Boobs On a Plane! Breastfeeding Mom Told: Cover Up

by Carrie Murphy

What a way to celebrate National Breastfeeding Month: a woman who was recently told to cover herself while breastfeeding on an American Airlines flight has learned that the airline's policy actually supports telling women to cover themselves while feeding their children. Uh, what?

As shared on Hannah Butta's Facebook page, a woman and mother (who wished to remain anonymous) described the situation she encountered a few weeks ago:

“On July 21, 2013 my husband and I were travelling home with our 5 month-old son on an American Airlines flight. After lift-off, I allowed our son to begin nursing as it helps his ears not hurt and prevents him from crying for the rest of the flight. I was sitting in the window seat, my husband was sitting in the center seat, and our son’s head was toward the window so no one could really see what was going on. There was a girl about ten or twelve years old sitting in the aisle seat next to my husband. She had her headphones on and was chatting with her friends in surrounding seats – my son’s eating did not seem to be bothering her."

She continued:

A few minutes after my son started nursing, a stewardess walked by our row, shook her head at me, and shot me a very displeased look. I told my husband, and we both agreed that she probably wouldn’t go any further, since I was being discreet and no one else seemed bothered. A few minutes later, the same stewardess returned to our row, leaned over the girl in the aisle seat, and told me (after a bit of hesitation as she couldn’t find her words) that I needed to put a blanket over my son “because there are kids on this flight.” My husband promptly responded that there was no problem with what I was doing and that we preferred to not use a blanket. The stewardess left our row and walked to the back of the plane. A few minutes later, she returned again and told the young lady in the aisle seat, “I’m going to move you back here because you’re probably really uncomfortable.” By that time, our my son was asleep and the girl had yet to take notice in my nursing of him.

According to the woman, no other passengers voiced complaints to her or her husband, and she did not hear any complaints made to airline staff, either. Rightfully incensed about the treatment she received, she wrote to American Airlines and received a letter that stated:

"To offer some clarity, we certainly do allow breast-feeding of infants on our flights. However, because of the offense that may be taken by others within the close confines of commercial aircraft, we simple ask that breast-feeding be done with certain discretion and a sense of modesty. We believe it is reasonable to ask that the mother cover-up in an appropriate manner during the feeding..."

Although I guess it makes sense that American Airlines can set their own policies, I'm shocked that the airline would even have a policy saying that "we ask that breast-feeding be done with certain discretion and a sense of modesty," considering that the majority of US states have laws which state that women can breastfeed in any public or private location — without using a cover. (P.S. American Airlines, breastfeeding is just one hyphen necessary). I'm not a lawyer, obviously, but I think airplanes are considered private property, so shouldn't they be covered under these kinds of laws? (The woman in question was on a flight from Los Angeles to Virginia. California allows for breastfeeding anywhere and Virginia exempts breastfeeding from public indecency laws). Interestingly, American is the only airline with an official policy on breastfeeding, at least according to this 2012 article by travel advocate Christopher Elliott. This also isn't the first time American has offended a breastfeeding mom.

Regardless of their policy, it sounds as if this mom was shamed by American's flight attendant, which is never appropriate. It also sounds as this mother was in the optimal location on the plane for "modesty," in a window seat with her own husband next to her. I understand that some people may not want to see a woman breastfeeding, but that doesn't mean that people's personal preferences should infringe on her right to feed her child whenever and wherever she wants. Using public transportation (hell, going out in public!) comes with an inherent risk that you might see or experience things you'd rather not see or experience, from a parent disciplining his or her child, a person wearing inappropriate clothing to a person using offensive language and yes, a woman breastfeeding.

While concerns about politeness and modesty aren't unjustified, breastfeeding is a normal, natural act, a normal, natural process. Yes, breasts are secondary sex characteristics and yes, breastfeeding is a highly-fraught issue in our culture, but requiring a woman to cover up while participating in the nourishment of her child will always strike me as borderline misogynistic. Let's hope that drawing some attention to this mom's experience will force American Airlines to rethink their outdated, offensive policy—or at least how they communicate it to their customers.