You Are What You Drink: A Feminist Critique of Milk and its Consequences for the Female
An Animal Rights Article from


Tessa Cunningham in Sloth: A Journal of Emerging Voices in Human-Animal Studies from Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
March 2015

The reflection of Western patriarchal society's consumption of and relationship to milk is one rooted in gender stereotypes, inequalities, and injustices.

The reminder of the connection between human and non-human mothers contributes to the taboo of public breastfeeding and results in exploitation and objectification that mirrors the confined mother cows hidden on dairy factory farms.

Abstract: In contemporary media, Western society views milk as a symbol of female sexuality: the liquid has become sexy. But sexual objectification of milk succeeds only if the culture is not reminded of milk's origin: the mother, the cow. The reminder of the connection between human and non-human mothers contributes to the taboo of public breastfeeding and results in exploitation and objectification that mirrors the confined mother cows hidden on dairy factory farms. This paper works to remind society of the uses and abuses of dairy cattle, who constitute an example of Carol Adams' absent referents. Revealing the cow as the origin of milk exposes the connections between the human and non-human in order to rectify Western gender and species injustices.


In her provocative book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams (2007) describes the gendered language omnivorous societies have placed upon the consumption options in a human diet. She states, "once vegetables are viewed as women's food, then by association they become viewed as 'feminine,' passive," and therefore "[men] need to dissociate themselves" from them (Adams 2007, 178-179). Conversely, Adams reveals that the language surrounding meat reflects the food's symbol of patriarchy. She asserts, "the whole terminology of meat-eating reflects [a] masculine bias" (Adams 2007, 177). Adams paved the way for the investigation of gender as it relates to diet, and a number of feminist scholars have followed her example and furthered her research to explore the ways in which the gendering of dairy has affected societal views.

Erika Calvo (2008) begins to contextualize dairy within the framework of gender and diet in her examination of the female bovine in relation to animal agriculture in her article, "'Most farmers prefer Blondes': The Dynamics of Anthroparchy in Animals." Calvo explores two main ways in which agricultural animals are gendered: firstly, female farmed animals produce significantly more profit via their reproductive byproducts (i.e. dairy, eggs, and offspring). Their profits are then further maximized when they themselves become meat for human consumption. Secondly, farmed animals are further gendered through selective breeding; "breed journals, for instance, indicate that genetics are manipulated to produce attractive, docile 'good mothers'" (38). Calvo argues that the gendering of the female bovine results in systematic violence against female animals used for breeding (i.e., incarceration, rape, torture, and murder) all in the name of commodification.

Carmen M. Cusack (2013) expands on Calvo's examination of female animal agricultural injustices in her article, "Feminism and Husbandry: Drawing the Fine Line between Mine and Bovine." Cusack takes a special interest in the language and legality of husbandry and argues that current euphemisms and laws legitimize the sexual abuse of farm animals in the name of human consumption. Instead, Calvo proposes extending the term rape to include farm animals: "where husbandry romanticizes and softens the brutality, the word rape conjures an image of forced sexual penetration" (32). Cusack calls on feminists to extend their theories to include all females regardless of species, believing that doing so will benefit humans and non-humans alike.

Ecofeminist Greta Gaard (2013) applies a feminist perspective of animal agriculture even further in her article, "Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies," through the examination of current "Milk Studies" theory which reaffirms Western idealization of milk in regards to breastfeeding, nutritional value, and production. Gaard argues that, to justify and feel comfortable with "breaking" the bio-psycho-social bonds that join mother and calf, dairy scientists, dairy farmers, and dairy consumers alike must deny the web of relationships that defines healthy ecosystems (612). Therefore, the complexity of dairy consumption and production in the Western world is forgotten, leaving the female gender and the environment to suffer the consequences.

