The Myth of Feminizing Soy
And how it went from proto superfood to alt-right rallying cry
By Julia Norza
I was born lactose intolerant. Lactose-free milk made me sick, too, I think: it’s hard to pluck the truth out of the web of family hypochondriasis that had me, age nine, always taking homeopathic treatment for something. What I do remember is being an early adopter of soy milk. Soy milk was free from pesky animal proteins and grotesque feed residue. It was organic, which was better for you. It came in flavours like Vanilla, and Very Vanilla.
I remember the face of the Silk carton better than any box of breakfast cereal. The bottom right corner had a stamp from the Non-GMO Project, which promised that the soy was free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There were offers of this much calcium, that much protein, and, on the left side, “A Promise From Silk”: nothing artificial, everything grown responsibly on rolling verdant fields photographed at early sunset.
The message was clear: Soy milk wasn’t just the ideal choice for my health — it was saving the planet.
In the years that followed, my mother would replace half our pantry and medicine cabinet with the sorts of products whose logos feature beech leaves in dancelike configurations, purchased from American grocery stores across the Mexicali border. I played guinea pig for an increasingly involved series of alternative health experiments, from Bach flower remedies to magnet therapy, thankfully all harmless in their inefficacy. (I consider myself lucky: I could’ve grown up in the era of horse dewormer.)
Then, in my early teens, soy milk was gone from the pantry. My mother swapped it out for almond milk as fulminantly as she had in our original move away from cow. Why? To me, almond milk tasted worse, and it was more expensive.
Well, soy milk has phytoestrogens.
As far as this particular scare was concerned, the operating word was estrogen — the hormone responsible for forming secondary female sexual characteristics in humans. It wasn’t healthy for a strong, young man like me to be putting all that girlhood in my body; that’s as much of a response as I remember getting when I asked my mother why we were experimenting with drinks I’d never even seen before, and which now dominated the fridge aisle by the pallet. All of the promises of health and ecological righteousness from soy had been projected onto almond and coconut. They were even sold by the same brand: New great taste, same no-cow, and zero risk of feminization.
At thirteen years old I had already inherited the pop-science myth that would determine the course of the milk market for decades to come: Estrogen is bad, and testosterone is good. (And I learned it from a woman, no less — internalized misogyny runs deep.)
Evidently, my mother was too late to save me from soy. Today, I’m in my second year of taking daily estradiol valerate, an actual feminizing hormone. I often find myself thinking of that bygone soy milk era. Wouldn’t it be grand if hormone replacement therapy really was prescription-free, supermarket-accessible, and Very Vanilla?
Like so many 21st-century trans people, I've transitioned concurrently with a rising Western reactionary movement, masses of neoconservatives campaigning for a “return to tradition.” I came to accept my gender identity a little before the 2018 US election. I left the closet a year later, by which time the 45th president had encouraged cult-like, neo-fascist groups to take to the streets by the hundreds, with the express mission of stamping out people like me. As these groups gained notoriety, I was one of the few people not confused by their favourite neologism: “Soyboy”.
Conservatives Against Estrogen
As a shorthand for failed masculinity, soyboy — a pejorative with origins in imperialist, colonialist, and racist sentiment that sought to emasculate the Asian, soy-eating “other” — has several contemporary acceptations. The (relatively) less derogatory usage evokes urbanite white-collar males, stuffed full of liberalism and five-dollar dairy-free lattes. This boy’s imagined sexual orientation is of little import. The crux of the insult is soy as a proxy for the weak of body and fat of pocket, who consciously eschew animal protein and its cultural ties to manliness. (Exempli gratia: This photo of animal rights activists excited about plant-based KFC, which was rapidly meme-fied into an exploitable ‘soyjak’.) No man in their right mind would choose this fate, of course; the description accompanying a $19.99 “Proud Soy Boy” T-shirt on Amazon even goes as far to suggest that endocrine disruption is to blame for men’s embrace of the “liberal agenda”.
More overt soyboy caricatures are, well, not boys at all. The true, and deeply transphobic meaning of soyboy is, simply, a transfeminine person. In a now-deleted video parodying anti-fascism, the alt-right personality James Allsup claimed that soy milk will “give you a nice, effeminate body.” Given my family’s history with alternative beverages, the idea that soy could forcibly transform you into a girl was not new to me. What did surprise me was seeing the beliefs once espoused by my mother, a nouveau-traditional housewife, being wielded by a wave of violent conservatives who, by the sounds of it, would prefer cisgender women confined to kitchens and transgender women to graves.
For alt-right conservatives, theories on the decline of masculinity are de rigeur. The Proud Boys, for example, believe masturbation is the West’s ruin — all those men taking testosterone out of their body, and not even for procreation! Variants of this thought can be found everywhere, from the best-selling rhetoric of pickup artists to the throngs of anonymous profiles with Greek sculptures for profile photos that I’ve blocked on Twitter over the last half-decade. Reactionary thought enshrines social constructs, such as gender roles, as essential qualia. When social constructs fall, it appeals to the “rules of nature” as immutable bedrock (as if these, too, are not social constructs).
The mythology of phytoestrogens, then, is unsurprising. What’s strange is its origin and evolution. Over a decade, soy milk went from proto-superfood to the root of America’s gay evils, from holistic ambrosia to the ideological poison of Men Going Their Own Way. How did we so easily switch from reverence to villainization?
