Why Does Breastfeeding Make Us So Uncomfortable?

Jennifer Howard just wanted to ask about postpartum depression. But she got more than she expected at the doctor’s office.

After the Oregon mother went to nurse her crying 3-month-old, Evelyn, in the exam room, the doctor stopped her. He requested that for she cover up, and Howard was befuddled.

“And he said yes, to cover yourself while you’re breastfeeding and I said, ‘Well, no doctor has ever asked me to do that before,’” Howard tells ABC11. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s a rule we have to prevent lawsuits from something inappropriate.”

She’s since issued a complaint, calling the experience “humiliating.” As ABC notes, the doctor’s request was illegal. In the state, no one can force someone nursing a child in a public place to cover up.

Howard isn’t alone. Just this year, people have asked breastfeeders cover up at restaurants, fired them from jobs for asking for a private room to pump milk in and barged in on those pumping milk in the bathroom.

Stephanie Ellingson-Buchanan even had the police ask her to leave a Minnesota public pool. Another mother had complained because she didn’t want her sons to see someone nursing.

Society simultaneously encourages women to nurse their infants and shames them for doing so. As we observe World Breastfeeding Week, we need to reexamine this practice. After all, the stigma of breastfeeding is grounded in long-standing sexism, classism and racism that just won’t go away.

American culture has sexualized breasts for a while. As author Amy Bentley notes on Slate, the obsession intensified with sex symbols like pin-up posters during World War II and Marilyn Monroe. Breasts started to represent men’s desires, rather than the needs of women and their babies.

As breasts became more sexualized, they became less functional: more the purview of men as sexual objects and less the domain of infants and as a source of food,” Bentely notes. ”As this transformation continued, breast-feeding, especially in public, became less normal and more taboo, and by midcentury most Americans attached a vague sense of disgust to the practice.”

People continue to objectify anyone with breasts today. And not even children are immune.

One Florida school demanded that a teenager put band-aids on her nipples when she didn’t wear a bra one day. According to the student, officials said they were a “distraction to boys in [her] class.”

The aversion to breastfeeding comes from a similar place: assuming that someone’s breasts are always sexual and inappropriate to be seen in public. This is yet another way society tries to control bodies it perceives to be female.

Then there’s the twisted history of baby food. Bentley reports that early advertising positioned breastfeeding as “primitive” — code for non-Western and/or non-white — and baby food as “civilized” — read American and white. It wasn’t until the 1970s that advertisements featured a black baby.

Bentley writes about this in more detail in her book, “Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet.”

To be sure, attitudes toward breastfeeding have improved. A 2015 survey found that about 6 in 10 Americans think “women should have the right to breastfeed in public places.”

But at the same time, breastfeeding is still punished. Travelers, for one, pump milk in airport restrooms because they don’t have another place to go.

On top of all the other struggles new parents face – lack of paid parental leave, the “motherhood penalty,” cuts to government social programs, expensive childcare and, of course, raising a new life — trying to find a safe, comfortable place to feed an infant undisturbed shouldn’t be one of them.


Are you sick of the stigma of nursing? Sign this Care2 petition to ask the clinic to penalize the doctor who asked Jennifer Howard to “cover up” when breastfeeding.

Creating a Care2 petition is easy. If you have an issue you care deeply about, why not start your own petition? Here are some guidelines to help you get started and soon the Care2 community will be signing up to support you.


Photo Credit: Wes Hicks/Unsplash


Chad A
Chad A4 months ago

Petition signed.

Chad A
Chad A4 months ago

Thank you.

Ruth S
Ruth S4 months ago

I breast fed my children. The first was in 1972! Doesn't make me uncomfortable!

Ruth S
Ruth S4 months ago


Ben O
Ben O4 months ago

Doesn't make me uncomfortable, not at all...

Karen H
Karen H4 months ago

Can't believe so many women here think an exposed female breast is disgusting. Do you not have mirrors at home? Do you cover them up because you feel your body is disgusting? How puritanical! If it offends you: DON'T LOOK!

Dave fleming
Past Member 4 months ago

Natural just as nature intended .

Olivia M
Olivia M4 months ago

I'm fine with it.

Madison Idso
Madison I4 months ago

It is natural so I don't understand why people are so uncomfortable.

Barbara Idso
Barbara I5 months ago

When I breastfed my children I didn't care if it made anyone uncomfortable.It is my right to feed my child and other people don't have to look. Grow up America!