Think you know breastfeeding? Campus in the City, March 2014

“Think you know breastfeeding?”

Campus in the City, March 2014

Lula Mecinska

Researching women's breastfeeding activism places me, as a sociologist and a breastfeeding woman, at the crossroads of academia and activism, a place as interesting as it is riddled with tensions. But it also offers professional and personal rewards, through incredible opportunities for encounters with the people my work concerns directly. Hearing about the Campus in the City project designed by the FASS Enterprise Centre, set to bring research and activities which normally take place on campus into the heart of the community, I could not resist putting in a proposal.

Taking over a retail space in the busy St Nicholas Arcades was a great opportunity to present ongoing work to a non-academic audience, an audience I actually care about. In the case of “Think you know breastfeeding?” the aim was to do a bit more – to honour a commitment I have to breastfeeding women and to breastfeeding activism, to create a space dedicated to breastfeeding, a welcoming place for breastfeeding women and a way to invite members of the community to come and find out about breastfeeding.‌‌

Working together with breastfeeding peer supporters Holly Gregory-Longton and Tatiana Łazoryk-Węgrzyn, the photographer Kim Vermuelen, and my sociology colleague Amy Calvert, we have taken over the space in week five of the original run of Campus in the City. Our title recognised that multiple assumptions are made about breastfeeding and circulate widely. We wanted to invite visitors to question these, to ask why breastfeeding is important socially, politically, emotionally, or otherwise. We wanted the space and exhibits to intrigue, but we also wanted to offer a space for dialogue, and a space which could be a welcome break for breastfeeding women visiting the town centre. The space we have curated and the events which took place there reflected the strands of women's breastfeeding activism and its aims. The idea was to share knowledge – academic and experiential – on breastfeeding, to create a space where breastfeeding is welcome, to normalise breastfeeding but also to show the playful, sometimes irreverent side of of activism.

We had a mini-exhibition of Kim Vermeulen's photographs, with two images from her series “I am Breastfeeding”, a participatory project with 50 women from North West Lancashire breastfeeding in a location of their choice. The women have their picture taken and share insights on breastfeeding and motherhood; they represent breastfeeding, on their own terms. But the image that 'made' the space was a large format from Kim's “Envisioning Motherhood”. The final image in the series, it shows a woman breastfeeding in a play area and in a way bridges her two projects. While the image itself is a cross between domesticity and a public display, we extended it into the space of the retail unit by placing children's furniture and toys, to create a private/public blur.‌‌

While Kim's photographs aim to normalise breastfeeding, the Peek-a-Boob Myth Buster(s), a large papier maché pair of breasts surrounded by little notes with factual information on breastfeeding, and the Be-nippled cupcakes served on the roundtable used humour to provoke conversations and to get people's attention. Part cheeky flashing, part fertility fetish, the larger-than-life breasts and cute button nipples on the cupcakes not only served that purpose, but also invited people to reflect on the sexualisation of breasts, and by extension breastfeeding, in contemporary culture.

Several events took place over the four days. In the spirit of knowledge-sharing there was a peer supporter available everyday and an informational talk on issues to do with breastfeeding. Academic interventions were part of this and Amy gave an inspiring talk on interspecies milk sharing “Whose milk is it?” By presenting and thinking with pop-cultural images of cross-species milk use Amy's talk was bringing in the feminist vegan politics, a strong current within breastfeeding activism. And I had an opportunity to chair a discussion on “Breastfeeding as work” - reflecting on breastfeeding as labour and the many, complex ways in which women “work” on breastfeeding.‌

Simply spending time in the space outside of scheduled events allowed me to talk to people who popped in, to show that the work we do at University and especially in Sociology is not that far removed from their realities. More importantly, it allowed me to have truly enriching and encouraging conversations, and, in the quieter periods, to conduct interviews. Being able to connect my work to its subjects in such a way was special: a chance to do something for the community was greatly rewarding, and hearing from the people who my project is about was an invaluable experience.

All images used with permission.