The research done by feminist scholars thus far provides evidence of the gendering within animal agriculture, yet the way society views milk must also be explored. The entire dairy industry is, as Deborah Valenze (2011) states in her book, Milk: A Global History, "situated in a culture [where] milk [acts] as a mirror of its host society, reflecting attitudes towards nature, the human body, and technology" (5). When examining milk through this lens, it is clear that milk's connection to nature, the human body, and technology is also deeply connected to society's attitude towards the female. Milk is a liquid associated with kindness, purity, and love, characteristics that have similarly been deemed by Western society as feminine. These ideas are apparent when viewing milk's depiction in advertisements, art, and other forms of popular culture; simultaneously, milk also often becomes sexy. Yet, milk's image only remains sexy when the referent is absent; when society reminds humans of milk's animal and gendered origins, the white liquid and those who produce it become taboo.

Dairy Queens: Milk, Femininity, and Sex in the Media

Bebe Neuwirth got milk
Got Milk ad with Bebe Neuwirth

In recent years, popular culture has glorified the gender of milk. Melanie E. DuPuis (2002) points out in her book, Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink, that advertisers have bombarded society with images of America's "most popular entertainment, sports, and political figures [who] have appeared wearing the telling milk mustache . . . Everywhere [Americans] hear the ominous question: Got Milk?" (210). Much like Adams' suggestions of the sexuality surrounding the language of meat, these advertisements have connected the dairy industry with the implications of societies' stereotypical gender roles. In Figure 1, depicting Bebe Neuwirth, for instance, the caption states:

Singing, dancing, acting, and keeping a killer figure isn't easy. And after all the years I've spent in the spotlight, who knew the best-kept secret was already in my fridge? Recent studies suggest that including 24 ounces of lowfat or fat-free milk a day in a reduced calorie diet may help you lose more weight than cutting calories alone so you can stay lean and strong. Now that's something to sing about.

The advertisement effectively illustrates the ideas of Deane Curtain (1991), author of "Toward an Ecological Ethic of Care." Curtain speaks of the "culturally sanctioned oppressive attitudes towards the shape of the body," an ideology of which women, more than men, experience the effects (69). The advertisement does this by utilizing the function of Adams' (2008) term the absent referent- "to keep something from being seen as someone" (23). Adams first applies the term to meat eating, revealing the something as a hamburger and the someone as "a cow, a lamb, a once-alive being, a subject" (23). She then extends the term to apply to women, who become absent referents through sexual objectification (107). Bebe Neuwirth becomes one of Adams' absent referents through her lost identity. In the ad, her subject status is destructed, and all that is left is a figure-her figure. The destruction of the woman is apparent by the text placed directly next to her head, which reads, "it figures." The "it" the advertisers are referring to is the woman, whose talent-contrary to what the text reads-is not on display. What is on display is her body, an image that has been alienated from the person. However, the text used in the advertisement is not the only aspect suggesting the social construction of physical gender expectations.

The ad employs the cues of violability referenced in Carol J. Adams' (2008) book, The Pornography of Meat. Adams' cues include cuing through appearance, gesture, and ornamentation. In combination, these cues further destruct the person, creating "fragmented body parts, in which the accentuated body part stands for the whole, available, 'fuckable' woman" (106). The sexual nature Western society has placed upon milk is further apparent in the learned cues of Bebe Neuwirth as depicted in the "Got Milk" ad. She appears ornamented in a short black dress with fishnets and heels, a common sexual image in Western culture. She gestures with legs spread open, her arms crossed; this pose is highlighting her sexuality and her passive nature simultaneously. This passivity, Adams (2007) argues, is what connects her to the vegetable, but the sexuality of the woman is directly connected to her animalistic self, and ultimately, the overall purpose of the advertisement- to sexualize and sell milk.

