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Smile, you’re on calcium camera: Milk drinkers shamed on social media

Twin Cities Pioneer Press logo Twin Cities Pioneer Press 4/22/2022 Nina Raemont
Pitcher pouring milk into glass. © Provided by Twin Cities Pioneer Press Pitcher pouring milk into glass.

There’s contention in your morning cup of milk.

Or at least, there is for university students who follow the Instagram account @umn.milk, an account with over 600 followers that posts photos of University of Minnesota students drinking milk in the dining halls, purchasing gallons at the local grocery store or enjoying a swig in the comfort of their dorm room.

The account, which publicly shares user-submitted photos of students drinking milk, joins the swath of Instagram accounts made by college students across the country publicizing their peers’ dairy habits. The University of St. Thomas has one (with a bio that reads: “Exposing the ‘people’ of UST that drink milk”). Northfield’s St. Olaf College also has one, with a more cordial Instagram bio that proclaims to their followers they are “lactose tolerant.”

Dartmouth, UCLA, University of Wisconsin Madison, Texas A&M University. East to west, north to south, college students are finding comradery and comedy in their repulsion or reverence for dairy milk.

Milk haters unite

Sky Dube, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota and a follower of @umn.milk, was a self-declared “avid milk drinker” when she was younger. “I used to drink glasses of milk on their own. Like, I wouldn’t need anything else,” Dube said.

That all changed two years ago after Dube watched a Netflix documentary called “The Milk System.” The documentary, which exposes the malpractices and environmental impacts caused by the dairy industry, was enough to make her quit dairy milk. “Ever since that day,” Dube said, “I have not drunk a glass of milk—I’ve definitely had foods with milk in them.” She prefers oat milk in her lattes, but still eats cream cheese on her bagels and doesn’t actively avoid dairy products at large. She isn’t a vegetarian. So why milk?

“The act of pouring yourself a glass of milk —  just straight up milk — is just horrendous,” she said.

Dube’s repugnance for dairy milk fits in with her generation’s attitudes towards the beverage itself and a growing interest in dairy-free alternatives. According to the Good Food Institute, young and diverse groups are increasingly consuming plant-based products.

Plant-based milks are carving out a substantial spot in the milk market. They accounted for 15 percent of  total retail milk sales in 2020, totaling $2.5 billion, per the Good Food Institute. Experts predict that alternative milk sales are projected to account for 30 percent of all milk sales by 2026, the New York Times recently reported. Since 1975, milk consumption in the United States has declined by 40 percent causing over 2,700 dairy farms to close between 2018 and 2020, according to World Population Review.

“(Plant milk) is one of the fastest-growing areas in the modern food industry,” said David Julian McClements, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a food scientist of 20-plus years.

McClements has recently dedicated research to plant-based foods, and believes there are three driving factors of the plant-based milk boom: consumer ethics, environmental sustainability and health. Underlying these is a burgeoning improvement in food technology that has allowed companies to replicate the taste and texture of milk into plant-based alternatives. “Now you’ve got these really good alternatives that you don’t have to sacrifice taste in order to meet your ethical or environmental needs,” McClements said.

The milk industry at large has switched messaging in the past few years to highlight the health benefits of dairy, focus more on the stories of both how milk is made and of the farmers behind the beverage to appeal to younger consumers, as well as sharing farmers’ missions and plans towards “being a part of the environmental solution,” according to Anne Warden, who runs Dairy Management Inc.’s marketing program.

As more dairy drinkers convert to plant-based alternatives or ditch the beverage altogether, cow’s milk’s cultural standing in the United States as the everyman’s beverage is on the brink of an alternative milk-induced collapse.

The advent of the milk Instagram

“The account is genius,” says first-year University of Minnesota student Wyatt Halvorson, a follower of the @umn.milk account. “It got a lot of warranted attention because it’s funny, close to home and is a controversial, non-harmful topic,” he said. Halvorson is pro-dairy milk, though not a religious milk drinker himself. “I am for supporting the dairy industry, but I am also for supporting personal choice. I think it’s more so funny to watch people make a fuss about how they do or don’t like milk when it is really not that big of a deal,” he said.

