Breast is best: More on feminism and animal rights


Since another PETA ad campaign is making the rounds in the blogosphere -- this one persuading Ben and Jerry's to use breast milk instead of cows' milk (Breast is best!) -- I wanted to offer a little bit here and send people over to a post that captures some of what's on my mind. Namely, the all-too-common refusal of non-veg*n feminists to even engage with the legitimate animal cruelty issues raised by organizations like PETA, and, as another example, the recent Skinny Bitch book series.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of PETA. Nor am I big fan of Skinny Bitch. That so many people associate what to many of us is a movement based on compassion with PETA -- a group that regularly displays both genuine ass-hattery and sexism, racism, classism, sizeism... -- is beyond frustrating. And that so many people are now coming to veganism through Skinny Bitch -- a book that plays upon women's insecurities about their size and appearance -- well, sometimes it makes me want to put a fork in my eye. 

Both PETA and the authors of Skinny Bitch deserve criticism for their approach. But this criticism needs to be situated in a larger cultural context. Is it PETA's fault or the authors of Skinny Bitch that the only animal rights messages that tend to get people's attention are the ones that titillate, and the ones that focus on people's appearance?

More importantly, as Kelly points out in her post, an equally legitimate point of criticism is the way in which we use animals for things like food, clothing, entertainment, research, and hunting ("game"). And yet. Time and again the jackass and/or offensive tactics used by one animal rights organization or book are the only point of focus, with the issue of cruelty to non-human animals totally disregarded.

Like many (most?) of PETA's campaigns, the current Breast is Best campaign is a publicity stunt (and an effective one at that; Kelly points out in her post that a Google search for "Peta + breast milk" yields over 50,000 hits). Does anyone actually think that PETA thinks that replacing cows' milk for breast milk in ice cream has a chance of being implemented?

There's absolutely no way that we could possibly produce that much milk from American human mams. No way.

And again, that's the point.

Because, rather than being a serious proposal, this is a thought experiment, meant to demonstrate how ridiculous - how ridiculously cruel - the mass consumption of dairy really is. 582 pounds of milk, you see, demands quite a bit of suffering at the expense of the milk producers: the dairy cows who produce milk, and the veal calves they give birth to. Those nameless, faceless milk machines, yeah?

Mothers, daughters and sons.

They don't really mean to suggest that American tits be hooked up to breast pumps 20 hours a day in order to whet our appetite for a highly unnatural, wholly unnecessary product.

They mean for you to imagine what a system might be like, and then extend that compassion and consideration and horror and outrage to those animals who currently are suffering for our convenience.

So ok. Criticize groups like PETA and books like Skinny Bitch. But remember there's a reason for their approach that lies out of their control. And remember that between all the publicity and shock attempts, there are legitimate issues being addressed that deserve examination and discusssion. Please don't make the same mistake they do and focus on oppression at the expense of another.

by Debbie Rasmussen
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18 Comments Have Been Posted


I agree with you on the point that so much more is made out of the controversy than the actual issue with PETA's campaigns and something like (ugh) the Skinny Bitch book. Yeah, according to trend, sex sells and sensationalized sex sells even more. If PETA made a mock-sex tape as part of their next campaign, I would not be at all surprised. And yeah, we are totally prone to focusing more on the fact that a *naked woman* is in the cage on the sidewalk one day than that all kinds of mammals and birds are in the same cages in warehouses every day.

Skinny Bitch is harder for me to justify. Could be just because I'm extremely not a fan of the chapter called "Don't Be A Pussy" (on so many levels). Is it their fault that the only messages people bat an eye at are the controversial ones? No. Is it under their control? No. But are they capitalizing on those controversies when they write (on the FIRST page!) "Healthy=Skinny. Unhealthy=Fat"? Yeah...and is that ok if in the end more people are interested in veganism and have some kind of raised consciousness about animal rights issues, regardless of whether it's at the expense of our own body image? Idk.

I just do not get the point of cutting down other people who are also struggling to do something good in the world, in order to do good in the world. Is that too idealistic? Maybe it's too simplistic. Maybe I should go draw unicorns and rainbows?


yeah, i hear you on all of this. my struggle is -- yes, the tone is obnoxious, superficial, and plays on people's insecurities about their weight and appearance. but it also has more honest information about the US food industry than many (most?) other health books out there. and it's the one and only book to have ever broken into the mainstream with a vegan message strongly rooted in animal rights, the only one (as far as i know) taking the USDA and the dairy lobby to task, the only one highlighting the reality for slaughterhouse animals.

so there's a part of me that simply can't help but be happy. but like i said, it's only a part.

and yes to unicorns and rainbows!

vegan rainbows for all!