fairlife porno ad
fairlife ad

Moreover, the gendering and sexual portrayal of milk is apparent in the recent work of London-based photographer, Jaroslav Wieczorkiewic. Wieczorkiewic's photographs have recently gained vast amounts of online media attention and have been utilized in Fairlife milk's new racy ad campaign. Wieczorkiewic creates his images of pin-up women wearing dresses of milk by taking "hundreds of photos of each pose, pouring real milk over women, and . . . combining the pictures" (Wynick 2013, 3). The artist's inspiration stems from the popular pin-up art of the 1940's and 50's (Wynick 2013, 4). This artistic movement was famous for sexualizing the everyday expected tasks of women, such as: ironing, cleaning, or as shown in Figure 2, adhering to society's standards of beauty. As previously stated, the emphasis on a woman's weight is a direct reflection of the destruction of women in Western culture, and yet again, the woman is sexualized through the depiction of milk. Wieczorkiewic does this by placing the young woman in nothing but heels; her long legs are emphasized, and her erect nipples are protruding through the white liquid society has linked to love, kindness, purity, and now, through the artist's vision, sex. To further sexually objectify the woman, the text boldly tells its audience to "drink what she's wearing," and draws attention to the increased amount of protein in the drink. Doing so targets a heterosexual male audience with the reference to the masculinity of protein found in meat. Fairlife's ad is telling these heterosexual men that drinking their brand of milk increases their masculinity, and therefore, increases their ability to dominate a woman's body and sexuality. However, the ad also targets a female audience by promising the proposed image of female perfection and beauty, an image based entirely on a woman's weight.

Nestle's Skinny Cow promo

The Nestle owned Skinny Cow, a diet milk-based dessert company, uses similar cues to target a widely female audience. Skinny Cow advertisements take the expected passivity of the woman and the sexuality of the animal one step further through, what Adams (2008) calls "anthropornography" or the "depiction of nonhuman animals as whores" (109). Figure 3 depicts the Skinny Cow mascot, who comes with her very own sex selling advertisement: "Meet Skinny, a.k.a. the goddess of all things delicious and indulgent. She laughs often, lives life to the fullest, and never denies herself a Skinny snack" ("The Skinny on Skinny 2014). The image of Skinny looks strangely familiar. Skinny is depicted as oddly human, with all reference to what truly connects her to human females hidden and removed; there is no trace of Skinny's milk producing udders. Instead, Skinny is sexualized through cues. The audience is left with an anthropomorphic female with legs crossed, proving she is what the advertisement states: docile, complacent- the perfect woman. Again, she is alienated from herself through the emphasis on her figure, and this time it's measurable in the inches wrapped around her waist. She is made up entirely of cues for the buyer: from her bright red lips to her perfectly curled lashes, everything about Skinny screams out that her sex is for sale. Sexual objectification through anthropornography amplifies the breadth of the absent referent within art and advertisements popular in Western Society. The absent referent is the woman, the cow, and the connections between them.

A Mother's Milk: The Taboos of Breastfeeding

What happens, however, when Adams' anthropornography is reversed? What happens when a woman's sexuality reminds the audience of her relationship and alignment with other non-human mammals? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) attempted to bring this absent referent to light by exposing the link between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of dairy cattle in their Milk Gone Wild Campaign. In the article, "Disturbing Images PETA and the Feminist Ethics of Animal Advocacy," Maneesha Deckha (2008) describes the Milk Gone Wild campaign as "a political spoof of the Girls Gone Wild (GGW) phenomenon; GGW is an industry that centers on a television show targeted at selling videos/DVDs of college aged women who bare their breasts for the camera" (46). PETA's spoof depicted college-aged, primarily white, women flashing the camera, as one would expect in a GGW video. However, instead of human breasts, the viewer is flashed cow udders-"swollen, engorged, and dripping with milk streaming down onto the floors and past the open mouths of drunken and crazed young, largely white, men whooping the women on" (Deckha 2008, 48). The goal of the campaign was to reveal "the abuses involved in the dairy industry and the unnaturalness of drinking milk and consuming dairy" (Deckha 2008, 48). Whether or not PETA achieved this goal and whether or not they did so ethically is still up for debate, but what The Milk Gone Wild Campaign did effectively accomplish was exposing the taboo of aligning humans with non-human mammals in Western society. Lisa Kemmerer (2011) describes women's connection to animals in her book, Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, and states that "females-sows and cows and hens and women-suffer because of their sex in Western patriarchal culture, where female bodies are exploited as sex symbols for reproduction, for breast milk" (Kemmerer 2011, 19). Western society aligns women with non-human animals through the way in which they treat them; both human and non-human females are viewed as nothing more than their bodies, resulting in the devastation of both parties.

