The photo of Mari Villaluna breastfeeding her daughter, Ami, at the Dakota Access Pipeline action in Standing Rock, North Dakota won first place in the World Breastfeeding Photo Contest. Villaluna was awarded during Tuesday’s exhibit opening. (Courtesy Mari Villaluna)

Women breastfeeding in public celebrated in City Hall photo exhibit

When Mari Villaluna protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline last fall, she brought her then-7-month-old child Ami, and, as she would anywhere, breastfed her. But, she said feeding her daughter at the action at Standing Rock felt safer than doing so in San Francisco’s public spaces.

To promote a positive image of breastfeeding in public spaces, Villaluna and 15 other women posed for a new month-long photo exhibition that opened on Tuesday in San Francisco City Hall. Mothers were photographed breastfeeding their infants, from eight weeks to almost 2 years old, while sitting on park benches and in grassy areas.

“Thank you for allowing us to share beauty of relationship with your child and your own body,” Supervisor Katy Tang said to the mothers at the opening of the event on Tuesday. “All women should feel comfortable being able to breastfeed anywhere, anytime, any space.”

On June 13, the Board of Supervisors approved legislation — which was introduced by Tang and Supervisor Malia Cohen in March — requiring employers to provide a clean and safe place for lactation. Spaces should include a chair, a surface, access to electricity and a sink and refrigerator nearby, according to Tang’s office. The legislation goes into effect in January 2018.

For the photo exhibit, Tang partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health Lactation Collaborative for the exhibit to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week, officials said.

“By giving the baby breastmilk, the mom is giving the perfect gift to her baby, one that is irreplaceable,” said Mary Hansell, the director of the maternal, child and adolescent health from Department of Public Health.

While Hansell explained that breastmilk is a nutritious and natural food for infants, toddler Amy Villaluna wandered up to her. The more than 80 audience members laughed as Hansell lifted up the girl, letting her speak into the microphone.

Among the audience members was Samantha Brancato, one of the two photographers featured at the exhibit, who is also the mother of a 2-year-old son. She said through her photos, she wanted to help normalize breastfeeding, and also highlight how special the experience is.

“When I breastfed my son, even in public, time slowed down all around me, and it was like just our little moment together,” she told the Examiner.

Ruth Arevalo was featured in the exhibit with her infant son and said she felt empowered when breastfeeding.

“When you breastfeed your kid, not only it is emotional support for them, but also for you,” she said. “You feel so heroic, like a goddess. You feel like you are saving someone’s life every day, all day, and you’re giving the source that keeps them alive.”

Despite the benefits of breastmilk, only 43 percent of mothers in San Francisco exclusively breastfeed for no more than one month following the birth of their child, according to Tang’s office. Nationwide, only 25 percent of working mothers breastfeed for one month after returning to work, though specialists recommend children are breastfed until they are at least six months old, Tang said.

Argelia Barcena, a breastfeeding mother featured in the exhibit, said her employer provided a room for her to pump milk, and without it, she would have needed to go home at least twice a day and feed her baby.

Another mother, Mariah Holmes, agreed The City supports breastfeeding in public or at work, but said many people sexualize or disapprove of the practice.

“There is still a long way to go to make it OK everywhere,” she said.

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