Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk – The Feminist Wire

Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk

It’s a hot, muggy day in London. There’s a yellow haze around the city.  You’ve been trawling through shops in Covent Garden for hours with your kids in tow (because the baby minder is sick again, or maybe just hung-over). You’ve inhaled more than your fair share of exhaust fumes, and you’re flat-out whipped. Your five-year old has had three meltdowns already, one underneath the black and beige plus-sized slips in a department store, and your two-year old dropped her favorite stuffy down the sewer. You are in desperate need of a break.

So you step into The Icecreamists on Maiden Lane for refreshment. It isn’t as kid-friendly as you might expect of an ice cream store, with the skull and cross-spoons logo and the “lick your addiction” slogan. In fact, you’re not even sure it sells ice cream. It feels a bit like a tattoo parlor or a swank nightclub, all black and fuchsia, and you start to wonder if maybe you can order a stiff cocktail instead. So you check out the menu while struggling to hold on to your parcels and contain your wayward progeny. You take note of a flavor called Vanilla Monologues, another called Sex Bomb (you cover your five-year old’s eyes, while also thinking you could certainly use a sex bomb right about now), and further down the list, you spot a treat called the Carameltdown. Appropriate, you think.

Then your eyes travel to an unusual menu item called the Baby Gaga. Hmmm, you wonder, is this a tribute to the slightly lunatic, meat-wearing, headline-hungry musician? No, apparently it’s just another type of ice cream. Except this flavor, unlike the others (presumably), is made from human breast milk. That is, “white gold” from the mammaries of homo sapien women, and not the standard dairy fare issued from captive bovines. Ick, you think, feeling a bit tottery now and slightly off your feed. So away you go, trailing your disgruntled children to the nearest Starbucks—thank goodness for globalization—to grab a venti nonfat latte and a slice of pumpkin loaf.

Or do you?

Reactions to the debut of Baby Gaga have ranged from a threatened lawsuit from Lady Gaga (likely baseless, as she allegedly borrowed her own moniker from the Queen song Radio Ga Ga), to pop culture fascination, to outright disgust. Public officials in the United Kingdom first banned, then investigated, then ultimately offered their stamp of approval to The Icecreamists’ innovative treat, declaring breast milk to be “safe.” Of course, this did not stem the media tide, as journalists, commentators and the public remain intrigued by the Baby Gaga saga. Similar voracious media interest followed a 2008 tongue-in-cheek recommendation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that Ben and Jerry’s replace cow’s milk with human breast milk; PETA acknowledged later the campaign was meant to draw attention to the plight of calves separated from their mothers shortly after birth.

This almost voyeuristic attention to the details of breast-milk-as-ice-cream is unsurprising; after all, as noted by my friend and colleague Eric Wertheimer, a father of two who in all probability did not breastfeed his daughters, breast milk is positioned culturally “at the fine line between cannibalism and nutrition.” Indeed.

In the service of raising explicitly feminist questions about breast milk ice cream, and not simply reproducing the media frenzy, I polled a few other friends and colleagues about their views. By no means is this a random sample; it’s basically the kind of convenience sample (n=3) one gets when one sends a late afternoon email to comrades down the hall. (I have discussed my own embodied relationship to breast milk and breastfeeding elsewhere, so won’t rehash these sentiments here.)

Sharon Kirsch, a rhetorician, literary scholar and mother of two, writes, “Lift our brows, increase our bust, trim our labia, permanently remove our hair, and now sell our breast milk. Call me a feminist without a sense of humor, but this particular commodification of women’s bodies strikes me as problematic. Perhaps if we lived in a land of nutritious abundance, then I’ll take a cone. (It is tasty.) But there are many breast milk banks that could use donations, and I’m tired of the endless commodification of women’s bodies. Call me a feminist with a sense of humor, and I’ll take it in a dish topped with semen, the Semen Sundae. (Umm, actually, I’ll just stick with hot fudge.)”

And this from Bertha Manninen, a philosopher and mother of a young daughter: “Doesn’t gross me out. I do think we have to rethink why breast milk is so controversial for adult consumption (I think it’s because of the sexualization of breasts…and said sexualization is viewed as a perversion or gross – ironic huh?). But I do think it heightens the commodification of women; as if we needed more reason to be concerned about that.”

Shari Collins-Chobanian, also a philosopher, writes, “If I wanted to suckle at some woman’s breast, I’d need to either be starving (à la Steinbeck) or need to possess the lesbian gene and have a milk fetish.  As I don’t, NO, I would not try this, and yes, it’s gross to me, but I could care less if others want to imbibe via the ice cream…At least it won’t be factory farmed?”

In addition to these responses, I posted the news about Baby Gaga on my Facebook page, eliciting an array of reactions, some of which prompted the current article:


“Thoughts of dairy farms. Not going to go there.”

“Please Monica…do hurry with the article. I have heard vegans comment on how we think cow’s milk is okay – but not breast milk…All I can imagine is women hooked up to milking machines…and justifications for the selling of breast milk as a commodity to help poor women earn a living.”

