In my household I am outnumbered. On the pink side there’s only me while on the blue there’s my male partner and our two sons. Obviously this causes no end of troubles when it comes to purchasing food, but thankfully our kitchen has plenty of cupboards. Once the weekly shop is done we tend to use our space wisely to maintain an appropriate level of gender-based food segregation.
In my cupboard (painted pink) we have: Galaxy bars (for when I’m sad / wistful), Maltesers (for when I’m up for Loose-Women-style japes), Ryvita (for miserable lunches with unfunny friends) and the full range of Special K products (for when I fundamentally hate myself). Meanwhile, in the men’s cupboard (blue), we have: Yorkies and Snickers bars (the only chocolate straight men are permitted to eat), extra thick-cut crisps (since Skips are way too effete) and various Big Soups (since, unlike women, men are presumed to eat because they’re hungry – and to want to consume something genuinely substantial, as opposed to some deceitful “fuller for longer” salad nonsense). We used to have a shared cupboard for things we were both allowed to consume (it was painted yellow, obviously). Alas, it mainly contained carbs, which are now men-only and thus belong in the blue cupboard (although I’m considering creating a neutral shelf in the fridge for cheese and bacon – except I think the new rule is that women can only have these if they have nothing but these. And I’m not giving up my Galaxy – I might get all weepy and need it).
Getting gendered eating right can be a total nightmare. Thankfully there are plenty of public health adverts around to advise us on what’s for women and what’s for men. Even better, they tend to be sponsored by big food companies, so you even know which brand to pick. It’s important for women – still presumed to be doing the shopping – to know how to nourish their men (albeit in a way which doesn’t emasculate them) and, once they’ve done that, to be able to buy in the odd mood-lifting and/or weight-reducing snack to eat themselves. God forbid women have an eating experience based solely on wanting to be well-fed.
I grew up with an eating disorder, despite not growing up in a household in which women dieted. My mother was naturally thin, my father wasn’t and if anyone was trying to lose weight, it was him. And yet the message that women should provide food for men while failing to nourish themselves was all around. Female members of the family would spend hours cooking then be last to sit at the table. Second helpings were offered with the question “have the men had enough?” External messages about dieting and weight loss always used women as examples. I didn’t grow up in an era of “metalwork for boys, domestic science for girls” – I’m not quite that old! — but there was still a feeling that learning to cook didn’t matter so much (and was almost shaming) if you were male. My mother would tell me how, before marrying my father, she’d lived off jam sandwiches and then felt ashamed at “being unable to cook” for her man, yet from what I could tell, “being able to cook” meant spending hours on elaborate dishes that could easily go unappreciated (why didn’t you cook X? You know I like X!).
These days you can’t pick up a packet of pre-prepared food without being told the nutritional values, plus the fact that as a woman you are “allowed” 500 calories fewer than a man. As a short woman (due to insufficient calories throughout my teens) I’m probably “allowed” fewer calories still. I wish I’d stuffed myself when it mattered, then maybe now I could “afford to” sneak in an illicit Yorkie on the side.
Today on twitter I came across this advert for Princes tuna, taken from a copy of Asda magazine. Showing a man smiling (rather excessively, I feel) over an okay-looking plate of pasta bake, it reads “Princes tuna pasta bake. Healthy and tasty for him, quick and easy for you”. It’s the kind of advert you imagine being bodged together during an episode of the Apprentice, with a bunch of panicked wannabes sitting in a room babbling desperately about women “having busy lifestyles these days” and men “not caring enough about their health and just wanting something which tastes good”.* It would probably work as a baby food slogan, but as something which is meant to reflect adult cooking and eating habits it’s all rather painful. Perhaps there’s some truth in it, but it’s way too obvious, sexist and openly patronising to the whole of humankind.**
Perhaps we don’t all eat together, even when we have the chance. Perhaps for most men and women, eating is associated with divergent issues. Perhaps more women cook for men than men cook for women (unless of course they are chefs). Even so, if Bisto can launch a horribly retro “back in the kitchen, mummy” family nights campaign, maybe another advertising firm should take it upon themselves to resist the “that’s just the way it is” shrug. Maybe they should produce more adverts in which women and men are on an equal footing, food-wise. Sharing food with others – by which I don’t mean cackling hopelessly over Ryvitas – should be a fundamental human pleasure. If any company were to market that pleasure to me, the truth is I’d be likely to buy it.
* I realise it could, at a pinch, be argued that “you” might be male. But if this advert is not describing a relationship based on gender stereotypes, it’s really not clear how the message works or whom it’s aimed at.
** I do wonder whether in “quick and easy” there’s an innuendo I’m missing. We do in fact own a cookbook called Quick and Easy and it’s never used in our household without someone, at some point, holding it aloft with a cheesy wink.