Eating Right in 2016: Still "Women's Work"?

Men and women approach food differently. Here's why.

Posted Jan 11, 2016

With the new year upon us and goals to make 2016 the year to finally “eat right,” “lose weight,” and “get in shape” shared by many, it’s easy to find yourself spending a bit of extra time selecting healthy foods at the grocery store or planning to make dinner and skip the drive-through.  Well, it’s likely that you are spending energy doing these things if you are a woman; if you are a heterosexual man, research suggests you may be letting your mom, girlfriend, or wife make these decisions for you.  Why is this?  Don’t we all like to think that men and women are equally capable of grocery shopping and food prep?  Recently, I talked with a colleague of mine at Rutgers University-Camden, Dr. Kate Cairns, about her new book, Food and Femininity (with Josée Johnston; Bloomsbury Publishing), that contains answers to these questions.

In her book, Cairns studies not just food, but “foodwork,” referring to all the labor that goes into procuring and preparing food, including food shopping, cooking, and clean-up, as well as the mental and emotional labor of writing lists, planning meals, and ensuring that others’ needs are met.  In Dr. Cairns’ research she has found that although master chefs and Food Network stars are likely to be men, the everyday work of feeding oneself – and especially feeding others – is still primarily associated with women. Although men and women by and large expect to have equal relationships, the women she spoke with for her research often suggested that they simply care more about food, so it made sense for them to take the lead on things like making grocery lists, planning healthy meals, or teaching children about the environmental implications of their food choices.

Kate Cairns, used with permission
Source: Kate Cairns, used with permission

According to Dr. Cairns, this foodwork is strongly associated with motherhood, leaving children’s food choices to be viewed as an extension of mothers’ choices.  I can vouch for this point; my kids’ father has never felt shamed for ordering Papa John’s Pizza when friends are over for dinner.  On the other hand, I always find myself explaining that the pizza crust is homemade when I serve pizza – as if an explanation is necessary for serving pizza.  Cairns’ research also suggests that when fathers do take an active role in family meal preparation, this work is often seen as a bonus rather than something that is fundamental to being a successful father.  Masculinity is just not as intimately connected to food in the same demanding, penalizing, and emotionally potent ways.

Food and Femininity helps us to further understand why women invest so much energy in foodwork.  It’s not simply that women care more about what they and their loved ones eat, it’s that food is appreciated by women as way of expressing love and passing on family tradition.  Thus, foodwork isn’t always experienced as a burden, it can also be immensely rewarding and is linked to feelings of pleasure and pride.  Doing a good job of foodwork makes women feel like responsible caregivers, discerning consumers, ethically mindful shoppers, and healthy individuals.  Of course, these standards do not always feel easy for women to achieve, particularly when money and time are tight.

Dr. Cairns’ book reminds us that the pressures surrounding food are immense for women – not just in terms of foodwork but in terms of the implications for their own weight management and the nearly universal goal of thinness. Although her research suggests that many women are focusing on “healthy eating” as opposed to dieting, many women still feel like their food choices are being scrutinized within a culture that idealizes thinness and pathologizes fat. Cairns argues that women continue to face pressures to regulate their bodies, but now have the added challenge of framing healthy eating in terms of making empowering, pleasurable choices rather than punishing oneself through a restrictive diet.

So, how can both men and women achieve their food and fitness goals in 2016 in spite of the persistently gendered nature of foodwork?  Cairns suggests the importance of connecting the individual pressures we may feel – to be thin, to be healthy, to be the perfect caring mother or talented homecook – with an understanding of the larger food system designed to sell us more stuff.  She reminds us that, yes, it’s important to feel empowered and healthy, but it’s very difficult to feel like one is doing an adequate job of food and body work when the standards are so high. These are standards that punish women who are seen to be trying too hard (e.g., the “helicopter” mom), as well as women who are seen to be not trying hard enough (e.g., the overindulgent mother). It can feel like an impossible balancing act to achieve. 

One solution is for women to simply unabashedly lower their standards.  Alternatively, women can hold the men in their lives more accountable for helping to maintain the standards they feel are important for their family.  Regardless, foodwork doesn’t have to be women’s work. Systemic social changes will make it more likely for men to be more involved in foodwork, but we can all start by implementing even minor changes within our own homes.  Moms, dads, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, grandparents, and anyone else living under one roof, can all do their part to plan a meal, participate in cooking it, or cleaning up afterwards.  The more we work together, the easier it will be to improve the way we eat in 2016. 

Charlotte Markey, 2016

Smart People Don’t Diet (Da Capo Lifelong Books and Nero) by Dr. Charlotte Markey is available now, here.  You can follow Dr Markey on Twitter (@char_markey), Facebook (Dr. Charlotte Markey) and SmartenFit, Pinterest and on her website Smart People Don’t Diet.

Charlotte Markey, used with permission
Source: Charlotte Markey, used with permission