Hong Kong culture isn’t to blame for the stigma of breastfeeding in public. Misogyny is
- If health authorities are serious about their stated aim to encourage breastfeeding, then more must be done to make it easier for women in nurse in public. This means normalising breastfeeding in a city too used to sexualising a woman’s body
“Cover yourself!” she screamed before leaping from her seat, shoving past me and my baby, taking a position by the bus door to glare and tut in disgust. My crime? Nursing my baby – uncovered and in public. I refused, adding simply: “I am more covered up than you are.”
In her hysteria at seeing a slither of breast as a mother met her infant's needs, she had failed to realise her outfit was more revealing than mine, and succinctly summed up the hypocrisy that surrounds nursing mothers in Hong Kong.
Breasts are routinely used on billboards to advertise everything from underwear and perfume to jewellery and plastic surgery, and a casual walk through a city where thigh-high boots, miniskirts, string tops and short shorts are part of the sartorial lexicon gives no indication women are expected to dress modestly for cultural reasons.
But even as they invest millions in city-wide health campaigns and education programmes in public hospitals to promote breastfeeding, the practice is being undermined by institutional misogyny masquerading as cultural concerns, inadequate maternity leave, and few workplace provisions for mothers to pump when they do go back.
In 2015, my eldest was born preterm at Queen Mary Hospital; I needed emergency surgery and he needed special care. My recovery time meant I lost precious hours and when I finally saw him, tiny, in an incubator, attached to monitors due to hypoglycemia, but breathing fine by himself, I instinctively wanted to hold and nurse him. Surrounded by posters hailing the importance of breastfeeding, I assumed I was in a safe place to try.
The nurses had other ideas – and insisted I go into a private room because “male doctors may mind”.
What kind of doctors are upset by basic human biology? What kind of message are we sending new mothers when we prioritise imagined offence over maternal and infant well-being?
The tired explanation is people might be upset for “cultural reasons”, followed swiftly by fears “men and children might see”. Two generations ago, it was not unusual to see women in Hong Kong nurse in the open, so this culture of offence is new and arguably a puritanical hangover from the colonial period.
Breastfeeding is the biological norm; yet, somehow, today we are fighting to normalise it. It was always meant to be woven seamlessly into our daily lives – done whenever, however, and wherever was necessary – and our partners and children were meant to be part of it.
Breastfeeding is a learned skill and in the beginning it is not easy. How can it be? Mothers are trying to grow a human with their own specially created super fuel at a time when their body has been through its biggest, most brutal challenge. And yet because it is so hidden, it is often a shock to new parents that it can be painful, exhausting, that infants nurse not just when they are hungry, but when they are thirsty, overwhelmed, in need of comfort, or simply want to be close.
Nursing in public for the first time is already awkward, particularly in a hot, humid city, and babies don't necessarily comply with covers. For those who prefer privacy, Hong Kong’s malls offer excellent nursing rooms, but they are few and in demand. Far better if we could make it easier on women and end the stigma of breastfeeding in public.
In some countries, it is illegal to separate puppies from their mothers before they reach eight weeks. Until January this year, Hong Kong's statutory maternity leave effectively afforded human babies, arguably born more helpless, the same time frame with their mothers. It has now increased to 14 weeks but that remains woefully short.
The government expects us to deliver on its goals to grow Hong Kong’s economy and population, and has put in few provisions to help working mothers.
Government guidelines urge employers to enable working women to pump in the workplace but there is no law to insist on its implementation. As a result, mothers are still being forced to pump in toilets, storerooms, even stairwells and corridors. And instead of being commended for their commitment, they are treated as a nuisance.
Little wonder then that women feel breastfeeding is simply not worth the effort.
If we insist breastfeeding remains in the shadows, then the only images young people will see of breasts are either to sell or to seduce. We need to change the narrative and bring it into the light.
LT Thomas is a journalist with more than 15 years’ experience. She is also the co-founder of the #Ittasteslikelove campaign to normalise breastfeeding in Hong Kong and also runs zero-waste social enterpise Food Savior