Last month, Karlesha Thurman graduated from California State University Long Beach with an accounting degree. After she crossed the stage to receive her diploma, she realized that her three-month-old daughter was hungry. A friend snapped a photo as she was breastfeeding her child — and even though Thurman wasn’t expecting it, that picture has now set off something of an online firestorm.
After Thurman posted the photo to the Facebook page Black Women Do Breastfeed, a group intended to support women of color who choose to breastfeed their children, the administrators of the page reposted it. “Giving her daughter more gifts than one! Isn’t this beautiful?!” the group wrote when it posted Thurman’s photo.
But some people didn’t agree. Thurman was quickly inundated with comments from Twitter and Facebook users who thought it was “inappropriate” for her to breastfeed her child in the middle of a graduation ceremony. Some people suggested that she must be sexually promiscuous to be okay with displaying part of her breast.
“I personally have gotten nothing but positive feedback, but the people on Twitter are being very harsh towards the photo,” Thurman told ABC News.
The recent graduate has continued to defend her photo, writing on Facebook that her daughter was her “motivation to keep going” and finish her degree. “Me receiving my BA was OUR moment, so glad I captured the moment,” she wrote.
Breastfeeding advocates have also come to Thurman’s defense, pointing out that the online reaction she received exemplifies the shame and judgment that many women encounter for feeding their children in public. Women have been asked to stop breastfeeding in church, during jury duty, at the pool, and at the mall. And social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been accused of censoring images of women breastfeeding, as if they’re inherently graphic or sexual.
Although breastfeeding may remain controversial among the American public, there’s a broad consensus about its benefits among public health experts. Doctors, researchers, and government health agencies all encourage mothers to breastfeed if they’re able to do so. But low-income and minority women often face barriers to the health programs intended to help support breastfeeding, which is one of the reasons that groups like Black Women Do Breastfeed exist.
“I honestly thought that as a society, people were more understanding to breastfeeding and understood the importance of breastfeeding,” Thurman told Today. “It’s not disgusting, it’s not a bad thing, it’s not a negative thing. It’s the best thing for my daughter.”
Nonetheless, the state laws in this area still vary. Twenty two states don’t specifically exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws — something that can force mothers to resort to feeding their children in unsanitary places like public restrooms.