Through her #Ittasteslikelove campaign, DBer Liz Thomas is on a mission to make nursing mothers’ breasts every bit as boring – and accepted – as they should be. Elizabeth Kerr reports
Boobs, it would seem, still cause us irrational fitsof puritanism, outrage, fear or confusion – occasionally at the same time. Between juvenile ‘gags’ like host Seth McFarlane’s We Saw Your Boobs song and dance at the Oscars in 2013, an Ontario woman getting slapped with a criminal fine for taking her shirt off in public one summer day in 1991 (something men worldwide are free to do in 35-degree heat) and Discovery Bay resident Liz Thomas getting berated for supplying food to her infant in public, a lot of people have a hard time dealing with female breasts. Unless, of course, they’re being used to sell or seduce.
Enter Liz and her campaign to strip the stigma from breastfeeding in a world where breasts have been deemed sexual rather than functional. “People have grown unused to seeing breasts used for their primary purpose and generally humans feel uncomfortable when confronted with abrupt change,” she opens by way of explaining our inexplicable
The inspiration for #Ittasteslikelove (www.ittasteslikelove.org) came on the heels of the aforementioned berating Liz received on a bus in DB one day from a middle-aged Western woman, who screamed, “Cover yourself.” The woman was, of course, free to wear what she liked, while Liz’s right to expose a slither of breast in order to meet her infant’s needs was challenged. The incident succinctly summed up the hypocrisy that surrounds nursing mothers in Hong Kong, and for Liz it was the proverbial straw. It’s fortunate that she was both armed with the perfect comeback in the moment, “I am more covered up than you are,” and in a career position where she could demand changes.
Sadly, that wasn’t an isolated incident. “I have breastfed all over the city, but outside of the public health system and overzealous security guards, Discovery Bay has been the place where I’ve had the most ‘issues’ for openly breastfeeding,” says Liz, explaining that the negativity has ranged from gossipy disapproval for featuring in the campaign’s breastfeeding photography to the “ridiculous hysteria” of the DB bus incident.
As it turns out, according to Unicef, some 40% of women who breastfeed in public in Hong Kong have had negative experiences. One of the most inexplicable that Liz recalls is being asked by nurses at Queen Mary Hospital that she go into a private room to breastfeed her newly born son because “male doctors may mind.”
Setting new workplace standards
Liz is a Brit by birth and journalist by trade who left Fleet Street behind in favour of Hong Kong in 2013. Currently with a well-known global news organisation, to say Liz leads
a full life would be an egregious understatement. She and her French husband settled in DB four years ago for the sake of their two sons. Most of our discussion is via email, but a phone call eventually reveals a relaxed sounding, thoughtful woman committed to the myriad feminist issues inherently connected to #Ittasteslikelove, as well as the humour in its baffling contradictions. “Any choice a woman makes seems to be questioned,” she scoffs.
New mums eager to try breastfeeding are certainly receiving mixed messages in Hong Kong. On the one hand the authorities are encouraging more women to breastfeed, and
to do it for longer, but on the other, the practice continues to be undermined by widespread discrimination, inadequate maternity leave [just 14 weeks], and few workplace provisions for mothers to pump when they do go back to work. “Government guidelines urge employers to enable working women to pump in the workplace but there is no law to insist on its implementation,” Liz says. “As a result, mothers are still being forced to pump in toilets, storerooms, even stairwells and corridors.”
Ironically, women are held to insane standards of ‘good’ motherhood yet they are not free to fulfil that role on a fundamental level. “Normalising breastfeeding means ensuring mothers are comfortable nursing in public but it also means ensuring authorities put in place legislation that enables mothers to meet breastfeeding targets and hold companies to account that flout them.”
Liz describes returning to work after her second son was born, and how the initial shock of seeing her pump at her desk (the best option based on Hong Kong government guidelines) led to greater understanding and tolerance among staff that would eventually set new workplace standards. “Normalising breastfeeding is about creating a society where parents feel empowered,” she states, adding. “I think COVID-19 has underlined how important good hygiene is and how inappropriate it is to ask people to produce nourishment for babies anywhere you wouldn’t eat yourself.”
The time for #Ittasteslikelove is now. COVID-19 has proven that. “If businesses can think creatively to tackle life with the virus, they can think creatively on how best to ensure that being a parent doesn’t disqualify you from career progression,” Liz states bluntly.
Breast is best
The list of reasons breastfeeding needs to be normalised, so that all infants are nursed to WHO’s six-month recommendation, is a long one, topped by the fact that 800,000 more infants would avoid death annually; US$300 billion would be saved on healthcare spending every year; 20,000 more women a year would survive breast cancer; and many children, particularly in areas where easy access to medicine is more difficult, would have improved immunological support.
“The goal of #Ittasteslikelove is to ensure it doesn’t take another three decades before this central tenet of motherhood is accepted,” states Liz, recalling actor Demi Moore’s
1991 Vanity Fair cover that caused outrage before ushering in a new age of pregnancy thinking.
“People still feel entitled to project their discomfort instead of learning to deal with it rationally,” says Liz.” And there’s one of 2020’s keywords: entitlement. “The disgust, horror, or claim to some moral superiority for being covered up is deeply rooted in issues of social class, poverty, and perhaps even race,” Liz argues. “Two generations ago,
it was not unusual to see women in Hong Kong nurse in public, so this culture of offence is new and arguably a puritanical hangover from the colonial period.”
#Ittasteslikelove uses its website, blog, Facebook group and Instagram account to reappropriate images, offer advice, and work with the community and businesses to normalise an issue that impacts us all. “We’ve opened our blog up to women across Hong Kong, who are now sharing experiences from nursing premature babies to breastfeeding and the coronavirus – all with the aim that the more visible, and accessible this topic is, the more things will change,” says Liz.
In one must-read story on the site, Liz provides ‘10 Perfect Comebacks to Silence Breastfeeding Critics.’ Let’s say that while nursing your baby, you are accused of attention seeking. Liz advises that you first try humour: “You got me! I decided to go through the engorgement, sore nipples and cluster-feeding because I realised nursing offered the perfect opportunity to flaunt my fantastic hooters to the world.” If that doesn’t work, she suggests you rely on facts: “Good parents react to their child’s cues to see if verbally, or non-verbally, they are telling us they’re in need of sustenance, comfort or reassurance. Breastfeeding is an excellent tool to address one or all of these basic needs and avoid unnecessary distress. Whether I’m dressed in a ballgown or in my pyjamas, what I’m wearing while nursing, is irrelevant. The sole intention remains the same: helping my children.”
In the lead up to World Breastfeeding Week (waba.org.my/wbw), August 1 to 7, Liz has been stepping up the pace. Over 100 restaurants, bars, gyms and brands now back #Ittasteslikelove, taking a stand against discrimination, and empowering breastfeeding mothers. In addition to Hong Kong-wide players like Pizza Express, Pret A Manger, Maximal Concepts and Black Sheep Restaurants, Liz has also garnered plenty of support on home turf from local concerns, such as Hemingway’s, Kapuhala Space, Kristen Handford personal training and Treece Fitness.
“As more and more places actively support nursing in public, people will think twice about voicing their disapproval, and after a while they may see there is no need to be disapproving at all,” Liz concludes. “Then the real changes can begin.”