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Why Do We Assign Genders to Foods?

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Food is not masculine, and food is not feminine. It's all just...food. Despite this undeniable fact, our society places foods into gender-based categories. Hearty barbecued steaks covered in slabs of bacon are considered masculine, while salad greens are considered feminine.

But what's the link between foods considered masculine and what's considered feminine? A new study from the University of Manitoba attempted to figure it out.

The paper, published in the journal Social Psychology and cheekily-titled "Macho Nachos," starts with an observation by White House chef Walter Scheib. Before President Obama's 2009 inauguration, President Bush hosted a luncheon that brought together the five "current, former, and future" Presidents. Scheib was asked what he served these men with presumably different tastes:

I think the key word there is men. There isn't blue state food and red state food. Food at the White House has a tendency to delineate along gender lines as opposed to political lines. Both first ladies that I worked with were... very much into nutrition. Both Presidents that I worked with, if we had opened up a BBQ pit or a rib joint, they'd be just as happy.

"We decided to look deeper to answer that question," said Luke Zhu, the lead researcher of the study. The researchers administered a series of studies to see if other people had this conception of "man" and "woman" food.

The first worked on the concept of priming. They gave participants -- both male and female -- a word-search puzzle that, for one group, included words generally considered to be masculine, like "football," "sports," "hunting," "cologne," "and mustache."

The second group was primed for feminine conditions, with a word-search puzzle including "ballet," "perfume," and "lipstick." They were then asked to choose from a series of comparable options, which included baked versus fried chicken, with one option being healthier than the other. The results found that participants primed for masculine behavior desired unhealthy foods, while those primed for feminine behavior desired healthier foods.

The second study focused on packaging. They manipulated the packaging that contained the same food (a blueberry muffin) in a variety of ways. As the study states:

To manipulate the perceived healthiness of the muffins, in the unhealthy conditions, the muffins were labeled 'Mega Muffin' and in the healthy conditions, the muffins were labeled 'Health Muffin.' [...] To manipulate how gendered the muffins were perceived to be, in the masculine conditions the box cover had a background of men playing football, in the feminine conditions the box cover had a woman dancing ballet in the background, and in the neutral conditions there was a picture of a field.

The results showed that people wanted muffins that were "congruous," choosing either healthy with feminine packaging, or unhealthy with masculine packaging. Participants did not want "incongruent" packaging.

Which leads to the study's conclusion: For whatever silly reason, we feel that healthy food is feminine and unhealthy food is masculine.

(It's worth pointing out that while the participants were from the U.S. and Canada, Zhu predicts these findings would play out the same in culturally similar countries because there's a "similar cultural context.")

It's important to understand that these findings don't suggest that men prefer to eat unhealthy foods, or that women prefer healthy food. Rather, our society expects men to prefer unhealthy foods. "We're speaking to the concept of masculinity and femininity," Zhu said.

But these concepts manifest themselves in perceivable ways. For instance, ads for unhealthy food is generally going to use an image of a man, while women are left to laugh while eating salad alone. And while this is fun to mock if you're aware of the insanity of gendered foods, it may have a legitimate effect on how we eat.

"If you look at the food inside of the [sports] stadium, most likely those are going to be junk food," Zhu said. And even if you're trying to maintain a healthy eating habit, you may be influenced by the factors around you and head for the junk food. (Note: I can relate.) "In most cases, sports cue masculinity," said Zhu. "And when that is present, there is an impulse among people to go to where junk food is."

So where does this concept of foods being associated with certain genders comes from? It becomes a question of which came first, the marketing of foods to certain genders, or certain genders being attracted to those kinds of foods and drawing the eyes of the marketers. Call it a fried-chicken-and-egg problem, if you must.

But maybe the origins of gendered food doesn't matter anyway. Instead, what's important is finding a way to stop this gendered positioning in the future. "I would encourage people to be more mindful of their food choices in everyday life," Zhu said. "Years of psychological research says that a lot of decisions are subtly influenced by our social environment."

So, before getting in line for that hot dog at the game, ask yourself if you'd buy it in another context? Do you really want to eat it, or are you just going along with the crowd?

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