Britain Business

Why Do Foods Have Genders?

19:31Ciaran McCormick

This blog post is going to tell you why it is feminist to eat a chicken korma the next time you order an Indian takeaway. That may seem like an outrageously bizarre starting point, but stay with me on this one. Foods have genders. It may not be natural for a healthy salad to be associated with women and a burger with men, but the connection has sunk deeply in our culture. We need to start challenging these perceptions and free ourselves from the rigid food choices that our gender roles allow.


Is fried chicken really a masculine food?

A recent study caught my eye, because it captures perfectly the strange associations we give to our food. The article posted in Science Psychology found that men were more likely to choose unhealthy food when given masculine primes. Women preferred more nutritious diet foods when given feminine cues. Even the taste of the food can be perceived differently depending on the way it is marketed.

The experiment is really simple and clever. The participants were given word puzzles that promoted gender stereotypes. Once they had those thoughts in their head, they were asked to choose between food pairs such as healthy baked or unhealthy fried chicken. The unexpected results show just  how often gender stereotypes shape our choices.

When the puzzles involved words that are traditionally linked with feminine characteristics, the participants chose healthier food. This was true regardless of the gender of the person taking part in the study. Both men and women charged with feminine concepts preferred healthier foods. Likewise, when the puzzles were masculine, everyone wanted the unhealthy and greasy food.

How can we use this knowledge to help free ourselves from our own biases? Packaging has to play a big role, since it gives us immediate visual clues to help us work out who a product is designed for. The pink and blue aisles of toy stores are a disturbing sight to anyone concerned about these issues. The scientists also explored the importance of packaging and found some hilarious yet troubling results.

Is this really food for females?

They gave their subjects blueberry muffins in three types of packaging. One depicted footballers and was labelled with the word 'mega'. Another featured ballerinas and the word 'healthy'. A third type of muffin combined both the male and female packaging styles, mixing up the images and words. Blueberry muffins are delicious and were enjoyed by most of the people taking part. There was one group though that reported that the muffins didn't taste as good.

These were the people with mixed gender packaging. The ones with a 'mega' ballerina or a 'healthy' footballer. The researchers claimed that the mixed messages confused people subconsciously. Because we are so used to being told how a product should taste based on its target gender, we struggle when these stereotypes are interrupted. Even though the muffins were all the same, the politics makes them taste different. One of the problems with this is that it will convince marketers that they need to continue segregating foods by gender. Otherwise, they will fear that their neutral foods will confuse consumers and be less appealing.

These differences come from the way that society programmes us to define our gender. The patriarchal framework of our society even seeps into our food. Women's beauty is contingent on narrow definitions of physical attractiveness that can only be sustained through unhealthy levels of dieting and starving. Products are targeted at the insecurities of women that fall short of these expectations. Similarly, the image of the ideal male is based on strength, brashness and manly foods like meat and beer. If men adopt female characteristics or eat female foods like salad, they are deemed weak. If women behave in masculine ways, they are judged as undesirable, unladylike and get mocked.

The bizarreness of foods having genders has long weighed on my mind. Since I was young, I have always been confused by Yorkie chocolate bars with their 'Not For Girls' tagline. Even recently, McCoys crisps have advertised themselves as 'Man Crisps'. These are all accompanied by male activities like excitement, action and doing things.

This particular post is inspired by some personal soul searching a couple of weeks ago. When I eat, I am just as guilty of stereotyping as most and won't go anywhere near a salad. I would also never eat a chicken korma. However, I stumbled across some recipes for authentic kormas that sounded exquisite. It is a curious dish, seen in Britain as a tame starter curry for children and the unadventurous.

My feminist version of the chicken korma

I now realise that gender stereotypes have even shaped my opinion of the humble chicken korma. Which other food is so rife with gender issues than the curry. They are crises of masculinity, where one is judged based on how spicy we order and how much sweat we can wipe from our brow. Only the barbecue comes close to being such a battleground of gender.

To mock people for eating a creamy korma is bizarre in a country whose native cuisine tends to be quite bland and soaked in different types of gravies. Even the chicken tikka masala is pretty bland and lacking in chilli, yet does not carry the same stigma. So I set out to make a more authentic and delicious curry and subvert gender norms by eating it.

It was gorgeous with rich chicken steeped in a creamy sauce, laced with saffron, cardamon and rose petals. Nevertheless, people will turn their noses up if I offer it to them. Little do they know that their mind processes everything they eat through a prism of gender. It is sad that we get so easily confused that men have to eat manly foods for it to taste good.

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