It is a truth universally acknowledged that women have a complicated relationship with food. We are both providers and consumers yet society watches how and what we eat with avid interest. As International Women’s Day approaches let’s have a look at the relationship between women and food.
Let’s imagine alien life exists and they were to compile a report about human eating habits. It would be based solely on media representations. They’d likely notice a marked difference in the eating habits of the sexes.
How women seem to prefer salad, yoghurt and anything that is low-fat or low-calorie. Unless they’re being “naughty” or need comfort, in which case they’ll indulge in chocolate or ice cream.
Men, according to the media, like meat, and potatoes, and more meat. Basically anything that seems to tap into their macho, caveman side.
Even chocolate is advertised in a different way to men as opposed to women.
Is Food Gendered?
Now if you’ve ever met an actual human and sat down to eat with them you’ll know that universal stereotypes like the above are absolute rubbish. Yet social conditioning means that women are far more conscious of what they eat than men.
Women are expected to be thin because “thin equals sexy”. We’re expected to be constantly watching our weight and what we eat; to be conscious of our appearance.
This all creates a weird relationship with food that is difficult to break.
The media and advertising in particular, are complicit in this attitude. There is a ridiculous trope that implies that not only do women enjoy this but they find it fun. It is best exemplified by “Women laughing alone with salad”.
This collection of stock photos show women smiling, or indeed laughing, while eating salad alone. Think on that for a while and I’ll wager you’ll remember seeing at least one instance of that recently.
The same thing can also be seen with low-fat food ads, in particular yoghurt. The women featured frequently look as if, rather than enjoying a delightful dairy-based treat, they’re experiencing one of the best orgasms of their lives!
There are a few exceptions to this rule.
The most notable one being the tagline used by Yorkie bars from 2001 to 2012. “It’s not for girls!”, has now changed to “Man fuel for Man Stuff”.
Mars and Snickers have also advertised using sport as a hook, promoting the chocolate bars as fuel rather than an indulgence. Now think about the classic adverts for Flake or Galaxy, which rely on these chocolates being a sensuous indulgence.
See the difference?
Food, not inherently gendered in any way, is being presented to us as such.
Why Are Home Cooks Normally Women When Top Restaurant Chefs Are Men?
According to ONS figures released in 2016, a woman will spend an average of 7.28 hours per week in the kitchen. This is compared with just 3.65 hours for a man.
Yet, if you watch the majority of cooking shows or go into any professional kitchen, the chefs featured are usually male.
In 2012, just under 20% of chefs were women and that figure hasn’t changed greatly since.
According to an article featuring top women chefs from 2012, many female chefs said they found it hard to prove themselves in the industry. They felt that there was a degree of emotional labour that needed to be dealt with alongside the gruelling hours and hard work.
For these chefs, figuring out how to present themselves, while occupying a space that women didn’t traditionally occupy, was as hard as doing the actual work.
Most people will rave about a particular dish their mother used to make their whole life. Yet they don’t expect it to be restaurant quality.
Home cooking is associated with love and providing for one’s family, tradition, and a sense of comfort. Traits which are normally associated with women.
Restaurant food is expected to be creative, bold, and innovative. Traits which many feel are more masculine. A macho atmosphere is expected in a restaurant kitchen. But it’s not something encouraged in the kitchen at home.
The Kitchen Has Food
What’s interesting is not only that so few women are cooking professionally, but also that so few men are cooking at home.
We all know many good home cooks who are male. They may not necessarily whip up restaurant-quality meals. But the food they make has all the virtues needed for a good home cooked meal: love, thought, care. These are men who are comfortable with themselves and enjoy providing that sense of home for their family and friends.
Men need to be encouraged in the kitchen at home. Just as much as women need to be encouraged in the kitchen professionally.
As one of my favourite memes claims, “Women belong in the kitchen, men belong in the kitchen, everyone belongs in the kitchen – the kitchen has food.”
“You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Thin” – Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor
I mentioned above that women are expected to be thin because thin equals sexy, in the eyes of society. But you probably already know that dieting is big business.
The diet industry is currently worth about $20 billion.
It’s an industry that depends on people – and let’s be honest, mostly women – feeling bad about their bodies.
Due to this guilt, they are subscribing to some absurd method of consuming food. These methods may cause you to lose weight. But they certainly won’t help you maintain that weight loss once you hit the desired target.
And so you put the weight on again. So you go on another diet. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.
The thing is, most diets work by fetishising certain foods.
Food is not inherently bad, in moderation. You might cut certain foods out of your diet because you deem them to be too “naughty”. But then suddenly they become something you desperately crave either in times of stress or celebration. Which means that in those times you are more likely to over-indulge in them.
For many people this will then cause them to throw the whole idea of dieting out the window. And it can fill them with a level of self-loathing as they berate themselves for both a lack of will power and the fact they are still unhappy with their body.
It eventually leads back to an unhealthy relationship with food in general.
The big issue with this is these problems with body image can transfer to our children. And it can be difficult, although not impossible, to talk to them about it.
Dad Bod vs. Mum Bod
Men are subject to some of these same pressures. Although it is questionable if they face quite the sheer volume of unobtainable media representations as women do.
While ripped abs and tight buns are never going to go out of style, the fact the Dad Bod is becoming a “thing” isn’t a bad thing for society. (Note though, that the notion of the ‘Mum Bod’ hasn’t picked up as much traction or attention).
Realising that “normal” can still be sexy is one way to improve our relationships with our bodies. This is as opposed to holding ourselves up to some ideal that needs constant work to maintain.
Celebrate International Women’s Day with Whatever the Hell You Fancy
We should be less distracted by what society says our body needs to look like.
Instead, we should be more concerned with the words coming out of our mouths than the food going into it.
Then we can get on with the important things like smashing the patriarchy. After all, isn’t that what International Women’s Day is all about?