Eat Like a Human: How Gender Stereotypes Affect Our Relationships With Food

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Image via PhantomFuture

Image via PhantomFuture

By Amber Ikeman (Intern 2014)

Eaters of the world – I have a question for you. Have you ever heard or used phrases such as “Eat like a man!” or “I’ve got to maintain my lady-like figure”? When was the last time you looked at your plate of food and considered what the opposite sex might think about it? (Okay, that was two questions.) Lately, as I observe what others say about who’s eating what, I realize that stereotypes about food and gender have a great effect on what we eat and how we feel about it, especially in public.

It starts with the food industry and the gender-specific marketing we’re constantly exposed to.  For example, the Skinny Girl brand sends the message that women need to eat a certain way to be skinny and therefore attractive. Men are clearly Dave’s Killer Bread’s target population, featuring a cartooned, muscular, electric-guitar-playing dude. Powerful Yogurt claims to be “the first yogurt in the U.S. specifically designed for men and men’s health needs,” the difference being that it’s a “man-sized,” 8-ounce serving with more protein than other popular brands. God forbid a man got caught eating a wimpy 5-ounce Greek yogurt with only 20 grams of protein instead of 25!

We also perceive certain foods as gendered. Women are shamed for eating food that’s supposed to be for men, and men are shamed for eating food that’s stereotypically for women.  Burger King’s commercial for a Texas Double Whopper perfectly captures this idea, marketing the burger specifically for men with lines like, “I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food.” If a man eats a burger, good for him! He needs the protein to swell his muscles to attract a female. If a woman eats a burger, she’s a fatty, undesirable in our fat-phobic society. And on the flip side; if a woman eats a salad, good for her! She’s healthy. If a man eats a salad, he’s a pussy (an insult to women and pertinent example of gender inequality).

There’s also a cultural standard that men can and must eat more than women, and that they need the energy because they’re bigger and stronger. It’s an archaic, patriarchal way of thinking, but it’s still deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious. If a man overeats, it’s not such a big deal, as long as his physical appearance is still socially acceptable and he still gets laid. In fact, he will often be praised for it by his “bros.” Men who participate in eating contests are glorified as champs, hardcore in a way, as if they have proven their masculinity. When women engage in similar eating habits, they are considered gross, unfeminine, and therefore unattractive. Typically, if women indulge the way men sometimes do publicly, they do it in private and in shame. We cry into pints of ice cream and bags of chocolate with our friends when we’re going through a breakup. But guys can get together and pig out on pizza, wings, hot dogs, chips, and a smorgasbord of “game day” goodies and it’s a party. The stereotype that women eat “light” salads and fruit perpetuates the destructive mentality that women need to maintain a low weight and be thin in order to be attractive. In the same way of thinking, women are also more fragile, so eating a cheeseburger would certainly cause them to explode!

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Stock photo from the hilarious Tumblr, Women Laughing Alone With Salad.

Harvard Medical School says that when it comes to calories – intake of protein, carbs, and fat – men and women generally have the same needs. There are differences in nutritional requirements, such as more iron and calcium for women. In general, larger bodies need more calories to provide energy, regardless of sex. Yes, sex is one of the many factors that determine how much food a body needs. Men are about 15-20% larger than women and tend to have more muscle than women of the same age and weight, but that doesn’t mean that all men need to eat more than women or that women can’t eat as much. So, there you have it – our ideas about gender and food stem more from gender bias than from biology. If you’re still not convinced, a 2011 study found that men and women’s eating habits changed depending on their company.

Not all people buy into these stereotypes; in fact, some challenge them. Some men say that they find a woman who eats with gusto and without inhibition sexy, like Anthony Bourdain, for example. However, this reinforces the idea that women are limited to being sex objects. If women want to eat what seems to be a large amount (but is most likely actually a normal-sized portion) or something “masculine,” we can only accept it if we sexualize them? On the other hand, women can be just as judgmental about what and how much other women eat. A few weeks ago, my friend who is pregnant was hungry at 10:30 AM at work. So she did what any hungry person should do – she made herself something to eat, a vegetarian corn dog. A female, obsessively “calorie conscious” co-worker walked by her cubicle, gave her a once-over, and said, disdainfully, “I know you’re not eating a corn dog at 10:30 in the morning…” Perhaps it stems from her own insecurity, but we need to ditch the condescension when it comes to what, when, and how someone else eats.

A recent Instagram post called “You Did Not Eat That” further propagates this issue. The post features generally thin people posing with foods we think of as fattening and therefore taboo, like doughnuts, burgers, and even sandwiches. (Yes. Sandwiches. I had to look really closely at this picture and when I determined it looked like PB&J, I was confused and quite annoyed). This post is essentially telling us that skinny people never eat these kinds of foods, otherwise they’d be fat. No room for any of balance or in-between. Additionally, most of the photos are of women. Not only does this shame women for eating fatty foods or whatever they want, it also oversexualizes them. Who do we think is the target audience for Carl Jr.’s commercial, represented on Instagram by the photo of a woman posing seductively in a bikini on the beach with a juicy burger in hand? Perhaps since burgers are supposed to be for men, it’s just an extra piece of eye candy. But the second she eats it, she’s not attractive anymore, or maybe she is, but only if she eats it in a sexual way.  And there’s no way she could have possibly eaten even one bite because she is so skinny and beautiful (although the model does admit to occasionally eating half a burger). Really?

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The other issue at hand is gender binaries; we’re conditioned to think about people in terms of men and women with no room for any other possibilities. This is one reason we judge, comment, and behave how we do when it comes to food and gender. When we categorize people in this black-and-white way, establishing fixed expectations from males and females, we make it so that our behavior and lifestyle must fit neatly into these boxes as well. Gender can be complex; one person’s gender could include many characteristics. We all have qualities of both standard genders, which is one of the reasons it’s so okay to challenge the norms about how and what we eat according to how we identify ourselves. If only we could think about both more fluidly, we could all just relax and actually enjoy our food…together!

Too often, we make judgments about people’s eating habits in relation to physical qualities like our sex. If we can transcend the stereotypes and judgments we’re conditioned to, we can learn a lot about our cultural norms surrounding food and gender. Every body has its own unique relationship with food and the way food affects it, regardless of whether one identifies as a man, a woman, trans, or otherwise. Yes, males and females have biological differences, but most of our differences about the way we should eat are social constructions rather than based in science. When we become more aware of these stereotypes in our daily lives, we can allow ourselves to move towards a more open and accepting society, where even if our choices seem to break the rules of social acceptance, we will not be judged for eating like humans.

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