Liz Thomas has had her fair share of uncomfortable encounters while breastfeeding in public in Hong Kong, but she's doing something in the hopes of changing attitudes around feeding children on the go
Being a new mother is fraught with new experiences, from pregnancy to actually giving birth to coping with lack of sleep and changes in relationships. On top of this, learning how to breastfeed is another new skill to master, and it doesn’t always come easy. Add to this the fact that many people in Hong Kong are intolerant of women breastfeeding in public, and stress levels for mothers can be off the charts. We spoke with Liz Thomas, the founder of the #ItTastesLikeLove campaign about how she’s trying to change attitudes around breastfeeding in public, and how a number of local businesses are showing their support.
Tell us a little about the #ItTastesLikeLove campaign and how it came about?
The seeds of it were sown soon after my eldest was born and I realised staff at public hospitals were more concerned about my modesty than helping me learn to nurse. Breastfeeding has been hidden away for so long, that for many new mothers it comes as a shock that while it is natural, it is not easy. It’s a skill that takes time, effort and – crucially – support to master. But we never see any of that, we just see the blissful post birth images of a baby beautifully nursing and end up thinking we are doing something wrong.
When I had a similar battle with medical staff after my second child was born, I realised that despite health authorities insisting they wanted to raise breastfeeding rates because of the benefits to both mother and baby, they were still just paying lip service to it. They were abandoning mothers to just figure things out with little post-partum guidance. Little wonder then that just 27.9 per cent of women here reach the minimum six-month exclusive breastfeeding milestone recommended by the World Health Organisation.
I was lucky, able to pay for a private lactation consultant who guided me through the steep learning curve, and I had friends from all over the world who sent packages with balms, gels, and pads to soothe my cracked nipples and answered my rambling ‘is this normal?’ WhatsApps at bonkers hours.
But what made me decide to do something was that I saw a very anxious new mum desperately trying to nurse her baby at a bus stop. She was struggling with a cover and the seating and looked so flustered and, frankly, fearful. I know that feeling of worrying about a bad reaction. So I just sat at the bus stop too and fed my six-month-old, uncovered. We had a sweet chat, and she seemed to relax. It was an act of solidarity and compassion at the time – just reinforcing there’s no shame in meeting your child’s needs, wherever you happen to be.
I realised there must be hundreds, if not thousands of women who feel like this every day and while I can’t sit with every one of them, I can help normalise breastfeeding and ensure that fewer people have to worry about ignorant behaviour.
How did you come up with the name: #ItTastesLikeLove?
One of the benefits of breastfeeding toddlers or older children is they begin to articulate what it means to them, and the different functions it serves. There’s a tendency to think of breastmilk as just a type of food, interchangeable with formula. But actually, breastfeeding meets multiple needs – providing nourishment when your little one is hungry or thirsty, but also reassurance, comfort, security, and emotional support.
The name for the campaign came from a friend who asked their still-nursing 4-year-old (the natural age for weaning in humans is anywhere between aged 2 and aged 8) what their milk tasted like. The answer: love.
The anecdote has stuck with me through all the trials of breastfeeding and I felt it anchored the sentiment behind the campaign. This is something normal and something wonderful – don’t give people a hard time for it.
What are the main issues that women who breastfeed in public in Hong Kong tend to face?
According to a Unicef poll, some 40 per cent of women who breastfeed in public in Hong Kong have had complaints or unpleasant experiences.
People have told me they’ve been screamed at, requested to stop or told to leave establishments. Paying customers have been asked to cover up or asked to go to the bathroom because places are afraid people might be offended. This is harassment, and discrimination and it needs to stop.
People have told me that they’ve been asked to cover up because ‘men might see’, as if men are incapable of controlling themselves if they see a slither of breast being used for its biological purpose, others have been asked to nurse in the bathroom because there are ‘children present’ but actually wouldn’t it be great to start a dialogue with children about the wonderful things women’s bodies can do – literally growing a human on the inside and out – instead of making these abilities shameful?
I would say a lot of people get a hard time on the topic from their families, who make them feel public nursing is wrong, and those voices can be the hardest to ignore sometimes.
Can you tell us a few of the horror stories you have faced while breastfeeding in public?
I’ll never forget when my eldest was born preterm at Queen Mary Hospital; I needed emergency surgery and he needed special care. When I was finally able to see him, I instinctively wanted to hold and nurse him. Surrounded by posters hailing the importance of breastfeeding, I thought I was in the best place to try. Except the nurses were more concerned that the male doctors – who I assumed would be unfazed seeing the human body – might see a bit of my breast, than actually helping me.
