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You Are What Your Gender Eats: On Nutrition and Body Image in American Culture

by Shalini Wickramatilake Mar 28, 2014

A VIDEO ABOUT Arnold Schwarzenegger cooking a “Steak & Egger Sandwich” went viral recently. Basically, these guys cook a 78,000-calorie, protein-packed monstrosity — on the former governator’s very own tank.

With the men’s banter revolving around the masculine ideal of muscularity, it’s hard to ignore the fact that no women were included in the creation, or consumption of, this “sandwich.” It’s a glaring reminder that women are not, or should not be, interested in eating large quantities of food; that is an exclusively male pastime.

I had a conversation with two of my best girl friends about how we feel embarrassed whenever we eat more than the men in our lives, as we freely devoured chips, brownies, and fudge in the privacy of my basement, knowing there would be little judgment between the three of us. For most women in Western societies, there’s usually shame in hunger, tied to the symbolic nature of food in morality and sexual desire.

Men are expected to have voracious appetites, representing power, success, and release, while eating abstemiously is inherently feminine, signifying self-control, goodness, and selflessness. The basic act of eating, as illustrated in the Steak & Egger video, has complex meaning and cultural symbolism that varies greatly by gender.

Most of us are aware of the high prevalence of serious eating disorders in the US, such as anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder. What’s just as concerning as these diagnosable disorders is the blind eye we collectively turn to the pervasive disordered eating habits that are normalized and even encouraged in American culture. These eating behaviors look very different for men and women, with women expected to subsist on meager meals and find shame in consumption, and men congratulated after devouring 2,000 calories in one sitting.

If we stopped hating our bodies, a lot of billion-dollar industries would go out of business.

These patterns are not unique to the United States, or the 21st century; in other cultures throughout the world, men are provided with, and expected to eat, more food, mimicking the gender roles of our ancestors, in which the men did the hard labor (and therefore needed more energy). Today, the division of labor isn’t quite so extreme, yet we continue to live in a world where men are allowed to eat more than women.

A woman with a large appetite is considered unhealthy, slovenly, and lacking self-restraint. Conversely, men who eat large portions are thought to be strong, masculine, and formidable. We assign foods with distinct meanings for different genders, forgetting that on the basic level, food is meant to simply energize and sustain us. Men have unique pressures to attain the hypermasculine muscular ideal, and women are supposed to thrive for emaciation.

These aesthetic ideals have replaced survival as the primary source of modern gendered eating norms.

American culture values physique above all other attributes, and, as a result, has different expectations of men and women with regard to food consumption. As a generalization, women skip meals, binge behind closed doors, and spend hours on the elliptical, while men fill their bodies with steroids, replace real meals with protein shakes, and build their muscles until they tear — there’s no doubt that all genders are conditioned to hate their bodies.

If we stopped hating our bodies, a lot of billion-dollar industries would go out of business. Think of all the weight-loss products, cosmetic companies, and fitness establishments that thrive off of our insecurities. We must start accepting our own and each other’s bodies, and recognize that we are not our bodies; only then can we stop placing so much significance on the quantity or types of food we eat.

If men and women weren’t faced with such extreme physical expectations, they would be able to consume food for nourishment and enjoyment, without worrying about weight, calories, muscle mass, or clothing size.

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