Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gender and Food

I seem to be stuck on writing about gender these days, so I will write about a topic that has bothered me for a long time: gender and food. Why is it that everybody so loves making comments that connect (against all reason) gender and food?

Once, I went to lunch with colleagues. I wasn't hungry, so I got a fruit salad. "Oh, look at your food!" my colleagues said. "It's so feminine! And look at Anna! She got herself a hamburger, she is such a guy!" I don't know who looked more uncomfortable, Anna or I.

I understand that this stereotype of men eating more than women comes from the times when in certain social classes men were expected to be more physically active. Nowadays, however, it makes very little sense. A male college professor is engaged in the same amount of physical activity as his female colleague. We teach the same number of classes and are forced to jump over the same huge student backpacks while trying to navigate around the classrooms. So it makes very little sense to associate hamburgers or fruit salads with a specific gender.

People, however, are not guided by reason when it comes to gender stereotypes. It is so comforting to wallow in the gender binaries that people seem to experience an almost erotic pleasure in this activity.

There have been some positive changes in what concerns gender and food, though. Many waiters today don't put the bill for a restaurant meal in front of a man. They either place it in the middle of the table, facing the aisle, or hand it to the person who was the most active in ordering. 


considertheteacosy said...

I'm always fascinated by the ways in which our relationship to food is so incredibly gendered. It seems to tied up in the ways in which we construct our relationships to our bodies, to sensuality. To be a 'good girl', women are expected to exhibit control over sensuality. Thus, to enjoy food, but not to 'over'-indulge or let go.

Clarissa said...

I actually never thought of it this way. What a profound idea. Thank you for suggesting this to me!

Anonymous said...

I love salads, and because of this I've been teased often because I "eat like a girl" or like "gay" food -- that was especially prevalent in the Army.

It's not that I've lived in every country in the world, but food seems to be particularly gendered in the US.

Probably because there is more anxious masculinity present in the States.

It also has a lot to do with the default patriarchal mode in the US being so dominated by the most extreme elements of the Republican/Tea Party, and their disavowal of any healthy food as being "liberal."

In the US, "liberal" equals "feminine," so therefore eating anything remotely healthy by a man is automatically "girly" or "gay."

What a fucked-up way of thinking.


Clarissa said...

Finally, I understand the male fear of the salad! It's supposed to be emasculating. I'm learning a lot from these comments.

lumina said...

In days of old women were expected to eat very little in an effort to portray their feminine aspect. Most women would eat BEFORE going to a party so as not to appear hungry. Hunger suggests a lack of control (of that sensuality mentioned above) and also a poor social class. Goddess forbid!

Also, it was considered crude to see a woman eating and chewing her food, so the less she put in her mouth (that tantalizing orifice of pleasure) the better.

I have this same problem all the time. I have a very healthy appetite and eat many types of foods that people consider "manly". I also like beer. My friends look at me with disgust, men watch me in fascination. I find it comical. The fact that I'm not holding some fruity fru fru drink somehow makes me LESS of a woman? How strange is that!

Nick G said...

Finally this seems like a feminist-leaning blog for once.

Seconded a million times over on the food stereotypes. Helllo Hungry-Man and Lean Cuisine frozen dinners. I like both so guess I'm intersexed.

Melissa said...

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I've also noticed that, although women eating certain foods (or a lot of food) is certainly a taboo, doing it anyway seems to fascinate people, not disgust them. If a woman doesn't shave her legs, at least 90% of the people who find out about it will react with overt disgust. (Regardless of whether it's what they're actually feeling--who knows? But it's the public reaction people seem to be expected to have.) But if a (thin) woman wolfs down a whole pizza, or a giant burger and fries, the women around her will tend to react with a sort of saddened envy ("I wish I could eat like that! This diet is exhausting.") and the men will tend to be intrigued/attracted. ("I've never seen a girl eat like that! That's so cool!")

Of course, it should be added that fat people eating "masculine" food or lots of food in public is met with scorn regardless of gender, with the strongest of the vitriol (of course) reserved for the women.

Anyway, my entirely non-scientific theory on why the whole women-eating-in-public thing is regarded as a good/cool taboo to break (unlike leg-shaving) is because of the whole idea that women's beauty should be effortless. Just as we're expected to be beautiful without wearing detectable make-up and without taking too long to get ready, I think a lot of people are really intrigued by the idea of a woman who can eat a lot of food and stay thin. For many men, it's the fantasy, and for many women, it's what they've spent most of their lives dreaming of becoming. Other taboos aren't that way.

Clarissa said...

Great theory. In Gilmore Girls two very thin women were portrayed as constantly devouring huge amounts of junk food. When the lead actress was asked in an interview if she really ate like that in real life, she looked at the interviewer like he was a complete idiot. Which I'm sure he was asking a question like that.