For guests in our stores, we support the use of fitting rooms for women who wish to breastfeed their babies, even if others are waiting to use the fitting rooms. In addition, guests who choose to breastfeed discreetly in more public areas of the store are welcome to do so without being made to feel uncomfortable.
Evidently Target isn’t lacking a breastfeeding policy. However, the company obviously needs to increase training and awareness of the issue among its employees, both in stores and in the corporate offices. Also, Target should perhaps revise its policy to be in line with the law which has no requirement for women to be “discreet” about breastfeeding.
Culture is Part of the Problem
Part of the problem faced by breastfeeding mothers in the United States is that they do stand out. American culture is very focused on bottle feeding babies and on breasts being only about sex. If these Target employees were used to seeing babies breastfed in the store and outside the store every single day, there wouldn’t be any need for corporate training. The act of breastfeeding, when it is seen often, doesn’t stand out as being out of the ordinary. In other countries, where breastfeeding is the norm, these types of incidents are much less likely to happen.
In addition to the need for laws, policies and training to protect breastfeeding mothers, the United States simply needs more mothers to breastfeed openly in public in order to change the cultural paradigm that makes it seem abnormal. The fact that Target has posters of women wearing nothing more than a bra to promote their merchandise, yet will harass a woman who is breastfeeding while completely covered up shows that this is less about supposed “indecency” and more about cultural assumptions.
A series of “nurse-ins” are being planned at Target stores across the country on December 28th at 10:00am to raise awareness about a baby’s right to be fed in public.
Photo credits: Image of Michelle Hickman nursing in Target provided by Michelle Hickman. Image of bra poster in Target provided by Cara Del Favero. Both images used with permission.