Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lactivism, Nurse-ins, and Victoria's Secret

At last count, 39 states (and a few cities) have enacted legislation protecting the right of mothers to breastfeed in public. Usually this legislation exempts breastfeeding from public indecency laws, with language stating that a woman has the right to breastfeed "anywhere she is legally allowed to be" or something similar. Federal legislation on the topic ensures the right to breastfeed on federal property. None of the legislation, to my knowledge, has any "teeth"; that is, there is no fine (so far) or remedy in tort for a mother who has wrongfully been asked to move, cover up, or stop breastfeeding (but see Scotland, which levies a fine).
One could argue that there is an inherent right to breastfeed in public without legislation, but that is beside the point.

Lactivists, however, have developed their own disincentive for businesses who give nursing moms a hard time: the Nurse-In. Basically, it works like this: You own a business. One of your employees asks a customer to stop breastfeeding in your place of business, otherwise open to the public. Or cover up. Or go to the restroom to nurse. Either on their own whim, or at the request of another customer. Regardless of how the situation is resolved, mom goes back home, and complains of the incident on her blog, on her email and discussion groups, at her La Leche League meeting, etc. And the news will spread like wildfire. Promom will start a letter writing campaign. The incident will be discussed to death on Mothering Magazine's discussion forums. Hawthor the Cow Goddess will write a cartoon about you. Your business will be on the evening news.

If you act quickly, offer an apology, and promise to change your company policy and educate your employees on the law, you may be able to avoid the Nurse-In. Maybe not. What will happen is that on a given day, at a given hour, anywhere from two to a hundred women with nursing infants (and some without) will come to your establishment and nurse their babies. If, by the time of the Nurse-In, you have apologized and made nice, the lactivists will eat at your restaurant, shop in your store, and be friendly. If you are stupid enough to still profess to be in the right by this point, they will stand on the sidewalk, or across the street, carry signs, and eat at your competitor's restaurant.

On June 21st and 22nd, there were two separate incidents (in Boston, MA and Burlington, WI) where women who were shopping at Victoria's Secrets were asked to use a public restroom instead of a changing room or nursing in the store. In case you miss the high irony of the situation, here are some quotes from the Blogging Baby article:

[S]he had been asked "to nurse in the restroom because the sight of her breasts might offend a customer."
Imagine, Victoria's Secret customers offended by the sight of breasts!
When she refused to nurse in the bathroom, she was told that "it was unsanitary for her to nurse in the dressing room because people change in them."
And restrooms are more sanitary?

If this had been the first such incident for Victoria's Secret, it might have been forgivable, but sadly it is not. After you get some bad press on this once, you think you'd get the word out to your managers and employees. Also, Victoria's Secret does not carry nursing bras (although I do own two of their bras and manage to nurse in them quite comfortably), even though sexy fashionable nursing wear is quite hot right now.

Anyhow, these two women started a nationwide protest - yesterday at 1:00 pm Nurse-Ins were taking place at VSs across the US. (I tried to blog about this two days ago but ran out of time. If you wanted to go and were depending on me to give you the heads up, you need to get out more often). They were met with varying degrees of response from the VS employees, from complete ignorance of the Nurse-In, to a pleasant "yes, we have been told to expect you" welcome. A couple minor run-ins with mall security, but no arrests as far as I know. Also clear from the post-Nurse-In debriefing; the problem with scheduling these things is, sometimes babies just don't want to nurse at 1pm on a Saturday in the middle of a mall. It's hard to have a protest when half your participants don't feel like participating.

I hope, by the tone of this post, I don't seem unsympathetic to, or critical of, the Nurse-In as a form of social protest. I actually think it is quite effective and might have joined had my domestic schedule been otherwise. But I am looking at it from the point of view of the business owner, for whom it is a major, yet very avoidable, public relations fiasco. On the other hand, as they say, there is no such thing as bad press.

I have two pet peeves, one for each side. I hate it when businesses say "our company policy permits nursing in our store." I want to scream when I hear that. In a state where breastfeeding in public is permitted by law, it is not up to the business to "permit" or "forbid" breastfeeding on their premesis. They can be welcoming or not, educate their employees or not, but it is not up to them to "allow" it.

On the other side, almost all of the articles about the Nurse-In will quote someone saying something like "you see more in their magazines and store windows than you do when a mother nurses". While technically that is true, and I am in no way defending Victoria's Secret's (and popular culture in general's) abhorent lack of modesty, it is all about nipples. In our society, you can show all of the breast but that. Any any woman who claims that all of the nipple is in the baby's mouth while breastfeeding in public is either lying, or has unusually small nipples (or a baby with an unusually large mouth) . Ok, sorry to be so blunt, and please don't leave me nasty comments, but it's the truth.

Here are a few links, and I'll update with some of the better news items as they trickle in:

Breastfeeding Moms Blast Victoria's Secret in Nationwide Protests
Victoria's Dirty Little Secret
Reluctant Lactivist Breastfeeding mothers to stage protest at Asheville Mall
Fox 42 Nebraska
Huntsville Times

**Update 7/05/2006**

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a truly sensational and bizarre article:
Lactation and lacy lingerie were the subjects of a national nurse-in Saturday as breast-feeding mothers across the country let their kids chug-a-lug in front of Victoria's Secret stores.

Fifteen mothers armed with hungry babies gathered on the sidewalk outside the Crocker Park Victoria's Secret store in Westlake where scantily clad mannequins seemed delighted by the peaceful, half-hour demonstration.

"It's kind of ironic that Victoria's Secret, which plasters breasts everywhere, is offended at seeing breasts used for their intended purpose," said Anna Mauser-Martinez, who organized the local nurse-in and volunteered that she happened to be wearing a pair of Victoria's Secret underwear.
Back on the sidewalk, the mothers caught Aaron Bonk's eye. A juggler and stilt walker, he towered over them on 4-foot stilts. "Oh," Bonk said, sounding surprised. "You're nursing right here? Good!"

Looking up from her suckling child, Amy Klomfas said, "It'd be fun to breast-feed on stilts" - a notion that Bonk advised against.


Nurse Jenny said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amy said...

hi...i made the stilts comment...i THOUGHT of out of earshot of the reporter. *shakes head* however, the nurse-in actually went remarkably well.