PARENTS and pediatricians know that breast milk is best for babies. Research shows that mother’s milk contains the perfect balance of proteins and fats to nourish little growing bodies, plus a complex infusion of antibodies that ward off infections and strengthen immunity.
But what happens when parents can’t produce their own, due to illness, injury or gender?
For centuries, wet nurses filled in the gaps, and generations have been raised on infant formula. But studies on breast milk’s superiority and the advent of social media has brought a resurgence in breast milk sharing, from informal donations to the strict standards of human milk banking to a growing for-profit market.
SCAD anthropology professor Dr. Susan Falls explores the history of human milk sharing and its ever-increasing demand in White Gold: Stories of Breast Milk Sharing, just released by the University of Nebraska Press. White Gold is also the name of an immersive art installation that Falls has created for one night-only at the Whitefield Gallery on Friday, Nov. 4.
Falls and her husband, Deep Executive Director Dare Dukes, first entered the milk sharing community when they adopted their son, Zim, now 7, and continued to acquire donated breast milk when their daughter, Tallulah, 5, came to the family.
“I began thinking about the construction of value around breast milk and how it circulates,” explains Falls, who examined the multi-faceted significance of another precious yet pervasive material in her last book, Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds.
“There is the sharing level we were familiar with, where no money is involved, but there are token exchanges that happen, like flowers or a book. But in the last few years some people have started selling it, and the prices vary a lot. There is an ethics being discussed.”
While the topic of “biocapitalism”—the body as commodity—and the politics of scientific research (or lack thereof) around breast milk sharing receive scrutiny through Falls’ meticulous scholarly lens, it is the relationships between donors and recipients that reveal one of the most fascinating themes of White Gold.
“This book is also about the way people who are sharing milk are operating in dissent of authoritative institutions,” says Falls, referring to the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ disapproval of the practice in spite of their stance that “breast is best.”
For milk-sharing parents, the benefit to their babies outweighs the risk of a bacterial infection, and participants form loyal heterarchies—non-hierarchical communities—in spite of different backgrounds, ethnicities and political viewpoints.
Falls also examines how the outlying practice employs established infrastructure from FedEx to Facebook and occupies spaces that weren’t necessarily designed for it. Such analysis is inspired by the theories of experimental architect Lebbeus Woods, existential philosopher Alphonso Lingis and neurophysiologist/cybernetician Warren McCulloch.
Friday’s installation features large-scale illustrations from Falls’ academic muses and her own notebooks, as well as photographs, paintings and interpretations of iconic breastfeeding images including the myth of Roman Charity, in which a Greek woman, Pero, feeds her imprisoned father. Many of the works have been reproduced on vellum and will be projected through the gallery windows to give the room and the works themselves a milky translucence.
“I didn’t want to do a traditional reading,” says Falls of her book release. “I want people to see and experience the story in an evocative, poetic way.”
White Gold is part of the University of Nebraska Press’ Anthropology of Contemporary North America series, which also includes Holding On, about African American women living with HIV, and Range Wars, an environmental history of the White Sands Missile range. Falls received funding for her breast-sharing ethnography from anthropology think tank the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and she notes the increase in domestic anthropological studies in the last 20 years.
“It used to be that anthropologists worked all over the world, but not in the United States, as if America didn’t have anything to add to the human story,” she says with a laugh. “In a sense, anthropology is taking the strange and making it familiar and making the familiar, strange. I like to explore the extraordinariness in ordinary things.”
The extraordinary ordinariness of breast milk sharing in the U.S. yields unexpected levels of significance in White Gold, from questioning the nature of societal dissent to how supply meets demand in non-regulated and regulated markets. The book and installation also present how its benefits can exceed the nutritional when trust forged between strangers can strengthen entire communities.
“It goes way beyond breast milk,” promises Falls.
“This practice provides a model of how people can come together for a common purpose.” cs