Despite a penchant for Thai curry, Vietnamese spring rolls, and Jamaican jerk chicken, the US remains a problematically homogenized culture. In particular, singular ideals of what a ‘proper’ American eats and looks like dominate mass mediated images and pervade the cultural imagination. These images, by and large, still convey that certain types of bodies represent American ‘perfection.’ Usually, the ‘perfect’ or ‘true’ American is represented as white, thin, male, middle class, able-bodied, and heterosexual. White women are also allowed to represent ‘perfectness’ if they follow all the conditions listed previously AND are either beautiful sex objects or dutiful mothers (the good old angel/whore dichotomy refuses to die).
In a series of pieces slated to post to this blog over the next few weeks, I will consider how advertisements continue to promote ideas of white supremacy and induce the US public to consume the idea that whiteness (in food, bodies, clothing, etc) is ideal. While ads certainly also promote the thin, non-disabled, wealthy, heterosexual body as superior, the posts in this series will focus in particular on skin color and the “Got Milk”" ad campaign as representative of a trend to represent whiteness as good in advertising.
In the Got Milk ads, the representation of ‘perfect’ white bodies was linked to the consumption of America’s ‘perfect food’ – milk. Inaugurated in 1993, the campaign included the famous milk moustache print ads as well as humorous television advertisements in which people found they were out of milk at the most inconvenient times. While these ads may have seemed innocuous, this campaign (and its similar descendants) help to sustain limiting notions of what it means to be a ‘good body,’ and, most pervasively, perpetuated the notion that ‘good bodies’ are white (and consume/wear/desire whiteness).
This valorization of milk as a perfect food that these ads put forth is part of a long history in which white, middle class bodies are deemed better than the bodies of various ‘Others.’ As nutritionist Marion Nestle notes, the idea that dairy is “essential” was brought about via the joint forces of dairy lobbies, nutritionists, and governmental agencies since the early twentieth century.[i] And, in spite of the fact that roughly seventy-five percent of African-Americans and Native Americans and over ninety percent of Asian Americans are unable to readily consume dairy products due to lactose intolerance, milk has been touted as “all American.”[ii]
The aggrandizement of milk (and other white commodities) reveals American culture’s continuing obsession with ‘perfect whiteness.’ The continued directive to “drink milk, it does a body good” was imbued with underlying messages about whiteness as good, consumerism as good, cultural assimilation as good. This dangerous commodification of ‘whiteness’ as a symbol of the nation’s health continues to be disseminated in various forms of advertisement and media. From white t-shirts to white bread to white picket fences to white women to white teeth to white socks to white skin to white undergarments to white paper, ads (and the commodities they aim to sell) invest in (and perpetuate) white as good, white as superior, and white as pure.
However, as recent findings have revealed, white is not so good or healthy when it comes to food. The no-carb craze has shown white carbs to be the worst for the body while milk’s ‘goodness’ has been made questionable due to all the growth hormones pumped into cows as well as to studies showing that milk is not all that good for the body after all. Yet, to replace these outmoded investments in whiteness, we have turned to other white pursuits, such as teeth whitening and (gasp) anal bleaching. Who knew that having a white anus was so important?
What if we woke up to the fact that white is not right, that brown bread is healthier, that teeth naturally yellow, that white t-shirts are boring, that, for god/dess sake, a white anus is darn right unnatural and unnecessary? Whiteness doesn’t do a body good-what it does is confer white skin privilege-a privilege that allows those with white skin to walk through the world with many advantages through no actions of their own. But these privileges are not good in the entire scheme of things for white skinned people either because what they perpetuate is a racist, colorist world that harms everyone-white people included.
If people want to drink milk that’s fine, but I wish they could stop mindlessly consuming the message that whiteness is somehow good or better. If you are so inclined, I hope you will consider complaining to the advertising companies that continue to prompt the US populace to consume a white superiority message.
[i] *Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 79.
[ii] **Lactose Intolerance is a genetically based intolerance. People who are lactose intolerant usually do not have the gene that allows for the production of lactase, the enzyme that promotes digestion of the lactose sugar found in milk products. See E. Melanie Dupuis. Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 27.