Another time, a woman screamed to “Cover yourself” when I was nursing my baby on the bus. It was ridiculous as 1) I was wearing more clothes than her and 2) She had been oblivious on her phone for more than half the journey. I think the obvious idiocy of her behaviour made me feel quite bold. I refused, pointing out it was perfectly natural and I was more covered up than she was. She certainly kept quiet after that but the episode made me realise there was still a long way to go to normalise breastfeeding.
How do you think Hong Kong is different to other places in the world in regards to breastfeeding in public?
I think there have been very strong campaigns in other world cities to help normalise breastfeeding so the average person is probably more aware of the issues new parents face when nursing publicly. Hong Kong lags behind because #ItTastesLikeLove is really the first significant one.
Government institutions also need to change outdated approaches. It was quite normal to breastfeed in public two generations ago, so I think some of the institutional misogyny is a legacy from colonial times and perhaps unsurprising as Hong Kong’s public health system still adopts approaches to childbirth and post-partum care that were the norm 40 or 50 years ago in Britain.
BUT, and it is a big but, where I think Hong Kong stands head and shoulders above other places is that brands and businesses here have very quickly backed this campaign.
Pret, Caffe Habitu, Maximal Concepts, Pizza Express, Black Sheep Restaurants, Frites are just a few of the big names that support the campaign and thousands of people visit their eateries every single day. And there has been a groundswell of support from other industries from Glow Spa and Kapuhala Space to Retykkle and OT & P Healthcare.
Last autumn a sign saying that breastfeeding mothers were welcome to nurse in a Target store in the US went viral because parents were astounded and impressed that a store was willing to take a stand against this type of discrimination.
Well, in Hong Kong, we already have more than 100 places saying that and more (in some cases offering discounts or free cookies and drinks). I am thrilled that there’s so many forward-thinking firms out there backing #ItTastesLikeLove, and it actually makes sense from a business perspective. Most breastfeeding women will seek out places where they feel safe and welcome – and they’ll remember too – which brands were supportive.
What would you say to those people who would view this as strictly a cultural difference?
I would accept this if we lived in a place where modesty was part of the cultural or religious norm but for the most part, women in Hong Kong dress as they please. Tiny shorts and bikini tops are worn throughout the city in the summer – whether it’s the beach or the MTR.
People wear thigh high boots and mini-skirts mid-afternoon in the malls. No one is outraged, no one is rushing over with a blanket to cover a butt-cheek, no one is told that they must eat in the bathroom because their outfit might upset other diners. Plus, there’s no shortage of scantily clad women on billboards advertising lingerie, plastic surgery, fitness or wellness products.
So no it’s not a cultural issue. It is just plain hypocrisy.
How can people help get involved with the campaign?
1) Don’t be ignorant if you see a woman nursing in public. If you’re uncomfortable – look away or back down at your phone. If it’s appropriate, smile or tell her she’s doing a great job. I guarantee you’ll make her day.
2) If you have a business or represent a brand, then get in touch to become an official campaign supporter through our Facebook page and we can guide you through the simple process. It’s super easy and instantly changes the way people view your brand for the better.
3) If you’re a photographer or artist, or love photography and art, join our Instagram page, which is dedicated to beautiful shots of nursing parents from all over the world and from every background. It may seem a small thing – but as such imagery becomes more common place – the more at ease people will feel about seeing it in real life. Thirty years ago it was uncommon to see the pregnant form showcased either in photos or in fashion, maternity wear was shapeless and sack-like! Now the pregnant form is once again viewed as a thing of beauty and its quite normal to do a maternity photoshoot, or to wear bump-hugging clothes.
4) If you have breastfed, would like to breastfeed, or are pregnant – then join the community. Our Facebook page is dedicated to frank discussions about the reality of nursing in the 21st century – partners, grandparents, extended family all welcome.
5) Write for us or read our stories: Our blog is dedicated place for parents to write about their breastfeeding journeys – whether it’s nursing a premature baby born at 29 weeks, donating breastmilk, overcoming difficult births, or breastfeeding through cancer – there’s a wealth of personal experience to help people understand they are not alone. We are recreating the village that was once the bedrock of breastfeeding, through stories and support online.
In a dream world, what would the end result of this campaign be?
Well in a dream world we would be able to shake up attitudes to breastfeeding and motherhood entirely. Society would celebrate breastfeeding mothers, and acknowledge their determination and perseverance, instead of shaming them or dismissing their efforts. Authorities would acknowledge that for breastfeeding to succeed, women need time and support, and so set paid maternity leave at six months and provide proper post-partum care to give families the best start. Companies would value women who return to their jobs and ensure proper pumping breaks, flexible working arrangements and an empowering environment, so that those that pump do not risk serious health issues such as mastitis by delaying or shortening breaks and are not forced to produce milk in unsanitary conditions.
The public and businesses would understand there is nothing wrong with a mother comforting or nourishing her child in public, and would encourage and champion it.
In a dream world, the ideal end for this campaign would be for it to not be needed anymore.