When I was a kid, I had this boyfriend (I know, brag) whose mom offered me a Coke after we had dinner. I said no thanks, but my boyfriend asked for one. His mom said he could have one only after he finished his glass of milk. They argued for a few minutes before my boyfriend acquiesced, and while I watched him angrily grip the cup with both hands and dutifully drink his milk, I felt, for the briefest moment, like this particular “adult relationship” I was in was somehow undermined.
There’s something deeply innocent and, presumably, necessary about a child drinking a glass of milk. But an adult doing the same is off-kilter. It’s not offensively so, but there’s something just kind of unsettling about seeing an adult pour themselves a glass of milk and drink it. It makes me feel the same way I feel when my dog winks at me (I know he doesn’t mean to, relax). And I’m not the only one who feels this way! In the movie Get Out, when we realize that Rose Armitage (played by Allison Williams) is one of our main villains, we watch her eat a bowl of dry Froot Loops with a glass of milk on the side. The reason for this creative decision, according to Jordan Peele and Williams, was to show Armitage as an “emotionally stunted woman with the mentality of a teenager,” Peele said to the LA Times, “There’s something kind of horrific about milk. Think about it! Think about what we’re doing. Milk is kind of gross.”
And yet, there are many people out there who know what it’s like to have both a driver’s license and a glass of milk. Ambika Patpatia, a friend of mine and self-declared milk connoisseur, talked to me about her milk-drinking habits: “I have always loved milk like a weird amount BUT I only ever like drinking it in America,” she told me. “Whenever I got back from a trip [to India] I would immediately go and drink like six cups of milk. As I got older, though, it got weirder and I started being much less vocal about my love for it. So many people think it is gross and I think I kind of do too?” When I asked if she feels like there’s a social stigma or weirdness to drinking milk as an adult, she said yes and referred to it as a “weird dark shame.” Then, in all caps, she asked, “WHY IS IT WEIRD HELP ME UNDERSTAND THIS INTERNALIZED SHAME.”
Julie Alvin, SVP of content at Refinery29, expressed a similar sentiment when it came to a perceived shame of milk-drinking as an adult: “I generally would not order a glass of milk at a restaurant, because I gather that it would horrify people,” she said. At the office, she has been known to occasionally dip into the refrigerated coffee condiments, and pour herself a glass of “work milk” for breakfast or a snack. But now that we’re in quarantine, she “may drink milk slightly more [...] because [she] is in [her] home and therefore [has] more access to a personal supply of milk.”
The concept of shame existing around drinking milk as an adult is baffling to the adults I spoke to, though they are all acutely aware of it.
Chesley Marvin, another adult I spoke to who enjoys milk, puts it nicely when she told me that she’d happily drink a glass of milk in front of people: “I’m aware some people think drinking milk is weird, but I don’t know why they do! Eating a cup of yogurt or ice cream is essentially the same thing.”
What is it that’s so creepy and disconcerting about milk? Specifically about adults drinking a glass of milk? Well, for starters, while cow’s milk has a lot of nutritional benefits (calcium, proteins, fats) for growing children, it has lactose, which the enzyme lactase is responsible for digesting. That enzyme only exists in young children, and once the body loses it, the undigested sugars ferment in the colon (you’re welcome) and most people — 60% of adults — painfully fart as a result.
Besides the fact that dairy can be more easily digested by children than adults, a lot of the cultural significance of whole milk is deeply connected to Americanness and Patriotism, which are two things that we all know have the strong ability to skew creepy if left unchecked. I talked to my friend Jaclyn Burton, a Culinary Consultant, about this very thing.
“Drinking cow’s milk is definitely tightly wound up in this idea of ‘American-ness’ from the early days where having huge swaths of fertile land […] was a huge symbol of success and the American Dream.” She also shared that the worlds of American nationalism and dairy were inextricably linked in a commercial capacity as well, wherein campaigns that encouraged immigrants do consume dairy existed, partially “to get immigrants to stop feeding their kids “ethnic” or “spicy” foods.”
Related to this deep sense of patriotism and dairy consumption is the link between the U.S. government and Big Dairy. Though the name “Big Dairy” is extremely fun and makes you think of, like, a novelty-huge carton of milk or the name of the Queen of All Cows, its political ties to the USDA are the reason that America consumes so much dairy.
My personal relationship with dairy follows my personal romantic patterns in many ways (I fell in love, wanted it all the time, then it made my stomach hurt, and I had to stop). I don’t typically drink a glass of whole milk because of the strong association I still have between it and a year of stomach pain when I was six, resulting in my teacher having to carry me around during lunch while I desperately tried to “sleep it off” like a hangover, and the unfortunate diagnosis of “severe lactose intolerance.”
The tides might also be turning. Just last month, trend oracles and South Korean group BTS made the controversial claim in its new song “Dynamite” that a great way to “rock and roll” was to drink a “cup of milk.” In his attic bedroom, Jungkook wipes a milk mustache off his upper lip before grabbing his crotch and winking into the camera (my dog has never done this).
Years later, I’m fine consuming dairy. (I mean, what does a fun lunch for me look like without grilled cheese? Just two slices of toast?) But I still can’t stomach that glass of whole milk I could once down in three gulps. So, I for one applaud the loud and proud milk-drinkers out there for enjoying a “cold one” in day-to-day life. If you want a glass of milk and you’re above the age of five, I, now an expert in all things milk, say go for it. Ignore the haters. I have a great respect for you now, and my horizons have simply widened. I’m ready to go back in time, watch my boyfriend drink that glass of milk instead of Coke, and say to myself, “This is it: a relationship between two adults (that probably won’t end at a Model UN conference Neon-Themed party).”