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Facebook's breastfeeding ban

Facebook's negative reaction to photos of breastfeeding show how far we have to go to accept what should be a cultural norm.

January 13, 2009

Facebook, the popular social networking website, provoked a squall of maternal wrath when it yanked photos of breastfeeding babies that women had posted on their personal profiles because it deemed them a little too revealing. This, by the way, from a website that allows photos of women in thongs and bikinis and of couples making out; it has even accepted paid advertising for a dating website that featured a topless model. (The topless ad was taken down after angry women noted the hypocrisy.)

In response to the terse notices alerting mothers that they were violating Facebook's decency policy, "lactivists" responded with a virtual nurse-in; 11,000 women posted photos of themselves breastfeeding and/or updated their profiles to read: "Hey, Facebook. Breastfeeding Is Not Obscene!" Within days, 47,000 women had joined the "Hey, Facebook" cause, and by late last week, more than 150,000 had signed on.

Why does this policy matter? Because Facebook, with 140 million members around the world, has more denizens than many countries. The Internet is a powerful force in shaping cultural norms, and breastfeeding is a normal -- and very healthy -- part of raising a child.

What's discouraging is that we've been through this already. In 1997, then-California Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored legislation clarifying that public breastfeeding is neither indecent exposure nor cause for embarrassment, and Gov. Pete Wilson signed it into law. Today, 46 states specifically protect a woman's right to breastfeed in public, and no state specifically outlaws public nursing. That's not to say mothers aren't hassled -- as a society, we're still a bit squeamish about the sight of a woman's breast and nursing baby.

Breastfeeding has gone in and out of vogue as frequently as bell bottoms. At the turn of the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of women breastfed their babies. By the end of World War II, modern mothers had embraced the bottle and Madison Avenue's pitches for the superior nutritional value of baby formula. Today, we know better. Breast milk is best for babies' health and development, and it's good for mothers too, lowering their risk of osteoporosis and breast cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies have breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life and that nursing continue for at least a year.

The fact is, nursing infants may need to be fed as often as 12 times a day. We should get used to the sight, on airplanes and in restaurants, on a park bench or in a bookstore. And yes, in cyberspace.

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