Soy Milk and the Health and Food Industries: A Case of Whiplash
It all started with cholesterol. In 1995, the New England Journal of Medicine linked soy milk to reduced LDL and increased HDL (“bad” and “good” cholesterol, respectively). One year later, WhiteWave Inc. unveiled the first soy milk product to enter the United States market, and in 1999, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized a health claim that allowed for soy milk to be marketed as a heart-healthy product. The same year, soy milk sales had skyrocketed by 600 percent. Soy milk, the industry claimed, strengthened bones; it staunched menopause symptoms, and it stopped breast cancer, prostate cancer and heart attacks. And, of course, it made you lose weight, a point hammered home by the impressively low calorie count highlighted on the front of the box.
Health claims are the diet industry’s dominant spores. They pollinate not just food, but medicine and media, preying on the self-image these institutions collaborate to distort. And the industry preys primarily on women, among whom eating disorders are more common, and who have been historically subjected to more restrictive beauty standards. A health food that can make you lose weight? Yes, it’s true! Enter soy milk, the shiny new alternative to the full-fat cow stuff. Now go and stock up the pantry.
But the idea of soy as a food that was “good for us” died when it came to light that daidzein and genistein, the compounds responsible for soy milk’s miraculous properties, were phytoestrogens. On the chemical level, phytoestrogen molecules resemble estrogen, a pop-science fact that led to all sorts of malign implications. Suddenly soy milk didn’t prevent breast cancer, but in fact, caused it. It made us weak and listless and, worse, fat, by lowering our testosterone levels. It made men infertile, or didn’t — by their own admission, studies into the matter lack the size and quality control to draw meaningful conclusions. The same issues hold true for the quality of research done on all of these claims.
As I typed the preceding paragraph, I found myself tempted to follow up with a corollary: of course there were issues with the quality of research on the adverse effects of soy milk because the forces of Big Soy would have had an interest in stunting it. And there it is: The fear of an all-pervading economic and political system, in which information can’t be trusted, that reactionary thought takes advantage of. It’s not unjustified. Science has a history of being sponsored by interested parties, championed when its discoveries agree with market values and discredited when they don’t. In the United States, government-sponsored science has lied to the public and engaged in outright human experimentation too cruel to do justice to in this article.
Profiting Off Paranoia
Pointing out the profit incentives in science doesn’t mean that forces opposing scientific thought are acting without profit incentives.
Profit, in fact, is their singular uniting motive. Four years of podiuming a paranoid businessman as a president blessed the snake oil industry with bigger, better, and more profitable conspiracy theories than ever before. Suddenly, Alex Jones wants to sell you cures that don’t heal anything; so does the guy from the yoga studio whose sweat smells like patchouli.
Amidst this storm of conspira-noia, the myth of feminizing phytoestrogens changed hands. The health and food industries turned their backs on soy milk, which capitulated its market lead in 2013 to almond milk (which, it ought to be noted, was marketed just as aggressively as a weight loss product). In 2017, the FDA reneged on its official position that soy can reduce the risk of heart disease, saying it was now unconvinced by the quality of the studies it had once trumpeted. By 2020, oat milk, too, proved more profitable than soy.
Along with the newfound lack of evidence for soy’s role in preventing heart disease, it’s hard to imagine that the legend of Evil Estrogen wasn’t at least somewhat to blame. Less bombastic scientific developments have been swept up and forgotten; the FDA continues to stand by its claim that soy can play a role in a healthy diet. But such scientific conclusions are too banal to clear its name. Having lost its superfood crown, the only role left for soy milk is a free non-dairy option in a Starbucks latte, and as a linguistic tool for marking those we fear as the other.
The alt-right has weaponized the common “knowledge” that purportedly immutable “male” characteristics can be feminized with daily doses of estrogen. The idea that a mere milk alternative could change one’s gender, strangely, does nothing to defeat their bioessentialist thought. Rather, it has resulted in blaming a simple molecule for the rise of trans visibility, giving biological roots to a phenomenon that is in reality sociological.
Misogynistic and anti-feminist groups like the Proud Boys, r/MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), and incels (“involuntary celibates”) attraction theorists, all fall prey to the remnants of the same marketing tactics that lead women concerned for the health of their children and the planet to non-GMO superfoods: the world would work the way it’s meant to, if we could, in the words of Alex Jones, just stop “putting chemicals in the water that turn the freakin’ frogs gay.”
Soy milk was introduced to the right-wing in the incredulous tone of all conspiracy theories. From these origins, it spread through the charismatic leaders of alt-right radio shows and all-male hate groups, adding to their long list of beliefs about what makes men lesser. Finally, by the sheer virality that turned once-fringe conservatism into mainstream rhetoric, soy became a class of boys. Soyboys — with their alternative milks, feminal politics, and audacious gender-bending — encompass all those that have failed manhood, having been duped by soy just like the cisgender women who, a decade ago, were taken in by promises of heart health and flat bellies.
The forces that created an amalgam of lies and bad science to market soy milk no longer have a use for the myth, but the myth remains. Pseudoscience shakes loose the shackles of its mad creators; and in the tradition of science fiction monsters, once irresponsibly created, it is impossible to contain, and preys on the alienated and the vulnerable.
Julia Norza is interested in borders: between countries, genders and minds. First-hand witnesses have described her work being featured in Blood Knife, An Injustice! Magazine, and Deconreconstruction.
Shurtleff, W., & Aoyagi, A. (2013). History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226 to 2013). Soyinfo Center. <https://www.soyinfocenter.com/pdf/166/Milk.pdf>
A portmanteau of soy and “wojak”, “Soyjak” refers to a soy-specific version of an internet meme known as “Wojak” or “Feels Guy”, which portrays a simple, black-lined cartoon of a bald man with a wistful expression. “Soyjak” is often used to mock people perceived as overexcitable consumerists.