A round of applause is in order for 24-year-old Jacci Sharkey, who graduated from Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland in early October — but not just because she got her degree. Sharkey’s graduation photo shows her breastfeeding her six-week-old son, Alek; it’s since gone viral on Facebook, and with good reason. There are a lot of things that are notable about it: First, USC was supportive enough to allow one of its students to have children while she was in school and still earn her degree; and second, the photo normalizes breastfeeding in a way that we desperately, desperately need.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sharkey’s sister-in-law snapped the photo during her graduation in October; the proud graduate and mom then shared the photo with USC, who posted it with Sharkey’s permission on their Facebook page on November 2. USC’s Facebook post also included the message Sharkey had sent them along with the photograph:
“Something that had to be shared (and yes, we got permission, don’t worry). From her recent graduation, this amazing photo and message was sent to us by inspiring mum Jacci Sharkey: ‘Just wanted to share a photo from the most recent graduation that I am proud of. I’m extremely proud that with the support of the Uni, during my degree I was able to have 2 babies and still finish my degree. Thanks USC!’ #itcanbedone.”
In the days since, it’s racked up more than 250,000 likes and over 8,000 shares; according to Sharkey, though, she never intended it to be the huge statement it’s ultimately become. Said the mother and graduate to ABC, “It wasn’t a statement [on breastfeeding] or anything like that. I would have sent the same picture to the uni had [Alek] had a bottle or a sandwich… it was just the fact that I’m a mum, it’s not I’m a breastfeeding mum, just I’m a mum.” She continued, “It was really a message of thanks and that other mums can do it as well.”
Interestingly, though, I would argue that the lack of intended statement is the most important thing about the photo. By treating breastfeeding the same way as you’d treat “a bottle or a sandwich,” both Sharkey and the university presented it as a completely normal, natural thing (which, of course, it is). I’ve never really understood the stigma against breastfeeding; research has proven breast milk provides the most optimal nutrition for babies, so why would we paint it as a negative thing? There’s nothing wrong with using formula when you need to, but it seems silly to me to put “politeness” or a socially-constructed sense of “propriety” above the health requirements of an infant.
Furthermore, breastfeeding and its normalization are part of a bigger, extremely important conversation about bodies and sexuality. Yes, bodies can be part of sexuality — but bodies in general and individual body parts in particular are not inherently sexual. For some reason, though, we continue to treat them as such, the effect of which promotes an unhealthy view of both bodies and sex. As one Facebook commenter put it:
Breasts? They’re just a body part, and like any other body part, they serve a purpose: They’re meant to feed children. They’re not necessarily "sexy." They're certainly not shameful. And they don’t need to be kept out of sight.
So I say this: Kudos to Sharkey and the university for sharing the photo; bravo to Sharkey for being able to give birth to and parent two kids while she was studying (seriously — I could barely take care of myself in college, so I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to take care of two tiny humans during that time); and hoorah for the university for being so supportive of Sharkey during her time there. Everybody wins!
Images: University of the Sunshine Coast/Facebook (2)