(WOMENSENEWS)--"That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen," she said to the small woman at her side loudly enough to ripple through the weekday lunch crowd at the Westfield Shopping Mall in Bethesda, Md.
I've brushed off some pretty awful insults in my life.
In law school I received hate mail covered with pictures of gorillas demanding that I, and all of the other African American first-years, go back to "Cooley High."
Yet, I was caught off guard when I realized the insult was aimed at me, as I sat on a bench breastfeeding my 2-month-old daughter.
A nameless woman at a mall was somehow the one to find the insult that I could not toss onto the neat pile of words that would never hurt me. It did hurt. And, these attitudes toward breastfeeding are making our children sick, especially African American children, who are the least likely to get the benefit of mothers' milk.
Our babies are more than twice as likely to die before age 1 than Asian, Latino or white babies. A 2001 study in Pediatrics concluded that an increase in African American breastfeeding rates alone could reduce this disparity.
In other words, we cannot afford to treat breastfeeding like the choice between cloth and disposable diapers.
More Outreach Needed
As mothers we have gotten out of the house and have shown off our pregnant bellies at the office and on the red carpet.
Now we need to give and get strong cultural support to breastfeed wherever we please.
We also need to know our legal rights: Forty-five states have enacted laws that either grant mothers the right to breastfeed in public or exempt breastfeeding from state obscenity laws.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers feed infants breast milk and nothing else for the first six months of life, and continue to breastfeed for at least one year. Yet, many women dread the negative attention they receive while breastfeeding in public.
To counter that, we all need to amplify the reasons breastfeeding is so good for mother and child.
Compared to their formula-fed counterparts, breastfed children stand a better chance of withstanding a long list of health problems including diabetes, leukemia, cold and flu viruses, bacterial meningitis and obesity to name a few. Some of these benefits continue into adulthood.
Women Lower Risks
Women who breastfeed lower their risk of developing uterine cancer, osteoporosis, Type 2 diabetes and breast cancer over their lifetimes.
But the irony is that in today's ambitious parenting climate--where millions of dollars are being spent on educational toys and organic baby products--breastfeeding as the most important developmental head-start is often neglected.
Among African American women that's particularly true.
In 2004, 74 percent of U.S. women initiated breastfeeding soon after giving birth. Among black women it was 60 percent.
By the time infants reached 6 months of age--a key health target--only 14 percent of U.S. infants were breastfed exclusively. Among black infants it was 7 percent.
Only 36 percent of U.S. babies received breast milk in combination with formula or other foods at 6 months of age. For African American babies make that 29 percent.
Black women are the least likely to breastfeed, even those of us with a college education, health insurance and a nice paying job. African American women across the spectrum breastfeed less than women who have only a high school education, less than women who live below the poverty line and less than adolescent mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control 2004 National Immunization Survey.
Interrogations Instead of Support
Ironically, the criticism I faced while breastfeeding in public almost always came from other women. When I would complain to friends or family about the ridicule or hostility I received, instead of feeling supported I felt interrogated.
"Did you forget to feed the baby before you went out?" "Didn't you have a blanket to cover yourself with?" I was often asked.
"So what if I did?" I would always respond, feeling like the caricatured rape victim scorned for wearing a miniskirt where both men and booze were present.
America's cultural obsession with the breast as a sexual object undermines the U.S Health and Human Services Department's goal of having 50 percent of infants breastfed exclusively at 6 months of age.
If anything, we should be more disturbed as a society by the sight of breasts filled to bursting with silicone and perched unnaturally on collarbones than the sight of a woman breastfeeding a child.
If we as a society can somehow find a way to tolerate breast augmentation, shouldn't we also be able to support the natural and healthy role of the breast in mother-baby nutrition and bonding?
We need to desensitize our communities away from viewing the breast as either titillating or obscene.
Out and proud, I nursed my daughter at the salon, on the subway, in dozens of restaurants, at the swimming pool and on airplanes. I pumped breast milk in my office while on conference calls. "What is that whooshy sound?" colleagues would sometimes ask, as I smiled to myself. Que viva la leche!
The positive impact of breast milk on the mental and physical development of children is unparalleled. Want a healthy baby? Put the Baby Einstein videos and hand sanitizer away and breastfeed. All the mammals are doing it. And, our children's health depends on it.
Aisha Qaasim is a civil rights attorney and writer based in Redondo Beach, Calif.