The Gendering of Food: You Are What You Eat!

By Elizabeth Ganley-Roper

“Oh yes, I’m a guy

 I’ll admit I’ve been fed quiche

Wave tofu bye-bye, now it’s for Whopper beef I reach

 I will eat this meat, ‘till my innie turns into an outtie

I am starved

I am incorrigible and I need to scarf a burger beef bacon jalapeño good thing down!”

 – 2008 Commercial for Burger King

About a year ago while doing research for my college thesis, “The Gendering of Food: History, Culture, Family,” I was surprised to find that the food preferences of white, middle-class American men and women have long been inextricably linked to culturally-instilled body image concerns as well as cultural definitions of femininity and masculinity.

In the 1920s, as women were fighting for equality and almost in response to that struggle, an explosion of gender stereotypes surfaced in cookbooks and magazines promoting the difference between male and female appetites. While many authors blatantly stated that women enjoyed light, delicate foods and should concern themselves more with the appearance of food rather than with the taste, it was made even clearer what types of food men should enjoy, with meat always at the center. Today in the United States, the legacy of the gendering of foods persists with stereotypical masculine foods consisting of beef, hamburgers, potatoes and beer. This is in contrast to feminine foods, which tend to include salads, pasta, yogurt, fruit and chocolate.[i]

The emphasis on light, delicate foods for women reflects the ideal of a light, delicate figure. In a nutshell, women’s foods are diet foods. The physical ideal for men is muscular and strong just like the foods men are supposed to like, which are rich, hearty and high in protein. Today’s ideals of male and female appetites may not be as rigid as in the past, but the gendered division remains the same. How many women have ordered a salad on a date even though she might be hankering for a hamburger and fries in an effort to play out her feminine delicateness in her food choice?

One of the most interesting examples of the division between feminine and masculine foods is found in advertisements for chocolate. The association between women and chocolate reaches back to the first candy advertisements at the turn of the 20th century. In an effort to increase sales, advertisers worked to rid women of the guilt they felt about indulging in chocolate. To convince women that their cravings were biologically driven by their gender, sensual images of women were shown in candy advertisements (for an in-depth analysis check out Jane Dusselier’s “Bonbons, Lemon Drops, and Oh Henry! Bars: Candy, Consumer Culture and the Construction of Gender, 1895-1920”).[ii] For contemporary examples of both the promotion of sweet food as feminine and the sensual connection between chocolate and women, just look at television commercials for Dove chocolate. In one 2008 commercial, a woman wrapped in brown silk bites into a chocolate in slow motion while a woman’s voice says, “Only a chocolate this pure can be this silky and make you savor, sigh, melt” while romantic music plays in the background.

While chocolate is considered a typically feminine food, red meat is the ultimate symbol of masculinity. Meat eating is associated with images of hunting, symbolizing man’s power to dominate wild beasts with his physical strength, virility and intelligence. Despite the fact that most of the meat men eat today is in barely recognizable forms found in plastic packages from the supermarket, its association with hunting and masculine strength persists.

In a 2006 commercial for the Hummer H3, two men stand at the check-out counter of a supermarket. The first man is shown buying tofu and vegetables while the man behind him loads large amounts of raw beef and charcoal onto the belt. The first man looks at the other man’s groceries and then the camera cuts to a magazine cover with a Hummer. The vegetarian charges out of the store and drives straight to a Hummer dealership. While he is driving the new car, the words “Restore the balance” are superimposed over a shot of him biting into a carrot. Even though food is irrelevant to the product, the advertisement exploits the connection between meat and men in order to promote its product as a symbol of masculinity.

In another commercial from 2008 that advertises Burger King’s Texas Double Whopper hamburger, a scene opens with a couple being served in an elegant restaurant. The camera cuts to a shot of the skimpy dish placed before the man while he begins to sing a parody of Helen Reddy’s 1970 hit “I Am Woman,” which became synonymous with the Women’s Liberation Movement. As he charges out of the restaurant to his girlfriend’s dismay, he sings, “I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food.” The man walks through the streets joined by other men to form a parade of hungry meat-eating men who continue with the song cited at the beginning of this article. At the end of the commercial the deep narrator’s voice concludes, “The Texas Double Whopper, eat like a man, man.” This single commercial filled with images of over-the-top machismo states explicitly that burger-eating leads to manliness.

Food preferences are not just about the taste buds. They can’t be separated from body image concerns and prescribed definitions of gender. Women must restrict and control their bodies by minimizing their intake of food, a cultural demand underscored and perpetuated by advertisers constantly warning women about their lustful natures and advising them to restrain themselves in order to be successful. Success for women is far too often equated with obtaining the cultural ideal beauty and body size. The current diet culture has not affected men as deeply as women in part to the fact that a large appetite has historically been praised and admired in men. While women must restrict their food intake and control their hunger, men are encouraged to eat until bursting in order to achieve the large, powerful body that has become a marker of masculinity.

So today, when you order out in a restaurant or prepare a meal, reflect on whether you make our choice because you truly want that specific dish or because you feel pressured to eat certain foods in order to achieve an ideal body and assume rigid definitions for your own femininity and masculinity.

Pork stew, anyone?

[i]Sobal, Jeffery. “Men, Meat, and Marriage: Models of Masculinity.” Food & Foodways 13 (2005): 135-158.

[ii] Dusselier, Jane. “Bonbons, Lemon Drops, and Oh Henry! Bars: Candy, Consumer Culture and 108the Construction of Gender, 1895-1920.” Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 13-49.


5 thoughts on “The Gendering of Food: You Are What You Eat!

  1. Thanks for posting this. I have seen this “gendering of food” in mainstream media and have also heard it regurgitated back to me by close family and friends (very disturbing).

    Immediately I can think of two examples:
    -Ron Swanson in NBC’s Parks & Recreation is a lampoon of a “man’s man” and prefers meat, especially steaks because he is so “manly”
    -Josh Lucas in the film Sweet Home Alabama exclaims “What is this, CHICK FOOD?!!” when he finds the refrigerator full of diet carbonated drinks, yogurt and salad

    It is frustrating to see the consequences of this “my foods”/”your foods” dichotomy among men and women because it actually encourages harmful eating for men. Americans consume waaaay more protein than needed, probably much thanks to the marketing to males that BEEF=MANLINESS. I know that it’s oppressive for women to be encouraged to watch their “delicate figures” by eating skimpy (instead of hearty) foods, but it’s also a loss for men as well to “gender” food.

    I think the shame about pressuring women to “eat healthy” is that it ultimately contributes to the culture of shame in eating “bad” foods. I wish some women would own up to the fact that quiche, yogurt and salad actually aren’t that filling!! Women need the NUTRIENTS in meat. Don’t get me started about the anorexia-disguised-as-vegetarianism thing.

  2. So much true in this and so interesting! This even extends to alcohol. Women drink sweet “girly” drinks or wine, whereas men drink beer, whiskey and the like. My husband loves sweet drinks and I’m glad that he is comfortable enough in himself that he doesn’t hold back. Likewise, if I just want a beer I’m not going to feel pressured and unfeminine in my choice.

  3. What’s really interesting is that chocolate (dark chocolate) is better for men then for women. Last month I went to a brain seminar by Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. (you can find his blog on Psychology Today- he talked about the benefits of men eating chocolate and how it helped them live longer. This effect was not seen in women who eat chocolate. Interesting that it is a “women’s food.”

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