Karlesha Thurman (pictured) had no idea that a simple, yet beautiful photo from her college graduation would turn into a national conversation over breastfeeding and the harsh criticism of those who choose to do it.
The 25-year-old mother was at her graduation ceremony at California State University, in Long Beach, May 22 with her then-3-month-old daughter, Aaliyah, when she opened the top of her gown and began breastfeeding her daughter after she crossed the stage to receive her degree. A former classmate sitting in front of her asked if he could take a photo, and she agreed.
“No one said anything,” Thurman told NewsOne. “They all thought she was so cute.”
It wasn’t until Saturday when she was scrolling down the Facebook page “Black Women Do Breastfeed” that she saw an interesting status update that encouraged her to post the photo of herself breastfeeding in the comments thread. The administrator of the page, Shlonda Smith, reposted the photo hours later, and it was shared hundreds of times that day alone. It was the only place where Thurman posted the photo. She never posted it on Instagram or Twitter.
However, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook went ablaze with men and women, mostly Black, calling her a wide-range of unprintable profanities. And though Thurman graduated with a degree in accounting, people were calling her a “ghetto high school graduate” who shouldn’t have been “hoeing around.”
Other Twitter reactions were far worse, but all of them shocked Thurman because she didn’t actually think the photo would generate that much attention. “I really didn’t know that breastfeeding in public was such a controversy,” she said.
Lactation experts told NewsOne that breastfeeding in America, especially in public, is still a very uncomfortable subject for Americans. But according to the American Public Health Association, only 59 percent of Black Mothers breastfeed their children compared to 80 percent of Hispanic women and 75 percent of White women. There are a wide range of reasons why this gap exists, such as lack of education on the benefits of breastfeeding and a woman’s upbringing.
Lauren Powers, a program coordinator at the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association (BMBA), in Detroit, told NewsOne that many of the Mothers she works with were never breastfed themselves, but once she educates them on the benefits of breastfeeding, they are a lot more open to it. But Powers also said that stereotypes over what a breastfeeding Mother looks like can discourage some mothers from considering it.
“Seeing the Erykah Badu types, that is what people associate with breastfeeding,” she said. “I think a lot of women think that. They think you have to have the natural hair, things like that to be a person who breastfeeds.”
As for Thurman, she never had to contend with any of those stereotypes because of her mother.
“She breastfed all four of us,” she said. “When I told her I was pregnant, that’s the one thing she would always tell me, “Make sure you breastfeed. It’s really important to breastfeed [your daughter].” She told me all of the benefits of breastfeeding and told me it’s the best thing for her and, of course, I want the best for my daughter.”
Ashley Wright, a breastfeeding advocate from Sun Valley, Calif., and the Mother of a 17-month-old, uses social media to promote breastfeeding, especially among African-American Mothers, in an effort to help normalize breastfeeding in America. She told NewsOne that Thurman’s photo was just what Americans need to see and has been encouraging commenters on social media to celebrate Thurman’s photo.
“Every time I get a chance, I try to cheer everyone on in that post to get them to see that this is OK, that this is awesome, and we need to support this Mother,” she said. “We just don’t see it often. A lot of people believe that African-American women don’t breastfeed their children because, during slavery, we were wet nurses to the quote on quote White man; therefore, we do not breastfeed. I think that can’t be further form the truth as of right now. I do believe that may have played a part way back then; however, now, I do not see that as a barrier. I know for a fact that young adults are not talking about, ‘No, I do not breastfeed my baby because back in the day my ancestors were breastfeeding White babies.’ That is not the response that is coming out of young people’s mouths.”
Brittany Marsh, 26, is the Mother of an 8-month-old and posts photos of herself breastfeeding on Twitter to help Americans get used to seeing a mother feeding her child naturally and in public. Many commenters react positively, but others respond with the same shock that has been directed toward Thurman.
“Some people would get really offended that I was breastfeeding, and I was like, ‘You know what, it should be that way,'” Marsh told NewsOne. “People need to see this. So I started posting pictures. Sometimes people would get upset when I post a picture, and I would say, ‘You don’t have to look because this is natural.'”
It is surprising that breastfeeding in public is so taboo, given that 45 states, including Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands, allow women to breastfeed in public and private places. There are a number of popular Twitter hashtags that help to promote images breastfeeding, with #normalizebreastfeeding being one of the most popular ones.
Smith, the administrator who manages the “Black Women Do Breastfeed” Facebook page, told NewsOne that, like Thurman, she had her first son while she was a senior in college and breastfed him while she finished her degree. For her, Thurman’s photo was an image of self-empowerment and a beautiful image of natural child-rearing.
“It just had so much symbolism,” Smith said. “A lot of people are just looking at her outside with her breast exposed. They’re not looking at it as breastfeeding and brain development. Breastfeeding and the bonding. Breastfeeding and women lowering the risk of female cancer. That’s what I am seeing. I am seeing that gift that she is giving her daughter that keeps on giving.”
As for Thurman, the photo has been 24 hours of support meshed with pure aggravation — and imposters. In addition to the insults directed at her, Thurman has had several people on Twitter retweet her photo claiming to be her. She reported those individuals to Twitter. Perhaps Thurman’s most famous supporter, Chad Johnson, had this to say:
Despite the unexpected reactions and stress she has experienced, Thurman said she would post the photo to Facebook again.
“I posted it to show that [breastfeeding] is natural. It’s normal,” she said. “People do it all the time. It’s unfortunate that I did get as many negative comments as I did, but the main reason [I posted the photo] is still there.”
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