:: JUNE 23, 2004
breastfeeding conflicts with morés in the mall
Vanessa Vicknair moved to Lansing from Seattle five years ago. She thought
both cities were progressive – until recently.
On June 12, she went shopping with her sister-in law Kelly Vicknair
and friend Jessica Chapman-King at the Lansing Mall. The three mothers
were tired, and their children hungry. They spotted a comfortable couch
in the mall’s designated family area. When Vanessa began breastfeeding
her 8-week old daughter, a security guard approached and told her she
should use the nursing room at the end of the hall, or otherwise stop
breastfeeding. “He told me I was on private property and breaking
indecent exposure laws,” Vicknair said.
(From left) Vanessa Vicknair (nursing Stella, with her older daughter,
Eva, on her left), Jessica Chapman-King (center, with her daughter,
Chloe) and Kelly Vicknair.
said she was so shocked by his remarks that her hands started shaking.
She told the guard that she had never heard of a mother being told to
stop nursing her child and that Michigan law protects a mother’s
right to breastfeed in public. “Do you understand that you can’t
stop us from nursing? The stuff you are doing used to maybe happen in
the 1980s, in a back town, or maybe in a southern state!”
Vicknair said the guard replied that he wasn’t going to argue
with her and that he wasn’t aware of any state law that allowed
breastfeeding in the public.
Legislation protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed wherever
they go with their baby exists today in more than half the states, including
Michigan. In 1994 Michigan legislators amended various sections of the
state criminal code to expressly state that public nudity does not include
a woman’s breastfeeding of a baby.
The first legal battle over breastfeeding was fought in 1977, after
New York mother Barbara Damon was banished from a public swimming pool
after refusing to nurse her infant in the ladies’ room. As a result,
her family’s pool pass was revoked, and the village enacted an
ordinance forbidding public breastfeeding at the pool. Eventually the
ordinance was repealed, Damon was paid damages and a facility was built
where all mothers could feed their babies. More recently, New Jersey
passed a law in 1997 levying a fine for anyone who denied a woman the
right to breastfeed in public.
protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed wherever they go
with their baby exists today in more than half the states, including
Michigan. In 1994 Michigan legislators amended various sections
of the state criminal code to expressly state that public nudity
does not include a woman’s breastfeeding of a baby.”
Lansing Mall security guard breaking Michigan law? The mall’s
marketing director, Jodi Hoeg, said that she believes what happened
between the security guard and Vicknair must have been a misunderstanding.
“We do allow people to breastfeed in the shopping center,”
Hoeg said that security personnel were trained to approach nursing mothers
to let them know that a nursing room was available as a special service,
not as a requirement. “The nursing room is a fairly new amenity
that a lot of customers are probably not aware of,” Hoeg explained.
During a renovation in November 2002, a new family bathroom was added
to the Lansing Mall, as well as a nursing room and changing room for
toddlers. “I think our security officer approached this woman
to let her know this room is available.”
But Vicknair said this is not what happened. She and Chapman-King claimed
that the guard told her she was breaking the law and that she had to
use the nursing room. Vicknair said the guard used the expression “committing
indecent exposure.” Added Vicknair: “He also told me that
I absolutely had to quit, because I was on private property and it was
up to them.”
Vicknair stood her ground, however, and after she finished nursing her
daughter, she went to the security office to talk to the guard’s
supervisor, and file a complaint. But the guard said that his supervisor
was on vacation and wouldn’t be back until Monday.
The women then walked to the guest service desk, where the service representative
told them they had received many complaints from shoppers uncomfortable
with mothers breastfeeding in public, which is why the Lansing Mall
staff was directed to inform them about the nursing lounge.
Vicknair said she was outraged by the idea that nursing women were a
target for complaints. “I don’t think anybody even saw us
other than the security guard,” she said. After all, weren’t
they sitting in the “family area,” away from the main mall?
Added Vicknair: “I had my daughter eight weeks ago, and I was
wearing a maternity shirt and a lot of fabric. Nothing was exposed.
If you walked by, you would have seen the back of my daughter’s
Vicknair said that a security guard followed the three mothers out of
the mall, and they had felt as if they were being treated like criminals.
Her friend, Chapman-King, said she was shocked to see that a woman breastfeeding
could be treated with such disrespect in Lansing. She had nursed her
first daughter Eva until age 3-1/2 without problems, although she had
done so in a number of public places and malls in the Greater Lansing
area. She recalled breastfeeding her 6-month-old daughter in the middle
of the Lansing Mall Food Court two months ago. Chapman-King said that
usually if someone notices a nursing mother, they simply look the other
The La Leche League, an international advocacy group for breastfeeding
that maintains consultative status with the United Nations Children’s
Fund, traces hostility against breastfeeding mothers back to outdated
moral taboos in the West, which over the last century have been used
to deter women from breastfeeding. The League points out that the increased
legal recognition of the right to breastfeed in public has been one
step toward helping society become less judgmental and more supportive.
“But society’s views and taboos are not easily changed,”
argued the late La Leche League leader Elizabeth Baldwin in a report
published on the group’s Web site, at www.lalecheleague.org.
Many state governments support breastfeeding programs partly due to
cost savings. Hundreds of millions of tax dollars continue to be used
to purchase artificial baby milk. Government agencies also support breastfeeding
because it provides significant health benefits.
Babies who are not breastfed have higher rates of death, cancer, diabetes,
respiratory illnesses, allergies, obesity and developmental delays.
Breastfeeding also has health benefits for the mother, including delayed
return to fertility and decreased risk of cancer of the breast and ovaries.
In 2002, the World Health Assembly adopted UNICEF’s global strategy
to create an environment that empowers women to breastfeed exclusively
for the first six months, and continue breastfeeding for two years or
more. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that babies be breastfed for
at least one year.
Vicknair said she’s not simply going to get over her “horrible”
experience at the Lansing Mall. She’s asking other mothers to
share their stories and organize a nurse-in, which is a protest event
of nursing mothers and their families and friends. Vicknair said she
would like to see a large rally in the center of the Lansing Mall to
“raise awareness and let them know that they can’t do what
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