Not all milk varieties are scrutinized equally by these accounts. Chocolate milk, according to many commenters, is kosher. So is a dash of cream in your morning cup of coffee. But whole milk? “God forbid you bring whole milk to the table. You’re going to get made fun of,” said Henry Dissell, the creator of the @stolafmilkdrinkers Instagram account.

Dissell found out about the existence of college milk accounts through TikTok. A friend of his showed him a TikTok of a University milk account, and “thought it was kind of interesting slash funny slash whatever,” so they created their own account for St. Olaf milk drinkers.

Dissell is a milk advocate himself, unabashedly drinking, to his math, around 20 cups a week. One per meal. He detested milk as a kid, but picked up the beverage in his late teens to put on some extra pounds. “There is a stigma around drinking milk, for sure. I don’t know exactly what the reason is, but it happens all the time. And it always happens to me and my friends so we decided to embrace it,” Dissell said.

The St. Olaf milk account is more reverential than it is shameful, Dissell told me. “There’s a lot of shame around milk drinking. It’s kind of a joke,” he explained, “but the milk account is us mocking the fact that it’s shamed.”

Most milk accounts I’ve come across aren’t as meta-ironic. Where St. Olaf’s milk account mocks the mocking of milk drinking with photos of students flashing their cups of calcium with thumbs up or silly faces, other accounts post photos of students in the dining hall sipping on milk without any awareness that they’re being photographed. Since these accounts rely on user-submitted photos, rarely does it seem to matter who the user submitting the photo is — or how they captured the photo.

More than just milk

The milk account isn’t its own anomaly. Local social media accounts dedicated to publicly sharing photos of people hunching over in bad posture (@eagan_bad_posture), wearing beanies that improperly fit their head (@umn_hats), falling asleep in class (@sleeping_tworivers) or passed out drunk on the side of the road (@comopassouts) exist with substantial followings on Instagram. These accounts’ follower size ranges from 200-600, which is fairly big considering the sizes of these schools and the amount of eyes on these accounts.

“I feel like you could make an account about literally anything and people would get behind it just because it’s comedic — and college freshmen can find anything to bond over,” said Dube, the avid-milk-drinker-turned-milk-hater.

Dube spends her and her friends’ time at the University of Minnesota dining halls snapping photos of unaware milk drinkers. “Some of those pictures are a little embarrassing, I’m not gonna lie,” Dube said. The day we had spoken, Dube sent 20 photos of milk drinkers to @umn.milk. It’s become a game among Dube’s friends to see how many photos they can take of milk drinkers while they’re at the dining halls. To avoid the awkward confrontation of someone realizing they’re being photographed, she’s become quite stealthy with her milk-drinking photography, she told me.

“It’s not meant to hurt people. It’s more just to get a quick laugh, look at it for five seconds and then keep scrolling,” she said. Dube brought up how other, more insidious social media posts have gotten traction on accounts like @barstoolgophers and @barstoolsuperblock. In September, a photo of two students having sex in a residential hall’s laundry room surfaced and spread among students. These accounts share school-related memes and document students’ debauched behavior, and a lot of the accounts run on user-submitted photos, videos and edits.

These accounts don’t exist in a vacuum. Followers of such accounts justify posting something innocuous, like a student drinking milk, because other damaging photos and videos run rampant on social media platforms. Some students’ worst moments, like being caught drunk, wrapped in cling wrap and lying on the floor of a shower, are captured on camera and exposed to hundreds of eyes. What harm will a picture of someone drinking milk do? “I would never find it OK to post a picture of someone that’s gonna hurt them in the future, whereas the milk account, like if an employer were to see that you were posted on the @umn.milk account, they would not [care],” Dube said.

The owner of the @umn.milk account did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We don’t really think about [sharing photos taken of others] as a bad thing. But if you really think about it a little harder, we, like, probably should be asking these people if it’s okay to post pictures like this,” Dube said. “That’s one of the problems of our generation is that we don’t have enough media literacy, and that is something that should be practiced a lot more — putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Like asking ourselves, ‘If I were to get that picture taken of me and it was posted, like, how would I feel?’ I think a lot of people need to think about that first.”

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