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Food is more than just a survival need. Food means joy, food is also passion but it is also an essential part of our socio-cultural identity. However, is food an element in our gender identity too? Let us look.
Since time immemorial, sexual division of labor has been occurring when it comes to food. Men have been hunters and women, gatherers. Though hunting and gathering were replaced by agriculture the sexual divide persists. Today, men and women choose different foods and they choose their food differently. Certain foods and drinks are considered ‘manly’ and others ‘feminine’. Red meats, hamburgers, hotdogs are considered manly and on the other hand women apparently enjoy chocolates, dainty desserts, salads and green teas. Closer to home, paranthe and lassi are considered a guy’s grub while street snacks like chat and golgappe are usually taken to be girly food. It is as though food suddenly has a sex or at least a gender. And we are constantly trying to eat the foods in accordance with our own genders. I have often heard gender biased comments for food: “I can’t drink that, it’s so girly”, “Women don’t eat such things, what will everyone think”. Is food another way through which traditional and the oh-so-restrictive gender roles are being reinforced and perpetuated? Is the basic, primal activity of obtaining nutrition becoming a gendered exercise? Some people would say that biology and nature makes men and women like different kinds of food. However, I would contest the biological stance on this, as food considered masculine/feminine in one culture is not considered so in another. More often than not, they don’t even fall in the same food group (chocolates and golgappe are not related by any stretch of imagination).
Some food choices are not entirely personal in nature. More women as compared to men are victims of malnutrition. But according to a popular leader, the girls are dieting, so the malnutrition is not really malnutrition. Furthermore, the levels of anemia are higher in women vis-a-vis men. This is not because of the food choices they personally make, but in fact a result of the food choices society makes for them. It is common place in an Indian household that the women eat after men, literally consuming the leftovers. It is socially approved for a wife to wait for her husband and not eat until he does. However, no such social traditions where a man waits for a woman to eat are easily found. The festival-fast of Karwa Chauth is another example where women starve themselves from sunrise till sundown for the health and longevity of their husbands. Furthermore, its common to find that in many homes there is a differential access to the foods available. The more expensive foods (meat and dairy) are often reserved for the menfolk. In fact, there are many homes in India where the women are vegetarians and only men eat meat. The socio-religious bindings on women are much greater when it comes to food. All these go to say that a gender hierarchy does exist in the world of food, where men call the first dibs on nutrition and taste, both.
Not only what we eat but how we eat it is a matter of interest, too. The quantity of food one can consume also has overtones of gender. While men boast about their large appetites, women are usually competing over who ate lesser. Is there biologically such a huge difference between the appetites of women and men? Or have we been socialized to want and eat food quantities according to our genders?
This brings us to body image and allied issues such as anorexia. Food is no longer just food. It may mean nourishment, it may mean survival, it could be guilty pleasure, or even guilt alone. Often foods high in sugar are called sinful, so as to hint that eating the ‘extra’ calories (and consequently putting on the ‘extra’ weight) is a sin. It is ‘sinful’ to not look a certain way. The certain look may differ for the genders where women are constantly being told to be thin by staying away from sugars, fries and food at large; men are getting the message that they need to bulk up with synthetic supplements and shakes. Either way, food defines one’s body image and is a great part of a person’s gender identity.
So the next time, you pick a dish at a restaurant, or are making a meal for yourself, do take the time to think if your gender is affecting your food choices.
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