Breastfeeding conflicts draw ire of 'lactivists'

>Vancouver woman considering filing complaint against WestJet after being asked by flight attendant to cover up while nursing baby


August 8, 2008

VANCOUVER -- A Vancouver woman says she's poised to file a human-rights complaint against WestJet after being asked to cover up while nursing her baby on a recent flight, another sign of the clash between the rights of breastfeeding mothers and social unease over seeing bare breasts in public.

Those tensions spilled into a busy shopping mall in downtown Vancouver yesterday as dozens of women lifted their shirts, unsnapped their maternity bras, and latched their babies onto their breasts for a public "nurse-in."
The women were protesting after a Vancouver mother was asked to retreat to a dressing room to nurse her baby at the H&M clothing shop last Saturday.
The turnout of "lactivists" drew attention to recurring flare-ups between mothers who breastfeed in the open, and public squeamishness about the sight.

Another Vancouver mother, teacher Erin Tarbuck, said a flight attendant offered her a blanket after she had "discreetly" lifted her shirt to breastfeed her son just before takeoff on a July 2 flight between Montreal and Vancouver.
Ms. Tarbuck twice declined, but the flight attendant gave her the blanket anyway.

"She said that some men find the sight of a bare breast quite offensive," Ms. Tarbuck, a high-school teacher, said yesterday. The only other people in the row were her husband and two children.

WestJet said it was sorry if the incident made Ms. Tarbuck uncomfortable, but insisted the flight attendant did not act improperly.

"Some guests may be uncomfortable with a woman's bare breast even when it is her right to feed her child," the company wrote to Ms. Tarbuck on July 29 after she sent a formal complaint.

A WestJet spokesman said yesterday from Calgary that the company believes the move by the flight attendant was "reasonable."

"This was just an opportunity to suggest to [Ms. Tarbuck] that she could cover up," Richard Bartrem said.

Ms. Tarbuck said she is considering filing a human-rights complaint against WestJet, arguing that "if I had been wearing scanty, revealing clothes, no one would have asked me to cover up," she said. "But they want my son to eat under a blanket."

Meanwhile, at the "nurse-in" at H&M, women sat on store displays next to purses and shirts, and kneeled on the floor beneath racks of pants, their babies nursing quietly at their breasts. Customers nearby rifled through racks of clothes or looked on with bemusement.

Not everyone was certain what to make of the protest.

"I guess I'm old-fashioned," 55-year-old Audrey Johnston, a grandmother from Cranbrook, B.C., said as she paused from her shopping to glance over at cluster of babies, strollers and mothers (and a few dads).
"I know it's natural. There are a lot of natural things in life but it doesn't mean we have to air them publicly. If it's discreet I don't care. But some people find it embarrassing to find somebody's breast exposed.