Men, women and food

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Today's Observer features a piece by Eva Wiseman entitled 'The truth about men, women and food'. The article discusses the stereotypes surrounding gender and food and the way that these are often explained away by dubious evolutionary psychology.

Stereotypes about the way men and women eat are so easy to reel off that I could be here all day. Men are supposed to love MEAT. Especially BIG STEAKS. And fried breakfasts. Women order salads and nibble Ryvitas while men scoff pasties and chips. We 'indulge' in a 'naughty' biscuit or a 'sinful' chocolate bar. 'Real men' don't eat quiche. Women pick at their food when a man takes them out to a restaurant because they don't want to be seen as 'big eaters'. We love chocolate more than anything else and see cupcakes as an entire lifestyle rather than a sugary snack.

Of course this is all ridiculous and you don't need me to tell you that. I'm not about to start listing all the ways in which I contradict stereotypes about women and food because actually, most people (if they'll admit it) DO contradict these stereotypes in some way. Sadly we all know a lot of people who buy into it and come out with the sort of comments guaranteed to set off my extra special eye roll. The female work colleague who watched a friend tuck into a certain chocolate bar and yelped 'But they're not for girls!'. The men who laughed at my husband for drinking elderflower cordial because apparently such beverages are 'gay'.

It's something I noticed happens a lot when it comes to male/female-only social events within the church. Men get curry nights and prayer breakfasts involving huge platters of bacon and sausages. Women get chocolate fountains and breakfast meetings involving pastries and fruit. Earlier this year, the women in my small group organised a women's get-together in the form of a curry night just to, you know, redress the balance a bit. I'm a big fan of curry and let me tell you, it was a great evening.

Doubtless, this isn't helped by the way food companies market products. Wiseman's article discusses the chocolate industry and the differences between 'masculine' and 'feminine' chocolate bars.
"Jill McCall, brand manager at Cadbury, is careful to point out the difference between the indulgent, feminine bars (Flake, Galaxy) and the masculine "hunger bars" (Boost, Snickers), which are nut-filled and huge, and fill you up rather than provide a girlish "treat", thereby creating markets within markets."
Wiseman then lists some of the ways brands market 'male' and 'female' versions of their products - the Kit Kat Chunky and the Kit Kat Senses. The Twix and the new Twix Fino. Of course the calorie and fat content of the 'female' bars is always a key selling point. If you ever see these brands advertised they'll always make a big deal out of it, much the same as with other 'feminine' foods like yoghurt, cereal and cakes.

The message they'll want to convey is one of indulgence and luxury, of 'treating yourself' and 'being naughty' - yet remaining comparatively low in fat and calories. On the other hand plenty of men feel that consuming any food or drink claiming to be 'low fat' or 'guilt free' is going against everything it means to be male.

One triumph of culture when it comes to food is of course, the Noughties obsession with cupcakes. Ten years ago they were something small children ate at birthday parties. Now, of course, they're a symbol of a certain sort of woman and a certain sort of lifestyle. They're served at weddings and baby showers. And cupcake bakeries make a fortune from people popping in for their weekly 'indulgence'.

As the article tells us, boys are socialised from a young age to eat big portions and this has a major impact on the way they see food. Concepts of masculinity usually involve the ability to eat huge platefuls and large amounts of meat or dubious takeaways. On the other hand, women are socialised to associate food with shame, guilt and worry far more about what they should and shouldn't consume. Men might be mocked for eating salad or being vegetarian - and eating for so many women has become an depressing pantomime of not eating a big plateful, vowing to go to the gym later, trying to lose just a couple of pounds before Christmas or the summer or a big night out.

This is an interesting piece which casts a critical eye over modern assumptions about food and gender. In conclusion, Wiseman quotes Dr David Bell:
We're living in a culturally rich time, and are more than able to divide food into categories, including one for 'food that people like me eat'. So, men don't eat steak because they are men, men eat steak to show they are men. Women aren't hard-wired to crave dessert – we've learned that women crave dessert, so we follow, mouths open.
So there you have it. As is usually the case, men and women aren't really 'hard-wired' to like certain foods at all. Just as my attraction to the colour pink and my ability at maths has nothing to do with cavemen, neither does the way I eat. Not that this fact is going to stop ridiculous advertisements for chocolate and yoghurts or stop people feeling like they can't eat something which somehow marks them out as a traitor to their gender, but we can dream.

Image via angelsk's Flickr.

1 comment:

sianandcrookedrib said...

great post!

my particular bugbear is advertising for yoghurts, because i really like yoghurt as a snack or for breakfast. but now when i eat a yoghurt, i am made to feel as if i am doing it to aid my feminine diet and my tender female digestive tract! it pisses me off!

i could go on about it all day - the issues i have with women being punished for food and men encouraged to indulge. my friend went to buy her wedding dress and the saleswoman was horrified that she wasn't planning on losing weight for the wedding. honestly! it's so stupid.


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