On the night of my freshman homecoming, my date and I, along with four other awkwardly-limbed and giggling couples, sat down to eat in one of the terrible Australian-themed steakhouse restaurants that proliferate throughout these United States. When faced with the familiar anxiety of what to order the choice proved remarkably simple: all five boys ordered steaks or hamburgers, “well-done” (we can forgive those pour souls on the threshold of adolescence for such errors); and all five girls ordered salad in combinations of chicken breast and zesty mandarin orange. Despite my current vegetarianism, I am not nor was I ever favorably inclined to paying much for a bowl of chopped leaves and I would have much preferred a nice juicy hamburger with fries. But unspoken peer pressure prevailed—I did want to be one of the girls, didn’t I?
This same scenario plays out in dining rooms across the country, men staidly reviewing the STEAK & CHOPS or FROM THE GRILL menu listings (or eyeing the most expensive item, in my 17-year-old brother’s case), while women opt for the fish special or “just a salad, to save room for dessert.” Female fans of filet mignon and men prone to strawberry salads, meanwhile, have surely noticed their server’s hesitation on reaching the table—sometimes even mistakenly switching the orders to place a plateful of ribs in front of the man and the frozen fruit cocktail in front of the woman. Undeniably gender has a strong influence over people’s preferences or perceived preferences of what to eat.
It seems to be true that more women than men are chronic dieters, as there is much greater cultural pressure for women to watch their weight and therefore what they eat. This is learned at a very young age; check out a high school cafeteria one of these days—I’ll bet it’s not the boys you’ll find splitting a portion of fries or blotting their pizza with napkins. Women have learned to attach guilt to foods high in carbohydrates and fat in a way that men typically have not and so their choices are understandably affected, regardless of weight or diet. Men, meanwhile, attach ideas of physical strength, height, and athletic prowess to the consumption of animal protein and dense, high-energy foods. It’s important to emphasize that these stereotypical differences, like most stereotypes, have developed with a certain basis on truth but are not consistently true across the board. The teenage me certainly didn’t fall into these gender patterns: my favorite school lunch in high school was the Monte cristo sandwich (an abomination so gluttonous that I am now shocked at my school board’s disregard for student health—and sometimes I got two(!)) with fries; and, in that same cafeteria I once ate an entire box of Ho Hos on a dare (I sorely regretted it during afternoon P.E., but that’s beside the point).
Regardless of widespread exceptions to the rule, we can observe that in the common cultural imagination foods associated with “dieting” or “healthy eating” such as salads, chicken breast, or fish are considered women’s foods. Other foods that have strong feminine associations are chocolate, dessert in general, fruity cocktails, strawberries, peaches; in other words, sweet foods. The phrases “I’m such a chocoholic!” or “I have an enormous sweet tooth” don’t seem to emanate very often from the mouths of men, at least not in public.
On the other hand, eating steak, hamburgers, chili, barbecuing and grilling are very manly-man activities. Men drink whisky on the rocks or fingers of rum. Masculinity seems to be associated with red meat, raw-ish foods with minimal dressing up or modifications, and potent flavors. Esquire’s “Eat Like a Man” blog features weekly alcoholic drinks and regular sides of bacon, saying, “there are ways that men eat that are just different.”
Food preferences vary by culture, of course; what I’ve been describing are very American food habits. French women, for example, don’t shy so much away from high-fat, calorific foods such as cheese, butter, or foie gras (although this is changing as French obesity rates rise). Both men and women enjoy yogurt for dessert after a meal. In Japan, chocolate is not considered feminine and is enjoyed with equal pleasure by both sexes. Other cultures may have alternate conceptions of what is masculine or feminine eating.
Food advertising provides fairly unequivocal evidence of this gender-typing of foods. McDonald’s advertisements, for example, typically show young men enjoying their beef hamburgers, while ads for salads or their new breakfast oatmeal with blueberries feature active-looking women. Chocolate advertisements are overwhelming aimed at women with themes speaking to pleasure and indulgence (sexy women don’t have restraints), or taking a deserved break from a stressful life (to absolve guilt). Ads for spicy buffalo wings and beer, on the other hand, target the male sector by showing groups of male buddies goofing off, watching football on TV (men don’t have to worry about domestic hassles), or trying to pick up women in bars (outgoing, energetic men are attractive to women).
Moreover, evidence shows that the unconscious ways in which we have formed gendered preferences for foods result from advertising initiatives that seek to gender-type specific foods to specific consumer groups. By creating perceptions of masculinity and femininity attached to their products advertisers encourage consumers to reaffirm their gender identity through their food choices and become consistent, reliable consumers of these products. Yorkie chocolate bars, popular in England, were created with the bold slogan “IT’S NOT FOR GIRLS!” intending to appeal to an untapped male demographic of chocolate consumers.
Some studies have shown that men as a group tend to make dietary choices that conflict with their actual preferences, revealing that they are more influenced towards foods that they perceive as having certain desirable qualities apart from taste. It makes sense that the eating choices of heterosexual men are, as a whole, more limited and inflexible than the choices of women or gay men, because the idea of “masculinity” in our culture is a rigid and supposedly stable construct where the boundaries are blurred only uncomfortably. In other words, there are not as many acceptable and recognizable ways to be a man as there are to be a woman. Men in our society are more concerned with defining and reaffirming their gender identity, and this is expressed through food as much as other lifestyle choices.
Consuming foods such as red meat, therefore, make the eater feel more “masculine” with all of its associated perks: strength, power, success, virility. This goes just as much for women as it does for men. The highest-priced and most prestigious items on a menu will always be the cuts of red meat or seafood. It is no accident that a high-profile business dinner will see a lot of tenderloin or ribeye on the table.
Carol J. Adams in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (every feminist vegetarian’s credo) makes precisely this connection between eating meat and conforming to accepted modes of masculinity. With the publication of a study by Paul Rozin entitled “Is Meat Male?” we can add in “the eating of bits” such as inner organs or blood. Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain comes immediately to mind, obnoxiously chowing down on “exotic dishes” such as sheep testicles, seal eyeball, and warthog rectum with his famously foul mouth (he has yet to swallow his own machismo, however). The grossest Manly-Man food award, though, goes to Adam Richman for his Travel Channel TV show Man v. Food, a spin-off of Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild but instead of hunky Bear Grylls (incidentally, my favorite name in the world) performing amazing feats of survival the increasingly overweight but never out-of-breath Richman “performs” feats of heroic gluttony, in one episode consuming six pounds (!!!) of milkshake, while the crowd behind him cheers him on. Go Go America (sigh).
I reject the idea that the male appetite for meat and adventure and the female appetite for vegetables, cupcakes and domestic foods is “natural” and linked to evolutionary behavior. The “hunter-gatherer” dynamic has been stretched too far in too many cases, in this one to explain our eating differences as an evolved biological necessity to ensure the propagation of our species. Gender itself is not “natural”; it is a social construct that we perform in every behavior, including eating.
In conclusion, I advise girls not to order salad on homecoming night, and I advise boys to eat cupcakes, even the ones with pink frosting.
 See “The Sex of Food and Ernest Dichter: The Illusion of Inevitability” by Katherine Parkin, Advertising and Society Review, 2004
 Further readings: “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: Regulation of Gender-Expressive Choices by Men” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal, June 2010; and “Gender differences in the consumption of meat, fruit and vegetables . . .” from the European Journal of Public Health, 2007