The devastation inflicted by the hyper sexual portrayal of the human female body contributes to the taboo of public breastfeeding. Maureen Sander-Staudt (2010) draws attention to this fact in her article, "Lactational Burkas and Milkmen: On Breastfeeding and Male Lactation," by drawing attention to Western society's view of breasts, society often forgets of the breasts dual purpose:

As Monica Casper observes, squeamishness over public breastfeeding in part has to do with the non-sexual nature of lactation: given that we are bombarded constantly by pornographic suggestive displays of women's anatomy, I suspect discomfort with breastfeeding has more do with context than content . . . what unsettles people about lactating breasts is being forced to observe these repositories of fantasy in a context that is decidedly non-sexual. (134)

Because today's culture does not view breastfeeding as erotic, breastfeeding in public has become taboo. The taboo results in the breastfeeding mother becoming the absent referent: society does not accommodate her and would rather ignore her. She is therefore forced to:

nurse or pump breast-milk in a restroom stall, which is cramped, under demand, lacking in basic amenities and comforts, and sometimes smelly or dirty . . . [creating] not only an inconvenience, but an indignity to mothers and children. The effects of these spatial arrangements are, as disability advocates have urged, issues of equality of opportunity and civic inclusion. (Sander-Staudt 2011, 132)

Once breasts take on matriarchal duty, Western society forces what were once viewed as iconic components of the female form and sexuality into situations that mirror the living conditions of dairy cattle living on a factory farm.

The animal-like treatment of breastfeeding mothers is possibly another result of the alignment of the human female to the non-human mammal. Western society much prefers the absent referent, and when the image of a lactating woman is placed in front of them it acts as "a reminder of the needs of human flesh, and a desire to avoid thinking about the vulnerability to which these needs attest" (Sander-Staudt 2011, 132). If man is faced with the act of breastfeeding, which connects women to other lactating mammals, the myth of human dominance over all other animals begins to be dispelled. It is, therefore, not surprising that

some of the discomfort behind breastfeeding is probably a reminder of our animality, of the fact that we are mammals, animals that nurse their young. This point was brought home recently in the widespread revulsion to PETA's suggestion that coffee houses replace cow's milk with human milk. But why should it be considered more disgusting to drink human milk than cow milk, when the risks of contamination are equal in both cases, and the nutritional benefits of human breast milk are greater, unless we are uncomfortable with the idea of milking humans, and the intra-species dependencies and intimacies that follow? (Sander-Staudt 2011, 136)

The disgust surrounding PETA's suggestion of creating a commodity of human breast milk has reoccurred time and time again. Members of society have called it unethical, saying it feels like cannibalism (Gaard 2013, 602). Yet, this begs the question "what does it feel like for the breastfeeding mother?" Regardless of species, to feel like a lactating mother in Western society often means to feel oppressed. The image of a breastfeeding woman in a bathroom stall could easily remind the reader of the living conditions that a female cow is faced with on a factory farm.

Cunts, Slags, Dosys, Cows: Gendering and Oppression on Factory Farms

Jim Mason and Mary Finelli (2007) describe factory farming conditions in detail in their article, "Brave New Farm?:"

Most milk in the US comes from cows in intensive confinement, most commonly kept tethered to a stall. Increasingly popular in the west and southwest are dry lots: dirt or concrete lots devoid of vegetation and often without shade. They are only thoroughly cleaned once or twice a year, allowing manure to build up from the thousands of cows they hold. (161)

The great discomfort parallels the breastfeeding mother who has been stripped of her freedoms and forced into the confinements of an unsanitary public restroom to the dairy cow who is stripped of her natural environment, reproductive rights, and breast milk.

