Quick: What's the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Victoria's Secret? Breasts, right? Lingerie and fragrances and all that stuff, sure — but mostly scantily clad breasts.
So it may come as a bit of a shock to learn that the Boob Empire doesn't always support the breasts. It certainly came as a shock to Austinite Ashley Clawson, who was told by a Victoria's Secret employee that she could not breastfeed in the store.
The incident happened on January 13, at The Domain store. Clawson, 27, a stay-at-home mother of two who just started a photography company, was shopping with her 4-month-old son. The store was not very busy, with few customers at the time, she recalls.
"I had never thought of breastfeeding as such a shameful thing, especially in a store where breasts are visible in every corner," says Austin mother Ashley Clawson.
After choosing her items, which totaled nearly $150, Clawson was checking out when her infant son started to fuss. Clawson politely asked the Victoria's Secret associate if she could breastfeed her baby in the fitting room.
"The woman who checked me out began to nod her head yes, but before she had a chance to respond, the employee next to her immediately responded by telling me I was not allowed to nurse my son in her store," Clawson says. "Instead, I could walk outside to a nearby alley."
The employee continued to inform Clawson that it was a long alley, so if she walked all the way down, no one would see her. "I was instantly confused and shocked, so to clarify, I asked her, 'You want me to take my son outside, down an alley, and nurse him?' She responded by saying yes.
"It was cold and windy — there was no way I was going to walk down an alley in the middle of the elements to feed my son." Her car was also parked quite a distance away.
By that point, Clawson's baby was very upset and crying. In disbelief, the young mother took her son out of the store and rushed to the nearest bathroom, where she fed him sitting in a toilet stall. She called her husband, who was also confused by what had just happened.
"There are many emotions I felt in that moment," Clawson says. "Disbelief, hopelessness, humiliation, anger and confusion. I had never thought of breastfeeding as such a shameful thing, especially in a store where breasts are visible in every corner.
"But at that moment, I began questioning myself. Why is this not allowed? For a chain that promotes 'the beauty' of the female body, and that shows pictures of almost nude women, breastfeeding should most certainly be welcomed."
Clawson says she had never researched the laws protecting breastfeeding rights in Texas; she never had to before this incident. But as she has discovered since, Texas law protects a woman's right to nurse her baby anywhere.
"Breasts have been so oversexualized in our society that it's completely acceptable to have huge billboards of half-naked women wearing Victoria's Secret push-up bras and thongs, yet I need to go hide down alley in order to breastfeed my son," says Clawson. "Oh, the irony!"
After she returned home that afternoon, Clawson called the Victoria's Secret customer service number and spoke to a man for more than half an hour to report the incident.
"He said he filed the complaint and they would be in touch. However, the next day, when I called them back, there was no record of my complaint, so once again, I was on the phone for another 30 minutes explaining my experience. The new contact said they would be in touch as well."
Clawson also called The Domain store where the incident happened and spoke with a manager, who confirmed her story and identified the employee who refused to let Clawson breastfeed in the store. The manager also offered to send Clawson "something" in the mail, which she has yet to receive.
Clawson also wrote to Victoria's Secret CEO Sharon Jester Turney. There have been no responses as of yet to any of her complaints, although the company did make the following statement to Fox 7 news in Austin:
We take this issue very seriously. We have a longstanding policy permitting mothers to nurse their children in our stores, and we are sorry that it was not followed in this case. We have apologized to Ms. Clawson, and we are taking actions to ensure all associates understand our policy that welcomes mothers to breastfeed in our stores.
"It really doesn't seem like Victoria's Secret is taking this seriously," Clawson says. After she posted about her bad experience on social media and told friends, word spread, and media outlets began contacting her, as did nursing advocacy groups such as Keep Austin Nursing in Public and the Central Texas Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition. There was a lot of support for Clawson's plight, but some also accused her of staging the incident.
"I have much more to do than take my son to VS with me on a Monday and hope they deny me the right to breastfeed," she says. There are also those who comment that she should have shopped online rather than go out with a baby who might need to eat. "So I should never leave my house in order for you not to have to witness a baby eat?" Clawson asks.
"Truthfully, this is all pretty embarrassing and stressful. However, now that it has become such a story, I hope people will at least be more sensitive to new moms who are just trying to do what's best for their children — whether it's breast or bottle. I am just an everyday mom doing what I think is best for my son, as are all the other mothers in the world. I just hope Victoria's Secret understands the urgency on their part to support moms and nursing moms alike."
Clawson adds that Victoria's Secret could have a great customer base in new mothers if they treated them right. Many new moms want to still feel sexy.
"Do we no longer have that right? Why doesn't Victoria's Secret have a line of nursing bras and tanks? I now have taken on the responsibility to be the voice of new and nursing moms around the country, and I will stand up for what I believe is right."