“I am very uncomfortable about this, for multiple reasons. I just met somebody who is studying and actually making human milk cheese. Interestingly, she links the growing markets for human milk to the new, more efficient technologies that lead to the surplus of milk.”

“If men had breast milk, my guess is they would have been selling it for a long time now.”

“Gag, gaga. Breast milk – best thing ever for babies. Now, if we could get ‘surplus’ breast milk to malnourished infants…”

Remarkably consistent themes emerged from this feedback: commodification, sexualization, industrialization, feminization, titillation and the supply chain. I am especially struck by references to “factory farming” and milking machines. Use of human breast milk in commercial contexts, no matter how small the enterprise, seems almost automatically to evoke the imagery of bovine milk production. Although the Icecreamists may claim a kind of locavore status for Baby Gaga, in that it streams from just one, now-infamous donor, agricultural technologies of breast pumping, transfer and storage were required to move the ingredients from Victoria Hiley’s breasts to the shop’s cream-making apparatus. While certainly not mass-production by bovine standards, breast milk ice cream is yet one more kilometer down the well-traveled road on which women’s bodies and their parts are marketed, distributed and sold.

For a richer, more filling account of Gaga-gate, I suggest feminists need to pay attention to a few additional elements of the story. First, why does Icecreamists founder Matt O’Connor insist on referring to breast milk ice cream as “Mr. Nippy?” Seriously, if we’re going to gender breast milk, then I’ll go out on a limb here and argue for gendering in the direction of female; at the very least, insisting on accurate origin stories will remind us from whence and whom human breast milk flows. One can only imagine the outraged sperm donors, and the shrivel epidemic, at clinics across the United States if semen technicians began referring to men’s penises as Little Miss Winky. Of course, bringing sperm donation into the mix does invoke the complicated ethics of selling one’s own body fluids: as one friend noted earlier via the Facebook post, if men can do it, why not women?

Second, any feminist account of the Gaga brouhaha needs to consider the history of breasts and breastfeeding; after all, breast pumps aside, milk production does not occur in a vacuum. Two excellent places to start: Linda Blum’s At the Breast and Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Breast. Each book charts the politics of women’s anatomy and the ongoing, spectacular obsession with what comes out of breasts (i.e., milk) and what breasts go into (i.e., human mouths). With respect to the human breast, food and sex are culturally nonfungible; sex educator Betty Dodson once referred (ironically) to breasts as the “titty dinner.” Yet when we fail to analytically pull apart food and sex, nutrition and pleasure, sustenance and recreation, we risk reducing women to objects. Women as embodied agents make breast milk, with or without pumping technologies, and they most often do so for specific babies, not for ice cream shops and money shots. And while breastfeeding may indeed be pleasurable, even sexual, for some women, to suggest it is always sexual and thus culturally offensive does women (and their nursing babies) a profound disservice.

Third, what should we make of governmental claims that breast milk ice cream is “safe” when data routinely show a significant level of toxins of all kinds in human breast milk measured across the planet, even in so-called remote locations such as Greenland? When breast milk biomonitoring—itself a contested practice with gendered and racial implications—reveals mercury, pesticides, solvents and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in human milk, then the entire foundation of the “breast is best” mantra is challenged. Engaging with scientific debates about formula versus breastfeeding is beyond the scope of this article (but see Joan B. Wolf’s deliciously controversial Is Breast Best?). I do, however, want to suggest that questions about industrial effluvia in human breast milk are feminist questions—not only or even primarily because women feed babies, but more importantly, because women’s health matters. If breast milk is toxic, as may be the case in northeastern Japan and beyond in the wake of the diabolical earthquake/tsunami/nuclear hat trick, then perhaps we should be worrying about breast cancer and other potentially lethal diseases, too.

Finally, we need to talk about race and class. While it’s appropriate to be concerned about commodifying women’s bodies, and to recognize that “choice” and “consent” are inadequate concepts for theorizing women’s relationships to neoliberalism, we would do well to remember that layers of inequality are embedded in capitalizing on the female form and its components. Poor women and women of color have, throughout history, served as both voluntary and less-than-voluntary wet nurses for women of privilege. The institution of chattel slavery was rife with forced reproduction, including breastfeeding, as Dorothy Roberts, Wilma A. Dunaway and other scholars have shown, and as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison depicted so hauntingly in Beloved. The right not to be commodified and not to have one’s children commodified remains unevenly distributed globally, nationally and locally.

So what is the “proper” feminist response to breast milk ice cream? Do we express revulsion and disgust at yet another sensationalistic, commercial use of women’s bodies and their issue, or do we subscribe to a kind of liberal feminist code of live and let suckle? Instead of trapping ourselves between binaries that confine us like so much underwire, I suggest we imagine some alternatives that highlight how absurd the tale (and sale) of Baby Gaga is. Here’s one possibility: we simply remove the middle-man, the ice cream makers of the world like Matt O’Connor with their cones and their spoons, their catchy little names and their bottom lines, and we place consumers directly at the source. No upscale ice cream shops in this scenario; here, lactating women would simply recline on milk bars, nipples exposed like spigots, while customers mosey on up for a healthy, organic gulp of Mother Nature.