For this reason, it is ironic that an old motto among Wisconsin dairy farmers was "speak to a cow as you would a lady" (Valenze 2011, 1). The irony comes in because it is unlikely these farmers saw the repercussions of the separation of a human female from the dairy cow, but instead they noticed that cows with names produce significantly more milk than cows without (Valenze 2011, 1). This is likely because farmers who take the care of naming each cow are more likely to care for their overall mental health as well, and it is proven that "when handlers interacted with cows with respect and affection, annual milk production averaged slightly more than 68 gallons higher than less friendly settings" (Valenze 2011, 1). Furthermore, these same Wisconsin dairy farmers reported "their cows expressing joy, jealousy, sulkiness, and fear" (Valenze 2011, 1). While it may be difficult for some members in Western society to understand how these emotions are possible for a non-human mammal, the answer lies in biology. Lisa Kemmerer describes the biology of farmed animals: "farmed animals have a central nervous system and show recognizable signs of physical distress and psychological trauma-similar to those of humanity-when they are physically harmed and/or tightly confined on factory farms and when their young are snatched from their protective care" (Kemmerer 2011, 12). Yet the human disconnect from animals causes factory farmers to deny the evidence and continue to exploit female cattle much like human females are exploited through sexual objectification. During the time Erika Calvo (2008) spent interviewing and observing British farmers, she found "animals, regardless of sex, are feminized metaphorically by slaughterhouse staff in terms of the use of gendered terms of abuse which are applied to animals (cunt, slag, bitch, dosy, cow) used often to hurry them" (40). Gendered slurs for non-compliant cattle are the same slurs often used to exploit and objectify non-gender-conforming women.

The exploitation of female cattle on factory farms can also be seen in the statistics. Roger W. Palmer (2005), author of Dairy Modernization, states, "in the forty year period from 1955 to 1995, the number of dairy farms decreased from 2.7 million to 137,000, while the average herd size increased from eight to 69 cows per herd. Milk production increased from less than 6,000 pounds per cow per year to over 16,000" (3). So, while the overall number of cattle decreased, each cattle was producing significantly more milk. Unfortunately, this increase in production was not the result of incredibly relaxed cows, but rather the continued technological advancements made by those in the dairy industry. These advancements have been described as "sophisticated technology that Karl Marx would recognize as ruthless agents of alienation" (Valenze 2011, 8). The technological advancements range from the recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), which increases milk production, to electroejaculation of bulls in order to obtain semen and breed dairy cattle through human agency, an exploitation of both the female and male reproductive system. Once the cow gives birth to her calf, her child is ripped from her care within a matter of days: "in the US every year about 750,000 calves-mostly males, who are of little use to the dairy industry-are taken from their mothers within a day of birth . . . the young calves, stressed by the separation from their mothers, are placed in narrow stalls, lined up row on row in the confinement building" (Mason & Finelli 2007, 162). The mother cow is then sent back to her pen and the milking cycle continues. This will be her short life; most cows in factory farms are culled after four or five years when they are no longer considered high milk producers.


In Western patriarchal society milk is sexy, that is, until members of that society are reminded of its primal origins. Humans not only drink milk, but also use its image to highlight the sexuality of women through advertisements and art. Organizations such as PETA have used society's fixation on milk and sexuality in an attempt to expose the injustices faced by cattle on factory farms. In doing so, they have also exposed the anxieties Western culture feels towards the connection between human and non-humans, and the beings paying the consequences resulting from these anxieties are largely female. Human females who are breastfeeding are no longer seen as sexual objects, but rather as something not human. Consequently, women are forced into hiding to feed their young. Similarly, the disconnection of the human from the animal has also resulted in horrific farming conditions for the female cow. The factory farms she lives on are the direct result of Western technologies further being used to distance the human-like characteristics that can be seen in farm animals from the farmer. Therefore, "since the consumption of . . . milk exploit[s] the reproductive capacities of the female . . . through the food which becomes our bodies we are engaged in food practices that reflect who we are (Curtain 1991, 1). The reflection of Western patriarchal society's consumption of and relationship to milk is one rooted in gender stereotypes, inequalities, and injustices.


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