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13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Mon July 1, 2013
Chest Hair, Breast Milk And Human Disgust
Would you wear a coat made entirely of male chest hair?
As part of an advertising campaign to cast a new chocolate milk drink as a "manly" beverage, the British branch of an international dairy company commissioned the "Man-Fur Coat," created from chest hair donated by 300 male volunteers.
A common reaction seems to be disgust. The top comment to an article introducing the coat at The Grocer, a food industry news blog, begins, "First of all: gross." The second comment concurs ("I agree with Hans – this is gross!"). Over at BuzzFeed, the caption to a photo of a female model wearing the coat reads: "This model tried to suppress her nausea when she tried it on ... I'd say she wasn't so successful."
I'm reminded of another British novelty from 2011: ice cream made of human breast milk. While the expensive confection was in some ways a success, with the first batch of vanilla and lemon-flavored dessert selling within days, the product also generated some aversion. To quote one poetic comment from an NPR blog, "eeeuuuuuwwww! that's even bizarre for my open mind. gross out time."
Another news story referred to the ice cream as a "stomach-churning" product.
Why do many of us find the idea of wearing human hair or consuming human milk disgusting? And why don't many of us find the idea of cladding ourselves in non-human fur and downing milk from bovines equally disconcerting? What makes one repulsive and one routine? After all, the human products come from consenting animals that are just like us; the others do not.
I don't know the answers to these questions, but here are two ideas.
First, of course, is familiarity. Many people grow up dressing in non-human animal fur and eating non-human animal products. Even though our default reaction to contact with animal products is often disgust, cultural exposure can be enough to overcome this initial response. For example, Himalayan villagers sometimes drink warm blood from a yak's slit neck — a non-human animal product likely to be foreign and, potentially, disgusting to most Americans. But if we grew up wearing man-fur coats to keep us warm as we indulged in some breast milk ice cream with a cup of warm yak blood, these activities wouldn't elicit the same visceral reaction.
Second, and more speculatively, we typically think of humans as individuals. They have personalities. We like some of them. We dislike others. Show us a photo and we'll say, "that's Anton, Bernice and Charlie!", not "there are some people" or "some animals" or "some organisms." You might not like Charlie. You might not want to dress in his chest hair. You might like Charlie. You might worry about whether his chest hair was freely given or extracted under duress. Even when the chest hair comes from anonymous donors, you can't help but think of them as real live males, with the usual assortment of virtues, flaws and cooties.
When it comes to non-human animals, especially those that (who?) aren't pets, we're more likely to think of them en masse, a group of anonymous and equivalent individuals. One cow is like another; a certain amount of cow-stuff. We mentally standardize and sanitize them, strip them of unique characteristics and think of them as mere components of some final product, as things. And non-biological things rarely elicit disgust, even if we don't want to eat them (think internal robot parts — hardly appetizing but no reason to wrinkle your nose).
Of course, these reactions don't describe all people, or even some people in all situations. The way people conceptualize humans and non-humans is malleable, and part of what's so fascinating about the man-fur coat (and breast milk ice cream) is how it challenges our working assumptions about what is and isn't appropriate or appealing.
After all, why shouldn't we wear "fur" from our own species and eat our own secretions? And if we have any misgivings when it comes to humans, shouldn't we at least question the practice of wearing and eating other species?
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo