They have names like Hooter Hiders and Booby Trappers. They sound provocative. But they serve a modest purpose.
The nursing cover, or body apron, is a postnatal accessory that ensures a woman's privacy when she breastfeeds in public, her breasts and her baby hidden from the fussier members of Canadian society.
And make a fuss they do. Over the past summer, women breastfeeding in public places from pools to city transit across the country have been told to cover up, even though breastfeeding in public is considered a human right in Canada.
Women who use the covers say it allows them to nurse without being cooped up at home. But the trend is not without controversy: Some experts are concerned that women will feel pressured to use nursing covers despite their right not to, while others question the growing backlash against public breastfeeding.
Nancy Armstrong, the high-school teacher in Regina who created the Booby Trapperin 2009, said she was uncomfortable nursing her first baby in public but wanted to be able to leave her house. The cover she used was too small, and the single stiffened rim didn't suspend the cotton properly above the bust or away from the baby's head. So she made her own, bigger, cotton covers, doubling the boning to give it enough stiffness to stand up a little ways from her body and let her see her infant daughter.
Ms. Armstrong's business then grew by word of mouth, as people noticed her new contraption, and she sold 400 covers that year. Halfway through 2010 she says her sales have more than doubled. Ms. Armstrong even took the Booby Trapper to a gift suite at the Golden Globes' Boom Boom Room this winter, and now counts TV actresses Marisa Coughlan and Tiffani Thiessen as fans.
"It's just an option for people who are a little bit shy about their bodies and for people who are a little concerned about what other people think," Ms. Armstrong said.
"It really is a personal choice," said Claire Ekelund, owner of Bebe au Lait, based in California. Ms. Ekelund started selling the Hooter Hider - the first nursing cover of its kind - six years ago, after she also made one for herself and people started asking about it. "It's not fair to anyone to say you should cover up or you shouldn't cover up," she said.
Both nursing covers sell for about $45.
Kelly Penz, 35, a nursing faculty member at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Regina, also thinks covers should not be mandatory. But she uses the Booby Trapper in situations where she's not as comfortable breastfeeding out in the open. Also, for new moms, "learning to breastfeed takes work," Ms. Penz said. The cover can help women "feel more private to figure it out."
But with women ditching their shirts to celebrate their right to go topless in Guelph in August, and July's mostly naked bun run in Vancouver, many wonder why people can't handle breasts when there's a baby attached.
"There's a real physical, visceral response that people get disgusted by it," said Andrea O'Reilly, director of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement. "We're a culture that's breast saturated, and yet there's a moral panic when a woman exposes her breast to nurse her baby."
There has been a spate of incidents across Canada this year. In July, a bus driver told Olena Russell, 30, to cover up after she boarded a Victoria bus while breastfeeding her daughter. At a pool in Kitchener, Ont., in June, a lifeguard asked Kristin Howard, 29, if she had an extra towel to cover herself with while she was breastfeeding because people had complained. Also in June, Colleen Frank, 28, was told to stop nursing at a Hamilton McDonald's playroom; and in May, Jenna Baker, 28, was told her actions were offensive after she nursed her daughter at a Winnipeg pool.
Breastfeeding is protected under equality rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is specifically addressed in the human rights codes of some provinces.
Canadian society, Ms. O'Reilly said, is behind and needs to change its attitude. "Why do we have to be discreet?"
Elisabeth Sterken, director of Infact Canada, a breastfeeding advocacy group, said it is important to look at the general attitude in society. "People take the imagery of sexual breasts and apply that to the nursing breast and find it difficult to distinguish between the two, and that's where our society has problems."