I recently read a book called The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend. I initially picked it up because it has the sweetest cows on the cover, but actually, I would recommend it for someone who isn't quite ready to go animal-free, as an introduction to the massive ills of slaughterhouses, and to the need for animal rights. I guess the reason I thought of it is in the book, she's learning all this stuff too, and really wrestling with the question: if you're going to eat meat - or eggs - or drink milk, can you do it compassionately? There's a whole chapter on food waste, and how much of the food americans buy that never makes it to anyone's mouth. It's not the same message as S.B., but it's a pretty good one IMO. And she's a lesbian farmer living in the midwest, how cool is that?!

oh & i just remembered...

I actually had someone ask me why I could support a magazine called Bitch but not a book called Skinny Bitch. I said because Bitch mag thinks all women are fabulous, not just the skinny ones...

Anything goes?

It's the at-any-cost single-mindedness that's so maddening about PETA in the first place. You are asking us to engage with an organization (and using tactics) that refuses to engage with any other issues. If people aren't taking the issues that PETA are addressing seriously enough it's their own fault for having such profound blinders on.

absolutely ...

... and whenever PETA is not in the news at any given time, they make up new and even more controversial ways to keep themselves in the spotlight.

Boonies, get your facts straight.

So according to your loads of evidence, peta just 'makes up' anything they want just to get in the spotlight?

You clearly don't know much about how the world out there is for animals. They don't HAVE to make things up. I'm not surprised you want to think they're made up to assuage your guilt- meat eater, i presume?- but believe me, it's all true.

And peta may use sexism occasionally to grab attention for a WORTHIER cause. So the hell what? I'd walk around downtown naked for a week if it would mean the end of animal cruelty, and that does not make me a bad feminist. It makes me a goddamn human being.

PETA vs animal rights

i'm not asking people to engage with the organization, but to engage with the issues they work on. i totally hear you on the single-mindedness. i, too, find it maddening (and also find it maddening when "feminist" organizations are singularly focused). it often feels, tho, that people use the fact that their tactics are so offensive to give themselves a pass for even having to consider the issues they're working on.

i don't love peta, and i

i don't love peta, and i agree that their approach is often clueless and offensive. that said, i still appreciate that they're doing more to champion animal rights and bring attention to animal suffering than i am, and bringing the issue of animal exploitation to the attention of the mainstream is not an easy or simple task.

alot of the faults i see in peta echo a larger problem with many social justice movements/organization. A failure to see the bigger picture and a disinterest in self-examination. Also, and most importantly, a lack of perspective -- being unable/unwilling to incorporate a critique of capitolism, sexism, racism, etc. in their quest to accomplish certain (admirable) goals.

i think if we are going to critique organizations like peta, this would be an appropriate and productive angle.

still, when criticizing peta, it's important and worth the time to acknowledge their accomplishments, and make mention of the many people who put themselves at great risk to help expose and end animal suffering. also, let them know how you feel in a letter or a phone call. otherwise, we're just spinning our wheels.

Jonathan Swift would be turning in his grave.

PETA seems to miss their mark with each campaign and every new slogan sends their message louder, "we care about the safety, health, compassion of all living things...except women." I have been so disenchanted by PETA for so long that I can barely muster up the strength to even care anymore. PETA is a dreadful, misogynistic, nonprofit conglomeration that puts out these "shocking" (how long do we get to count misogyny as shocking? Anyone shocked by the new axe commercial?) ads at almost the exact same time they launch a new fundraising campaign. Clever.

What's particularly upsetting about this ad though is the appropriation of one of the best class analysis in history. Clearly "inspired" by A Modest Proposal, they took a brilliant, funny, movement building essay that was about the working class and turned in to something well...frankly uninspiring (at best). I get that it's a joke--womens breast milk in ice cream, so impractical its hilarious. But what about the many many women who are still used as wet nurses? And what about the women who can't afford to take time off of work and dont have the choice to breast feed? And what about the women who have been conned into getting their first month of formula free from Nestle and then have babies who are addicted to a formula the moms can't afford to buy. Breast feeding is a feminist issue sure but its also a class issue and if Ben & Jerrys took PETA up on their offer it would be the poor and working class women that would be in those stables and some how, launched in conjunction with a major endowment campaign, I don't think PETA would be as "outraged" with that idea.

looks to me

like you've got the thesis for a mighty fine article, yes?

Gee, good point.

I guess you're right. It gets attention, so it's okay, no matter how it gets that attention. I mean, our culture is misogynistic, so activist organizations NEED to play into that if they're going to ever make a difference. Our culture is also racist, so PETA should probably start being more racist, too. It'd get even more attention that way. Also, since PETA is the only animal rights organization out there, if feminists refuse to engage with them, then they refuse to engage with animal rights at large.

Thanks for the heads up.

maybe i wasn't clear

lots of self-identified feminists *do* engage with peta. so much that it often seems to provide as cover for not having to engage with considerations of non-human animals.

"Is it PETA's fault or the

"Is it PETA's fault or the authors of Skinny Bitch that the only animal rights messages that tend to get people's attention are the ones that titillate, and the ones that focus on people's appearance?"

