How Society Took Food And Made It Gendered

Today's global citizens have an almost unlimited world cuisine travel pass, yet there is an unspoken divide in our food choices that has persisted for decades: the role of gender. While international migration and cultural crossovers led to wonderful fusion mashups and new cuisines, attempts to bridge the guy-gal food gulf — such as Eva Longoria's ill-fated attempt to open a steakhouse for women —are seen at best as brave, and at worst, as foolish. 

We all need to eat, and we all grow up sharing meals in mixed-gender groups, but at some point, a coding slipped in. Imagining a group of friends sipping smoothies and trading tales after a gym session conjures up an image of a group of ladies in activewear, although men dominate the sports nutrition market and are just as likely to trade gossip as the girls .

Moreover, who makes our food and how they are regarded is another key part of society's gendering of food. This is amplified by the fact that advertisers see the value in women and their domestic labor, even if society doesn't always do so. Since the early 20th century, when companies recognized that women controlled over 75% of consumer spending, experts began to target their ads to women's lives and insecurities. The specifics have changed, but with 60%+ of women still believing ads show more negative female stereotypes than positive ones, the strategy seems to have stayed the same.

Sex sells, and sex sells food especially well

Over the decades, the advertising tactic that began as a money-making way to exploit female customers morphed into a health crisis for men. A stark, binary view of gender, as well as associations between healthy foods and femininity, bred a connection between masculinity and unhealthy food. Scientists are, however, still puzzled by the fact that men are twice as likely to have heart attacks as women.

What force is so powerful that it makes breadwinning women with unemployed partners still do most of the housework, men eat themselves into an early grave, and wracks both genders with guilt and shame about their food and bodies? Well, it's quite simple psychology.

In the 1950s, Ernest Dichter brought Freudian psychology to advertising. Per Psychology Today, he believed that people were "more strongly motivated by the pleasure principle than by the principle of reality". As historian Katherine Parkin explained in New York Magazine, "Dichter believed that by convincing Americans of a food's sex and its resultant gendered identity, as well as its sensuality, advertisers could suggest their foods to meet consumers' need to fulfill their gender roles."

Single and not manly enough? Be a provider and hunt something. Single and not femme enough? Eat a salad and maybe they'll notice you. Already have a partner? Well, you better be paying or cooking for them, or they're going to leave you. These are the food-related gender roles what we're talking about.

How can we move forward?

The good news is that because these are cultural forces, we have the power to change that culture. While the U.K. recently brought in legislation to curb gender stereotypes in advertising, that could be tricky in the U.S. thanks to the First Amendment. However, a 2018 study showed that around 75% of U.S. adults believe that traditional gender roles have changed and advertising hasn't kept up. Less rigid ideas about masculinity and femininity help people unpack the gendered way they view food, making choices based on their individual situations rather than cultural narratives.

Emotional eating is a mental health term for whenever we eat for reasons other than our physical, nutritional needs. It's usually a term we use to talk about wolfing down a box of cookies after a bad meeting or the traditional post-breakup pint of ice cream. But as we can see, thanks to Dichter and those like him, gendering food is a kind of society-level emotional eating. As with any addressing any problem, says the best first steps are to recognize the issue, identify the causes, and put systems in place that help reduce the amount of emotional eating you do. More and more people are calling out the way gendered marketing has shaped our food system, so hopefully, we are beginning the path toward a more balanced, healthy, and enjoyable food future.