There I sat in the middle of my high school biology classroom, all classmates’ and my teacher’s eyes fixed on me. The veins in my face dilated to such a measure that my cheeks glowed a shade of reddish purple; my head would surely combust into flames. Mr. Schaefer’s attempt to demonstrate how and why we blush had been quite the success, me as his guinea pig on display.
Nearly ten years later, I sometimes feel like 90 percent of my life is spent this way; face flushed, cheeks blazing, a freakish spectacle with all eyes on me. Self doubt usually overthrows any sense of confidence I muster, and it never fails to trigger that horrendous, involuntary physiological response to social discomfort.
I’ve had people tell me it’s cute, my ruddy cheeks.
“Aw, look, you’re blushing,” as I turn a hue darker.
But I’ve never been impressed with my color-changing abilities. It’s a crude reminder that too often I live in fear; fear that I am being judged for who I am, fear that I don’t even know who I am, fear that I am being judged for someone I am not.
When I watched UK-based artist Hollie McNish’s Embarrassed, a spoken word performance about breastfeeding in public for the first time, heavy tears blurred my vision. Not only was I struck by her eloquent account of our society’s freaky ideas about the maternal infant connection, I was stunned by her confidence to share such raw, intimate feelings with the world (her color creamy all the while, no flares of reddish awkwardness) – something I’m still figuring out how to do.
McNish says she hasn’t always been so open about sharing her poetry.
“But the more I did, the more I realised it was being much more helpful being shared than sitting in a box under my bed,” she tells me in an email. “I feel like there’s so much I wish I had known before I had a kid and perhaps this will help fill that gap in a tiny way.”
While McNish reports being shocked and happy that Embarrassed has gone viral, she also says she’s somewhat disappointed.
“It made me realise how many people in the US and UK in particular feel this way because of our idiotic cultures,” she says.
Embarrassed’s YouTube comments range from anywhere between enthusiastically supportive to downright senseless.
“Thank you Hollie” and “We love you Hollie” to “so you are saying its fine for a women to walk with her tits out to feed her child? what where baby bottles made for?”
McNish calls the comments “brilliant” and says she’s honored by all of the support.
“But the negative ones – you just realise how much we are influenced by our society,” she continues.
Exposing the wolves who influence our society
McNish has extended her interest in breastfeeding attitudes to discussions on her Facebook page.
In a recent post, she talks about where the “pressure” to breastfeed comes from.
“I hear people talk about midwives pressuring them to breastfeed and how wrong that is, while ignoring the pressure to formula feed from million pound advertising campaigns – leaflets in my hospital pack, government subsidies for formula milk but not for breastpumps or support etc.,” McNish writes in our email correspondence.
She goes on to say in the Facebook thread, “It’s not about blaming. I think there’s a lack of support for feeding in general. The post was only intended to highlight the money making ideas behind pushing formula. I don’t think anything is ever helped by blaming mothers, calling us lazy or ignoring issues people have trying to feed a baby. Those issues are very real.”
Those issues, too, stem from issues rooted in money.
“We really are messed up about [breastfeeding.] Really messed up. And I think it’s purely because mothers’ breastmilk is free and our society thrives on making money,” McNish says. “We are a huge potential market for formula companies, huge profit potential and they have a massive amount of money to advertise, get into TV programmes etc etc to make breastfeeding less and less ‘normal.’”
The predatory nature of formula marketing is a gigantic Booby Trap that challenges so many mother’s confidence.
Fortunately, McNish and other advocates are exposing exploitative companies and their ruthless histories.
Even better, women’s voices are becoming stronger and more influential than corporations’ devious advertising tactics.
Back in 2010, McNish released PUSH KICK: a journey through the beauty, brilliance and bollocks of having a baby., a breathtaking compilation of spoken word that so vividly shares the wonders of motherhood.
The album is available for free download or open donations. Profits are donated to Rosie Hospital Campaign.
“I wanted to give to charity because I felt so, so lucky with all my pregnancy and birth,” McNish explains. “I can’t be more thankful to live in a country with free healthcare and amazing maternity care and I just feel that I can’t take that for granted.”
PUSH KICK wasn’t conceived in any sort of organized fashion; it was born by simply documenting feelings, McNish says. She hopes listeners realize that becoming a parent is much more grandiose than it is often portrayed. “More emotional, more challenging, more amazing.”
While McNish explains that PUSH KICK is “only [her] story; there are plenty of others,” I can’t ignore her ability to perfectly describe many of my experiences with motherhood. Her voice streaming through my computer capture and communicate the messy thoughts in my head. It’s impossible not to feel an immediate connection with this woman; she possesses her own gravitational pull.
McNish has become an inspiration to so many nursing mothers.
In fact, she has reminded me that I have many reasons to stand proud and confident: I created a magnificent human being. I’m growing another. My body will produce all that is essential to nourish my babies for the entire first year of their lives. Hear me roar, for I am a Noble Mama Lioness, no longer a mortified guinea pig.
Encouraging mothers to share their stories so that they, like McNish, can become strong examples for others is essential to creating a society that respects and emboldens its women. We must hold the already- confident women in a positive and supportive light. We must create opportunities and safe environments for the less confident to share their feelings. Together, women will turn fearfulness into fearlessness. Together, we will reshape our culture’s foolish ideas about birth and breastfeeding and motherhood. Together, women will reclaim what is ours.