No, it's not their fault that this is the case, but it is their fault that they resort to that kind of tactic; they have to take some responsibility. I would also say that, aside from undermining their message, it contributes further to this sort of media atmosphere, where a catchy, shocking headline or soundbite is enough and no one is expected to engage with the issues. I was immediately irritated when I saw this ridiculous campaign, not so much because I was offended at the content; my frustrations was more because I feel like, as a (now) non-vegan feminist who does give a shit about animal rights and has struggled with the issue for about 6 years now, campaigns like this do little but to polarize.

I initially read about this in an AP article which had, at it's close, this quote: "The (breast) pumps just weren't that much fun. You really do feel like a cow." What gets me about this is that PETA is making the connection, but only superficially. This woman, and so many others, have never considered the deeper problem *at all*, and a camapign like this isn't even presenting it to them. It is deeply fundamental to this society to separate animals and humans. I really think it takes a HUGE leap for the average person to see that it benefits all people to treat everything with a basic amount of respect and dignity, that the ease with which we can abuse and torture animals is connected with the ease with which humans can resort to hatred and violence to other, "different" humans. All a campaign like this makes them feel is shock and disgust, from which it is natural for someone to turn.

Campaigns like this can never display the sort of nuance and thoughtfulness that are necessarily involved in making food choices. I was vegan for about 8 or 9 months before I caved and ate cheese. At that point it was one of those all or nothing type of things; I felt disdain for myself for being a "cheater." Your either a vegan or a vegetarian or you're not -- none of this pescatarian crap for me. But over time I've began to think about my food more locally, historically, and personally, and that has given me the opportunity to think about this connection in a way that the standard animal cruelty line, to me, leaves out. I'm not trying to nitpick and be one of those annoying asshats who are trying to break a vegan down when I say, to a friend who has decided to forgo all milk because of veal, "Well, what about goat milk from so-and-so." I just think about my food like that more now, as an individual case instead of part of some massive food system; I've actually visited and seen many of the sources of my food now.

I'm not perfect, by any means, but I aim for ever-improving, at the very least. When I was more involved with animal rights as a cause, a movement, and a culture, I never felt like not-quite-perfect was presented as an option. That may not be everyone's experience, of course, but I think a lot of people get that impression, both from within the culture, and even more so from the outside, and it turns people off from going any further with it. People are incredibly sure they could never give up meat or dairy, and so they just turn away -- but I think there's so much more to it, and so many more options for dealing with it, and PETA is certainly not helping anyone see that.

Satire, anyone?

Most people find me to be a pretty hard-core feminist. Yet, I just don't get the sexism that so many people supposedly see in PETA's latest campaign aimed at Ben and Jerry's. Thank you to the original author for linking us to that great blog at Smite Me! which I think pretty clearly articulates why this is not an issue of sexism, but that the responses to it overwhelmingly smack of speciesism. I'm wondering if the person who commented on Swift's A Modest Proposal even read it. Swift "advocated" the poor sell their babies to the wealthy to be eaten! OMG--how classist! The letter was clearly satirical. And as a side benefit, it has people talking about issues that affect women. How great! By the way, here's a great quote I found that I think clearly explains why so many people have completely missed the point of the B&J letter:

"Satire (n.) - An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author's enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are 'endowed by their Creator' with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a sour-spirited knave, and his every victim's outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent." [Ambrose Bierce]

My blog post on this topic can be found here:

Not quite.

Swift was using satire to challenge assumptions around class privilege. It works because babies are not ever (ever) being sold for food so there's no undermining of another oppressed group of people. But women really are being forced, via poverty, to sell their breast milk or their choices around breast milk are being taken away (again, via poverty). It’s unclear to me why you would suggest that I hadn't read the essay. The lines, for those not intellectually stunted, are pretty obvious. Swift used satire to draw attention to issues of class, nationalism and gender—PETA, who practically stole his words off the page, used satire to objectify women in order to make us think about cows. They missed the part where oppressions intersect. And to point out that the side benefit is that people are talking about issues that effect women is absurd. First of all that wasn’t PETAs intention, I promise. Second, with that logic than gosh we should thank the producers of House Bunny; they too got people talking abbot "women’s issues"(never mind, that classism and feminism are not just issues that effect women. Nice implication though). We don’t need companies to be sexist to get us talking and we certainly don’t thank them for it.

I don't want to patronize you (Oh, patronize, that means to talk down to) but providing a definition of satire was a little over the top. Oh and your picture of Rosy the Riveter as your blog icon, well not socking to say the very least. Talk about a misguided symbol of feminism…


"They missed the part where oppressions intersect."

How, exactly? I think that was the whole point.

Thank you, Debbie!

I'm a bit late to the party, but I just found your piece by way of Feministing, which linked to both our posts.

Anyway, thanks for the link love. The reassurance is nice, especially when you see nothing but speciesism and anti-veg*n bias on most other feminist/liberal sites. I've taken to avoiding my favorite blogs like the plague for at least a week every time PETA launches a new campaign :)

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