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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The surprising way your gender influences your food choices

May 7, 2024 | Gender, Culture, Food, History, Eating, Feature

Written by Sarah Grieb

Back when I worked as a bartender, I always found it interesting how men and women tend to gravitate towards different drinks. The more time I spent behind the bar, the more I came to understand how even something as simple as our beverage preferences are surrounded in gendered expectations.

I remember one instance where a male customer approached me to voice his reservations about ordering the same fruity cocktail as his girlfriend. The drink was usually served in a martini glass, which he deemed too ‘feminine’. He was worried about their male friends teasing him about his order and asked me to serve the cocktail in a ‘manly’ whiskey glass instead.

While I was happy to honour his request, it left me wondering why something as simple as the shape of a glass made the difference between a drink being seen as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’.

How did we even get to a point where the things we eat and drink act as a way for us to signify and perform gender? And why are there social consequences for people who wish to deviate from their assigned food and drink preferences?

200 years of gendered food

The notion that women prefer salads and sangrias while men gravitate towards T-bone steaks and craft beer did not simply emerge out of thin air.

A cursory look into our recent history shows that these gendered ideas have been carried through several generations now. We’ve come to associate certain foods with masculinity or femininity largely due to cultural ideas that have taken hold over the past 200 years.

Even though gendered notions of food can be observed at different points over the last few hundred years, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that we saw the concept of explicitly gendered foods start to appear, particularly in the United States.

Professor of History at Yale University, Paul Freedman, who specialises in the history of American cuisine says clear demarcations began to be made between what foods men and women were expected to prefer during this time.

“At this point, women were thought to prefer light food, or in the parlance of the time ‘dainty’ food, as well sweets,” he says.

“Men came to be associated with meat or other hearty preparations, as well as spicy foods.”

“It was especially prevalent in what was known as the ‘scientific cookery’ or ‘domestic science’ movement, which arose in America.”

“The idea of women consuming ‘dainty’ foods like salads, jellies and tiny sandwiches to fit in line with performative femininity came to be the standard.”

A garden tea party table with dainty sandwiches and desserts

Women were encouraged to eat ‘light’ foods to keep a slim figure. Picture: Adobe Stock

Professor Freedman cites a couple of key factors that came to shape these gendered divisions: advertising, the cultural influence of magazines, and diet culture which portrayed a slim and athletic body as the ideal female figure.

One interesting institution that helped to communicate some of these ideas were dining venues known as ‘women’s restaurants’. They were places set apart for women to eat and socialise with one another, free of the ‘rowdiness’ and vulgarity of workingmen’s cafes and free-lunch bars.

While ‘Ladies’ Ordinances’ or women’s restaurants were operational in the United States from as early as the 1830s, they originally served similar dishes to men’s dining rooms – roast meat, offal and calf’s head.

Beginning in the 1870s however, shifting social norms allowed women opportunities to socialise with one another through these venues and urban chains like Schrafft’s and Child’s proliferated throughout the US.

“They positioned themselves to serve two types of women – both in groups alone – affluent shoppers needing a place to rest and have lunch, or office and retail employees,” says Professor Freedman.

The idea of women being partial to desserts had already begun to talk hold prior to this period, particularly to ice cream.

But Professor Freedman says it was in the late 19th century that sweet foods and femininity came to be associated.

“In the 1890s, these [restaurants] came to offer both ice cream and other often elaborate desserts, along with ‘light foods’ such as chicken, salad, pancakes and sandwiches.”

Cookbooks and magazines

After these ‘dainty foods’ had become more or less the designated go-to meals for women, magazines, advertisements and cookbooks began to reinforce these ideas even further.

“Before 1890, there is no indication in cookbooks that men and women prefer different sorts of food, or that women need to cater to men’s needs,” says Professor Freedman.

“[In the 20th century] advertisers came to seize on women’s anxieties about pleasing their husbands through their cooking”.

“They would show the importance of women pleasing their husbands by depicting men throwing tantrums or leaving their marriage because they don’t like the food their wife has cooked.”

While these advertisements certainly had overtones of misogyny, companies tapped into these gender roles to sell their products. Playing off of women’s anxieties about being good cooks, companies would advertise products as ‘easy to use’ while being able to satisfy your husband’s taste buds at the same time.

These gendered advertisements were not limited to the United States. however.

Food Historian, Dr Lauren Samuelsson studies the impact Women’s Weekly has had on Australian culture and says clear demarcations of feminine and masculine meals is also evident in Australia during this time.

Dr Lauren Samuelsson is a food historian who specialises in the impact ‘Women’s Weekly’ magazines have had on food culture. Picture: Supplied/Lauren Samuelsson

“An article in Women’s Weekly in 1965 titled ‘Meals Men Love’ provides us with a pretty good overview of dishes we have come to consider ‘masculine’,” says Dr Samuelsson.

“Steak and kidney pudding, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, hearty beef stew and bread and butter pudding are just some of the dishes men were thought to prefer.”

