breastfeeding graduate
Karlesha Thurman nursing her 3-month old daughter

Credit: Facebook of Karlesha Danae

(WOMENSENEWS)– A picture of what should have been a happy moment–a mom breastfeeding at her college graduation –has become a source of online frenzy.

After crossing the stage at her graduation from California State University in Long Beach on May 22, Karlesha Thurman came back to her seat and realized her daughter, 3-month old Aaliyah, was hungry. So she fed her as she normally does–she nursed the infant, with the moment being photographed by a friend.

The 25-year-old wrote on her Facebook page that her daughter was her motivation to graduate, and was glad to capture the experience because “receiving my BA was OUR moment.”

This past weekend, Thurman sent the photo to the Facebook page Black Women Do Breastfeed, which aims to counter the invisibility of black women in the breastfeeding community. The photo was published with the caption “Congratulations, mama!!!! Giving her daughter more gifts than one! Isn’t this beautiful?!#normalizebreastfeeding.”

That’s when the hashtag storm started. Some criticize Thurman for breastfeeding in the middle of a graduation ceremony. In a commentary published by The Guardian, breastfeeding activists countered that the sexualization of women’s breasts is one reason why so many are uncomfortable with the activity being public–especially because women’s bodies are shamed when they are not being used for titillation.

Here are just few examples of tweets body shaming the woman:

Yet, many are coming to support Thurman and breastfeeding activists argue that such images are important for normalizing breastfeeding in society.

“I’m thrilled this photo went viral,” Sojourner Grimmett, co-founder of Table for Two, a national campaign to establish public lactation rooms, said in an email interview. “I hope the selfie of Karlesha nursing her baby is retweeted more than Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscars selfie.”

“When we “scandalize” breastfeeding it tells others that breastfeeding is unwelcome and possibly a set up for public ridicule,” Kimberly Seals Allers, a breastfeeding activist and author of the Mocha Manual, told Women’s eNews in an email exchange. “Karlesha and all women who commit to breastfeeding need and deserve our support, not our snark.”

Thurman says she sent the photo to the Facebook page to show that breastfeeding is natural. “I really didn’t know that breastfeeding in public was such a controversy,” Thurman told NewsOne. 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.”

Yet on Twitter, advocates of breastfeeding applauded Thurman for posting the now-famous picture:

The controversy is coming at a time when the place for breastfeeding in public–particularly in social media–is being contested. While Instagram has deactivated the accounts of several users who have posted breastfeeding pictures, Facebook recently excluded breastfeeding mothers from the ban on female nipples showing in photos.

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that women breastfeed exclusively for six months, just 16 percent of the babies born in 2010 met that standard, according to the CDC. Black women are less likely to breastfeed than white mothers–the CDC reported that 62 percent of black mothers initiated breastfeeding compared with 79 percent of white mothers.

“For black women, who have historically lagged in breastfeeding rates yet our children have some of the highest levels of the same infant and childhood diseases that breastfeeding helps prevent, this is not a social media matter–this is a public health imperative,” Allers said.