Getting a salad at the Commons used to take all of ten seconds. With the new please-don’t-touch-the-serving-tongs-we-will-serve-you mantra, it takes all of ten minutes and my plate is always swamped in salad. This extra wait time gives me space to people watch and ponder life. Yesterday as I was meditating in line I noticed that all the people in line behind me at the salad bar were women. Why were there no men in this line? That’s when I realized I might be the problem: for me, the thought of a man in a salad bar line sounded absurd.
I was shocked at this realization. Do I really think men incapable of loading their plate full of leafy greens? No, but for some reason, the thought seems odd. Perhaps it’s because media portrayals of gender roles don’t depict men and salad together. Maybe it’s because I don’t see many men eating at the Commons salad bar. But why is that?
It seems that our U.S. culture has stereotypes when it comes to certain genders consuming food. A typical male dish consists of steak, fries, and a beer. A female can be seen eating salad with low-cal dressing, a diet soda, and a box of chocolate. Why would a man ever have need to eat a leafy bell-pepper sprinkled salad? Unless he was watching his weight, people might be aghast to see such a meal paired with a man.
I did some research to see if I am the only human being who has unconscious gender prejudices when it comes to food. An interview with nutritionist Madelyn Fernstrom and psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz on Today revealed that one theory for gender stereotyping when it comes to food is due to evolutionary preferences. Saltz points out that men stereotypically like steak because as hunters, men needed more protein whereas women stereotypically like sweets because they stayed at home and didn’t require the muscle mass that their male counterparts did.
I think there’s more to it than that. I think our culture has made food more about identity and less about health. People buy in to the packaging and labels in hopes of labeling themselves. Want to look beautiful? Grab a low-cal cereal bar. Want to be buff? Pour this protein powder into your shake. We want our appearances to reflect the promises a food industry claims they can deliver.
Obviously these stereotypes can have severe consequences. If men don’t think it is ‘manly’ to eat foods that our culture might see as feminine, our men will severely lack essential nutrients. Conversely, if women see their female counterparts consuming copious amounts of chocolate, they may feel pressured to gorge themselves with a box as well to feel more feminine.
This week I’m going to challenge myself to pay attention to the stereotypes I have that relate to consuming food and try not to put genders in a box when it comes to what people ‘can’ or ‘cannot’ eat. I challenge you to do the same.