Many of the dishes notably feature red meat, which attempts to draw on ideas from the past, says Dr Samuelson.

“It speaks to hunting, men working physical jobs and the need for them to be muscular and powerful.”

And even though women largely performed, (and still do) much of the cooking, men would hardly ever cook anything besides meat when they decided to venture into the kitchen.

“Men were also considered to be more adventurous than women when it came to food and eating,” she says.

“They’d be more likely to try cooking things like frogs legs or offal, as these were seen as being ‘gourmet’ and ‘special’ – and men would only cook at home when it was gourmet and special.”

What about drinks?

So, what about the man who really didn’t want me to serve his cocktail in a martini glass? What’s going on with gendered ideas when it comes to alcoholic beverages?

Well, Dr Samuelsson says things used to be the opposite way around.

“Interestingly, cocktails, even fruity ones, were originally considered highly masculine,” she says.

Stigma around men liking ‘feminine’ drinks still exists today. Picture: Adobe Stock

“Spirits were not ‘proper’ drinks for women. It wasn’t until transgressive women in the 1920s and 1930s started to drink them to appear more ‘worldly’ and cosmopolitan, that other women started to drink them as well.”

Red and white wine were also split down the gendered lines, she says.

“Men drank red wine which was considered a ‘serious’ drink and women drank white wine which was considered especially bubbly and ‘decidedly unserious.”

However all wine – red and white – came to be targeted towards women from the 1950s onwards as men were already firmly considered to be beer drinkers and women were chosen as a target market to expand sales.

Diet culture and its continuing effects

Diet culture is one of the more pernicious developments to arise out of the gendering of food, with women’s bodies and insecurities being the primary targets.

If we take a look at housewives in the 20th century, the only meal they generally ate alone was lunch, as they were usually cooking for their husbands’ preferences in the mornings and evenings. As a result, this time alone was thought to be a time for women to ‘watch their figure’ and perform femininity by eating ‘light’ things like fish, salads and soups.

Dr Samuelsson says this was only the beginning of dietary advice encouraging slenderness.

“By the time diet culture really got its hands into women in the 1970s, they were being advised to have a pot of yoghurt for lunch.”

And this is certainly something that women still feel the effects of today.

I asked modern women about their own experiences with diet culture and the expectations around their food choices, and it appears some things haven’t changed.

One woman said she felt judged after ordering a rare steak while on a date with a man who appeared put off by her choice of a ‘masculine’ meal.

She also shared other ideas she had been expected to conform to such as “eating salad instead of burgers to fit in with men’s and women’s expectations.”

“Sharing the cake you wanted all to yourself” was another norm she felt pressure to conform to as well as “eating Special K as a teenager because of how it was marketed.”

Several other women also mentioned having to be aware of co-workers perceptions during work morning teas so as not to be perceived as “a fat pig.”

Going back for seconds for many women was also out of the question, even if they were hungry.

“It’s because you don’t want to be seen as having an unladylike hearty appetite,” one woman said.

“But the result is that men have more access to food.”

She also talked about women catering to men’s preferences in dinner settings to the detriment of their own needs.

“When I would share food in restaurants in my youth, the women at the table would estimate the amount of each dish and take their share. The men would eat what the wanted, even if it meant someone missed out. So they got more, women got less, and everyone split the cost, meaning the men’s share was subsidised by the women,” she said.

After reading the responses and experiences of so many women when it came to their eating habits, it’s very clear that we still have deeply ingrained gendered ideas of food, even if we’ve moved away from some of the more traditional notions seen in the 20th century.

Even so, Dr Samuelsson notes that diet culture is still one of the more pervasive aspects of gendered notions of food in our modern culture.

“On social media, the ‘mukbang’ trend is largely dominated by slender women because it is still so culturally ingrained in us that a woman, especially a conventionally attractive woman, eating a big meal of junk food is unacceptable,” she says.

Despite an effort to break down gender roles over the past few decades, men are still free to eat things like red meat and junk food without judgement.

“Things like burgers, especially over the top versions with big patties and lots of cheese are coded masculine,” she says.

“We know this has a real-world effect because men are less likely to be vegan or vegetarian compared to women,”

Professor Freedman also agrees that this is simply a continuation or evolution of gendered food preferences.

“Vegetarianism and veganism are essentially female, and outdoor cooking and meat are viewed as male,” he says.

“However, we are seeing that things like spicy foods, hearty dishes and sweets as being less gendered than in the past.”

So, perhaps there is some hope that we are shifting away from the ridiculous notion that our gender ought to dictate what is and is not appropriate for us to eat and drink.

There is certainly no doubt that more of us would defy these food preference stereotypes if we were not judged as harshly, both men and women.

If we can move past the idea of pink for girls and blue for boys, it’s probably time we did the same thing for food too.

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Sarah Grieb is studying a Bachelor of Communication and Media (Journalism)/Bachelor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Canberra. She is currently interning at BroadAgenda and works at ABC Canberra as a radio producer and Network Operations Assistant.

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