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How Does Food Play a Role in Shaping Gender Norms, Gender Roles & a Sense of Masculinity & Femininity?

Info: 2991 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 10th Aug 2021 in Sociology

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For us to determine the position food plays in shaping gendered norms and roles we must first understand that although food is universal its meaning differs culturally and socially. This essay will aim to explore the role of food in reinforcing gender stereotypes and inequality with a focus on meat. There has been increasing discussion on the negative effects of food on men and women, with an emphasis on how meat became a way of identifying a man’s masculinity thereby expectations being held and men encouraged to go along with this constructed image which has led to an increase in body builders. Along with a woman’s femininity as something which a man shouldn’t aspire to. Furthermore, we’ll look at meat in a historical context which has ultimately been socially created through socialization and the media. Finally, we’ll discuss how these inequalities have led to a woman’s role as the housewife who cooks and the man who goes to hunt and gather the food, which isn’t always the case.

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The stone age man image that is associated with a ‘manly man’ suggests men have always taken pleasure in eating meat and by taking away the meat a man’s masculinity can be questioned (Walansky 2016). This suggests that the association of men and meat is a belief that has always had an accurate correlation, using the example of chimpanzees, the males hunt for the family because it is a dangerous activity (Walansky 2016). If the male dies, another provider can be found, if the woman dies hunting, the future of the family is in jeopardy (Walansky 2016). This is a prime example of the gender role assumption that women belong at home with the family. This idea is reinforced by Rothgerber (2013) who goes to assert that meat consumption by males is a mark of patriarchy due to the association of meat eating with manhood.

We are beginning to see the historical mark meat has left when discussing males as powerful and strong. In the time of war, British soldiers were encouraged to eat meat and the military advertised that it gave them enough strength to defeat their opponents who opted for vegetable based diets (Rothgerber 2013). This shows how the meat versus vegetable diet debate formed early on and that the link with meat and masculinity is formed because it’s a reinforcement of male power and yields the regulation of female submission which is a reoccurring objective (Rothgerber 2013).

Having discussed the historical ideals formed we also need to take into consideration how socialisation plays a part in reinforcing gender norms. Rothgerber (2013) upholds the idea that males are unware of the power meat has in influencing their ideas of masculinity and that through meat eating they imitate the gender ideologies they have grown up seeing which is meat eating as an essential part of being a manly man. Nash and Phillipov (2014) support this by strengthening the notion that food is a means of constructing individual identities which helps men consider what it means to be or act like a man. This is reinforced by men and women in the house hold along with meat eating fathers who provide the food and mothers who play their gendered assigned role which requires them to do the cooking thereby strengthening the gender division of labour (Sobal 2005).

Shah (2010) questions whether gender socialisation alone has provoked the food we eat or if other factors play a part. For instance, evolution as an explanation for food patterns proposes that due to the link with men as hunters and needing meat to build muscle this rationalises gender driven eating (Shah 2010). This view is criticised with that of Wiseman (2010) who explains that although men pull towards protein based food for example meat this is not down to evolution, rather socialisation at a young age. Suggesting that little boys when growing up are urged to have a big desire for food (Wiseman 2010). We can’t simply maintain that women purposely choose salads and chocolate whereas men pick meat and savoury food (Kumar 2015). We need to look past the original gender ideals and focus on how these gendered expectations have influenced class status and gender dynamics.

If we discuss class in relation to meat and masculinity, we begin to understand that for some men meat is a symbol of wealth and economic superiority (Walansky 2016). Adams (2010) supports that those with affluent wealth have always eaten meat, particularly in Europe when having large meals with various meats whereas those less fortunate had a diet of carbohydrates. When discussing class in relation to food we can also incorporate gender (Adams 2010). For instance, second class women ate second class food such as vegetables and fruits rather than meat, suggesting dietary habits apply not only to class power but also gender dynamics when combined (Adams 2010). This can also be seen with those in poverty, when meat is limited the wives go without and save it for their husbands whereas Upper class males and females have diets with the same food (Adams 2010). Using a quote from Bourdieu (1979:79) ‘The style of meal that people like to offer is no doubt a very good indicator of the image they wish to give or avoid giving to others’. This suggests that a man’s meal portion is used as an indicator of wealth which implies power and therefore a reinforcement of masculinity (Calvert 2014).

This reinforcement of masculinity through toughness and aggression is seen through this idea that because of male entitlement women are expected to make men the centre point when playing the doting housewife. This links in with food because women are expected to fulfil the dietary expectations of men and if they fail it could lead to the male being angry and acting out violently (Parkin 2006).  This implies that a man’s aggression and domestic abuse should be linked to the lack of fulfilment in the food they eat which results in the oppression of women. Adams (2010) explores men who assault women and defend themselves by implying that the lack of meat in their diet reflects their behaviour and that only ‘real men’ eat meat, ultimately another excuse for their controlling behaviour. Additionally, women are presented like a piece of meat in ads and consistently sexualised thereby steering women into their gender roles resulting in unfair treatment and sustaining the idea of patriarchy and how a male is expected to behave towards them (Johnson 2013).

