Nowadays, it is considerably more difficult to avoid talking about food. Our food and nutrition standards and practices have become hot-button topics, thanks to debates on GMOs and the merits of organic versus non-organic food, trends like juice cleanses, and the rising obesity rate, which is a serious cause for concern. Spawning countless documentaries about the consumption and production of food, together with a variety of think pieces and books, our changing food landscape is a popular talking point. For all these food documentaries, exposés, reports, and books we see, the role of gender in determining diet and production practices remains largely unaddressed, however, despite being a major influence on individual eating habits and the food industry’s decisions.
Studies have shown significant associations between gender stereotypes and food, and how the former can even affect how men and women taste it. One study illustrated that healthier food is more likely to be associated with women, while unhealthier food is associated with men. This is also reflected in eating habits: a larger percentage of men (84 percent) over women (58 percent) reported typically eating fast food for lunch at least once per week. Fewer men also consider portion sizes or the healthiness of the food they eat, while women tend to stop eating after becoming full at fast food restaurants, with many intentionally ordering smaller portions.
Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, says people are “more likely to eat something when they associate it with qualities they’d like to see in themselves.” This means that if a man wants to appear strong and masculine, he will eat something that fits the stereotype, like red meat or a hamburger. If a woman wants to appear healthy and feminine, she will eat yogurt or a salad, and maybe indulge in a chocolate square—or eat something larger, but be embarrassed by it, a practice that has been satirized widely, from Amy Schumer to Family Guy.
The gendering of food is preyed upon by advertisers. Yogurt commercials are a classic example since they continually appeal to women, citing health benefits while female actors belly dance or sit on a cozy-looking couch, enjoying a small, fruit-filled yogurt cup. Commercials for burger joints are often loud, filled with “guy jokes” or attractive female actors catering to the male gaze, and advertise large, filling burgers as opposed to lighter, healthier equivalents. Soda brands like Dr. Pepper have run blatantly sexist ads in the past, proclaiming, for example, that the drink Dr. Pepper Ten was “not for women.”
There is more to be frustrated about with these eating habits and stereotypes, however, than just sexist advertising. In 2014, Statistics Canada reported that more men than women were obese, and obesity levels have risen more for men than for women in the previous eight years. Men were also more prone to develop obesity-related health problems, like type 2 diabetes, and were more likely to eat an unhealthy diet. It must be noted that women’s rates of obesity are lower than men’s in Canada, in part as a result of negative issues. Women, for example, are more fixated on body image than men. From a young age, girls critique their bodies and compare themselves to others, making them hyperaware of how they look and what they eat. A contributor for Rookie Magazine, Krista Burton, speaks out against the expectation that women eat small portions and never “cheat,” writing: “Girls and women of the world, could we stop apologizing for wanting and eating food?”
Matters defined and shaped by gender need to be addressed as such. When we write and speak about rising obesity rates, it is not enough to suggest blanket solutions. The way women and men relate to food is fundamentally different, and always has been, but there are many aspects of it that can change—particularly the stereotypes. No one, of any gender, is meant to eat only meat and processed foods, nor is any human supposed to worry about how “fat” they look at age ten. Tackling stereotypes will make it easier to change the future of diet and nutrition, for both men and women. Both will benefit from healthy approaches to food that don’t rely on beliefs upheld through clever marketing schemes and a fear of being associated with a gender they don’t identify with.
These considerations focus on the consumptive side of the food industry—who buys what, eats what, and why. But the other essential side to the market is food production itself. In an article for The Atlantic entitled “Agriculture Needs More Women,” writer Sonia Faruqi describes her experience leaving a Wall Street job to devise animal welfare solutions upon discovering the deplorable animal farming conditions after living with factory farmers. She describes her experience on farms across the world as virtually being run by men. This sentiment was echoed by 2011 US data that confirmed only one out of every six full-time agricultural leaders or managers was a woman. Understanding that women are more likely to consume healthier food, and seeing overwhelming data suggesting that women are more compassionate and sympathetic towards animals than men, Faruqi suggests that having more women in agriculture would improve farming practices, thanks to more humane attitudes towards animal welfare.
Extending beyond the lower levels of the production chain—the farmers—it is also important to have more female executives at the corporate level. Faruqi mentions that Maple Leaf Foods, which you may recognize as one of Canada’s largest agribusinesses, has only three women on its management team of 22. As a whole, women constitute less than ten percent of senior executives, illustrating what some in the industry call the “grass ceiling.” Considering similar statistics in other Canadian industries, unfortunately it shouldn’t be a surprise that agriculture suffers from the same systemic gender inequality.
You may ask—if you are not extremely concerned with the treatment of animals or the representation of women in this industry—why this is an especially important consideration. As you can see in virtually any documentary about food (think Super Size Me or Food, Inc.), inhumane factory farming practices are not just detrimental to the well-being of animals; poor farming practices have led to outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella, resulting in serious illness from the consumption of tainted meat. Beef from sustainably raised cattle is less likely to have bacteria (especially antibiotic-resistant bacteria) than commercially raised ones. Better food handling safety procedures and investigations are also needed to avoid situations like the 2012 XL Foods meat recall in Canada that made headlines for E. coli contamination. Having female farmers and female executives making industry-wide decisions could potentially improve the industry in a way that is more sustainable and humane for both the animals and their consumers.
I imagine many will think this just falls under the umbrella of bolstering female representation across the board, and it does. But with this industry in particular, there is much more to be worried about. Food is something we can’t escape from. Our society is dealing with more obesity than ever before, and we are paying the price. Children are becoming obese and developing obesity-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes earlier, while adults scramble to find a solution on often-limited budgets with little food literacy. Knowledge and education on proper diet and exercise routines is not taught enough in Canadian school curricula. The production of meat continues to be one of the most environmentally taxing practices in Canada and around the world, emitting over 11 times more greenhouse gases than most staple vegetable products. All of these issues involve food, whether it be production or consumption. Many of them—if not all—are gendered to some degree, be it in its consumption, production, or regulation. Recognizing these issues and taking steps to involve more women in the agricultural industry is a necessity. Changing gendered attitudes toward food is also essential in breaking down gender-based stereotypes that don’t benefit anyone but the advertisers.