The First Impression

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Is Our Diet Sexist?

Outdated ideas about gender may affect our health.

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Notions of masculinity and femininity are so embedded in how we are socialized that virtually any behavior can (and often is) interpreted through the lens of gender. From what color clothes a person wears to what hobbies one pursues to what profession or interests a person cultivates, notions of gender conformity drive many of our behaviors.

But how, exactly, does gender impact what we eat?

There are some obvious gendered patterns regarding diet that are easily observable, many of which have been substantiated by social psychological research. For instance, variations in ideal body type compel women to be more likely to restrict what they consume or diet—one of many reasons why women are at particular risk for eating pathologies such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa.

Interestingly, males have reported in studies that on first dates, they believe they will come off as sexier if they consume a lot of food. The notion of fusing a “hearty” appetite with masculinity—and consumption of meat in particular—is likely an enduring trace of primal behaviors being more strongly fused with constructions of masculinity than femininity. As one observer notes: “Real men eat meat. They kill it and they grill it. That’s the stereotype, or cliché, that’s about as old as time.” (Ulaby, 2014, para 1-2)

This notion that “manly” men consume meat is probably best encompassed by the classic Seinfeld episode when Jerry, as part of a renewed health kick, orders a salad at a steakhouse during a first date, to the chagrin of both the male waiter and his female companion. His order of “a salad” rings in his head for the rest of the date, and he is similarly chastised by Elaine the next day. Jerry vows to consume heartily on his next date, to atone for his salad choice.

The same study which revealed that males perceived their own excess consumption as more appealing on dates also found that women did not find a date’s vigorous appetite appealing—in fact, the majority of women sampled reported it as a turn off.

I have experienced the way that perceptions of gender impact food choices when on dates my male companions have teased me that they would “lose face” as males if they were to become vegan or vegetarian—the implication being that a plant-based diet is somehow emasculating. I find this particularly disturbing given that compassionate food choices, a healthy lifestyle, and decisions that are good for the planet should be promoted universally, and not perceived through the lens of gender.

An article reflecting on this topic for NPR reports:

"In an era of climate change and environmental destruction, Katcher [a male vegan] thinks masculinity should be reframed as protecting the planet, not dominating it. 'Mainstream masculinity is a roadblock to sustainability,' he says, adding that since he stopped eating or using products that hurt animals, he's occasionally been made to feel unmanly. 'It's considered a sign of weakness to other men—like you've left the club.'" (Ulaby, 2014, para 10-11)

In reality, males stand to gain the same benefits as women who follow a vegan diet. Despite stereotypes regarding masculinity, while more women than men report being vegetarians, slightly more men than women report being vegan, according to one survey (Ulaby, 2014). Nonetheless, notions of gender are so indoctrinated in our cognitive frameworks that we may not even realize how our ideas of appropriate “male” or “female” behaviors influence our food choices.

It is difficult to resist the pull of gender conformity. Many of us automatically succumb to gender norm expectancies because they are so embedded in our culture. But ultimately, such gender norms are restrictive and false—and in the case of food choices, they may both inhibit males from exploring alternatives to traditional cuisine, and repress women who fall prey to calorie counting, fusing guilt with food consumption, etc.

I urge readers to reflect on their own relationship with food, explore the extent to which it has been influenced by gendered socialization, and perhaps imagine a more enlightened approach to food that isn’t confined by such restrictions.

Bon appetit!

 

Ulaby, N. (2014, July 21). For these vegans, masculinity means protecting the planet. NPR: The Salt. Retrieved on August 6th, 2014 from: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/07/21/332329709/for-these-v...

Copyright 2014 Azadeh Aalai 

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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