Another way in which food recreates masculinity and femininity is through expectations. Men who don’t eat meat are identified as being less masculine compared to those who do (Redhead 2015).  In addition, men who don’t eat meat due to physical complications will still be deemed less masculine unless he is doing it because of his love for animals (Redhead 2015). This leads us to consider independence as a factor of men’s decision making, the choice a man makes to not adhere to western societies dictations about what food he should or shouldn’t eat is a way for him to assert his independent to authorities (Sobal 2005). Moreover, this is done by choosing certain foods to eat that confirms their gender for example, meat as a way of maintaining authority through being rebellious and showcasing meat eating as masculine (Sobal 2005). This situation is then presented to women as the fixers who should control the characteristics of the males in the household by changing their masculine behaviour when ultimately the problem isn’t for the woman to fix but is used as another method of enforcing the gender roles (Sobal 2005).

Calvert (2014) holds that meat is used as a way for males to authenticate their hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity has been defined ‘It embodied the currently most honoured way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men’ (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005:832). In regards to meat eating being practiced, it has allowed men to continue their oppressive and gendered behaviour and presents meat eating as a privilege which is internalized by men who see it as a way of asserting their supremacy especially when any other diet a man maintains is mocked (Calvert 2014).

This leads us to discuss how men and women do gender and to identify where the association of with males and high fat diets and women with low fat food originated (Ruby and Heine 2011). Women are associated with light food such as salads in the hope for them to maintain a low weight yet men are associated with fried food such as burgers (Epstein 2014). Can these assumptions be blamed on cultural standards whereby the belief is because men are imagined to be these big and strong characters they need to eat more food to gain energy? (Epstein 2014). Thus, we witness an unequal and patriarchal society where a man who eats as much as he wants even in competition is praised and seen as a champion whereas a woman performs the same behaviour and is considered unfeminine and unpleasant which is where the double standard lies (Epstein 2014). The truth is as individuals we all have a different relationship with food and it is not solely based on gender (Epstein 2014).

When discussing a man’s masculinity in regards to food there is a focus on the unmanly man who is either a vegetarian or vegan. A vegetarian man is referred to as a wimp and not macho compared to meat eaters and this view is not only held by women but non-meat eaters (Maier 2013). Men who refrain from eating meat is them announcing they are not masculine whilst the men who sit at their desks and wait for the chance to demonstrate their masculinity by eating big portions of meat are praised for reflecting their masculine identity (Adams 2010). The term vegetable recreates the gender norms in society, it is deemed passive which is a term associated with women particularly housewives who are submissive (Adams 2010). Rothgerber (2013) claims gender is a great influence on how others view vegetarianism, in northern America for example men believe a proper meal always includes meat. This is affirmed in the media for example men’s health magazine which said ‘Vegetables are for girls. If your instincts tell you following a vegetarian diet isn’t manly, you’re right’ (Rothgerber 2013:363).

Finally, we look at how socially constructed gender stereotypes are reflected in the media and its implications. Adverts and magazines associate gender with dietary choices, when searching men eating and women eating separately on the internet the images which surface are of men eating meat and women salads (Elsenberg 2016). This can also be seen in adverts where women are presented as happily choosing to have healthy food which is a cultural stereotype society has created of what men and women should enjoy eating as a way of defining their masculinity and femininity (Castillo 2013). While women are presented enjoying their salads, men are shown to be faced with burgers and fried food (Bendix 2015). Societies gender norms which are played in ads aid the association of women only enjoying meals with fewer calories rather than a focus on taste as they do for men (Rickett 2014).

Rothgerber (2013) suggests that men magazines for example ‘Mens Health’ focus on the enforcement of meat eating to maintain masculinity and being a meat eater as a characteristic of being a strong man. This combined with the idea of ‘you are what you eat’ creates a fear for men that eating vegetables makes you more like a woman and not masculine (Adams 2010). This leads to them being preoccupied with their body image, that their focus shifts to dieting as the solution to better understanding their body image and it’s difficult to steer away from this idea when the magazines are filled with muscly men (Parasecoli ‎2005). This leads to negative health outcomes such as heart disease which is common with men who overeat meat suggesting that although men’s gender role expect them to consume meat to portray this manly and patriarchal image it can be a cause of their demise (Maier 2013).

In conclusion, we can affirm that Food is a big contributor to the creation of gender meanings and stereotypes. Although there are historical elements connected to men and meat consumption, it is reinforced in the household by housewives encouraging the idea that meat should be in every man’s meal. This is also encouraged through socialisation and affirmed through society in the media. We can also understand that meat is not the only food with a gendered meaning. In addition, we establish where the association with women and healthy food originated from, mainly from a woman’s lack of economic prestige and within the gendered tradition in the house. Ultimately, we need to be more aware of the long-term consequences associated with gender stereotyping and doing gender, it will begin to have long term effects on the type of food men start to supplement for natural protein to achieve the most desirable body which has been culturally constructed.

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