Monday, January 30, 2012

Was Facebook right to remove breastfeeding photos?

If you know me, you know how I feel about over-sharing on Facebook and other social media sites.  I've even written about people who need a Facebook intervention here. I have chosen to draw a very clear line between my personal and professional life, especially when it comes to my online activity.  There are no photos of my children on my Facebook page and there never will be, until they're old enough to have their own pages and decide for themselves.  I realize that this approach is considered extreme by some parents and while I feel strongly about this, I don't judge other parents who are more comfortable with this kind of sharing.

So I was intrigued by a recent story about a Canadian mother of three who is angry that Facebook removed her candid breastfeeding photos on the grounds that photos which contain a fully exposed breast violate their terms.  This mother has already had 20 images removed from Facebook and has had her account access revoked on four separate occasions. She claims that, by removing the photos, Facebook sends the message that breastfeeding in public not acceptable and that the natural and nourishing act of breastfeeding is shameful and should be hidden.

As a mother, I believe in breastfeeding.  I accept it as natural, nourishing and, sometimes, beautiful.  I'm amazed that nature has imbued us with everything we need to take care of our offspring and get them off to a healthy start.  I also know from personal experience and countless anecdotes from friends, that it's not always easy, is sometimes impossible and doesn't always fit in to the lifestyle of a new mother.  I believe that every mother has a choice and though your choice might not be my choice, I wouldn't tell any new mother there is a right way and a wrong way to feed her baby.

As a person who is passionate about discretion, I tried to avoid breastfeeding in public but as any new mom knows, babies decide when they're hungry.  So when it was necessary, I looked for a private area and covered up as much as possible.  I didn't do this because I thought it was embarrassing, unnatural, or shameful. I did it because I am not personally comfortable revealing that much of myself in public and I was also sensitive to the discomfort of those around me in a public setting such as a restaurant or family gathering.  So, after reading the article, I tweeted a link to to it and asked if it was really necessary to share such explicit photos. I soon learned that this is a very sensitive issue with the propensity to get muddled very quickly.  I was immediately bombarded with tweets from activists on what a wonderful, natural and beautiful thing breastfeeding is and how questions like mine just serve to continue the cycle of shame associated with doing it in public. Of course, I had never questioned its nature, beauty or wonder but in questioning it at all, I was perceived to be against it.  The discourse on this story, in forums and comments boards, contains much of the same sentiment even though, to me and many others, the question was never about the value of breastfeeding but rather, if Facebook was the best forum for such an intimate conversation and if it was fair to insist that Facebook, a private company, adapt its policies to appease its users.

I know that it is fruitless to argue with people whose intention is not to share another perspective but to change your opinion so I asked for more information to help me see what I was missing.  I was told that Facebook is the perfect forum for this because we need to "normalize" breastfeeding in our culture.  As a mother who has given birth twice in the last decade, I had assumed that breastfeeding was already normalized, in Ontario anyway.  I started to receive breastfeeding education (formally and informally) the minute my first pregnancy was confirmed and the barrage of information, tips, advice and guidance didn't stop until well after I delivered my first child.  Shortly after the birth of my second child, I was hospitalized for an infection.  This made breastfeeding very difficult and my son quickly lost a lot of weight.  Even then, I was surrounded by health care professionals who insisted that I continue to breastfeed -- through illness, fever and delirium -- when my every instinct was telling me that the child just needed to be fed and the source of the food was not important. This experience convinced me that breastfeeding is firmly established in our culture.

So, I'm torn about this issue.  If, as the advocates claim, there are women in Canada who don't have any access to breastfeeding information and who might turn to Facebook as their only source for tips on how to do it successfully, I guess photos like this help and Facebook should learn to tell the difference between exposed breasts that are pornographic in nature and those that are performing the most natural of functions.  On the other hand, my natural penchant towards discretion tells me that just because something is natural doesn't mean everyone in my circle needs to see it. My days feature many "natural" occurrences and some things that could be deemed "beautiful" but most of them are private.  I might share bits and pieces in the company of close friends but I wouldn't feel comfortable making them public to all my friends, acquaintances and business associates. But that's me.

In chatting with people about this story, I've realized that it's a polarizing topic.  Few people sit on the proverbial fence when it comes to the need to "normalize" breastfeeding.  For the most part, people are in one of two camps, only distinguished by the degree to which they believe they are right.  I've since heard that in the wake of overwhelming outcry, Facebook has apologized to the mother in question and I supposed that, in the end, like all things social media, the public will decide what is and isn't appropriate.

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