Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Gender, portions, and the Golden Age

It comes as no great surprise that participants in "The Biggest Loser" gain the weight back after the weight-loss reality show ends. Julia Moskin's piece includes a quote from a scientist about how "The decline of home cooking worldwide [...] is an underlying cause of obesity." The statistics Moskin cites show not decline in time spent cooking, but decline in time women spent cooking, implication being, that was and still is who cooks in most families. To remedy this, weight-loss experts today of course encourage all to take up cooking, not just women, because blaming obesity on feminism is potentially offensive.

But then it hit me that maybe the fact that women, not men, did most of the cooking did help keep us thin back in the Golden Age, that home-cooking on its own wouldn't solve the problem. After all, women tend to be smaller than men, and perhaps some gendered food preferences preceded the Great Split of our restaurant-going age. When cooking, a woman's first impulse of what a portion looks like, what a meal looks like, comes from what she would make for herself. A man might complain about lentils where they might have been steak, but he's unlikely to head over to a different house and have a different woman cook him dinner on account of this alone, whereas he might well choose one restaurant over another for just this reason. Furthermore, not only do restaurants provide big portions to attract customers faced with multiple possibilities, but those cooking in restaurants are more likely than those cooking at home to be men, and thus to be guided by male-specific ideas of what a meal looks like. What any of this, if true (and it may all be complete B.S., brought on by eating too much hypnotically delicious Thai food) means for solving the obesity epidemic, if calling it an epidemic is even accurate, is unclear.

11 comments:

alex said...

This article may be relevant.

Phoebe said...

I see how it might, but I read it when it came out, and just looked through it again, and am not seeing how it addresses anything I ask in this post, other than whether we should or should not look at rising obesity rates as en 'epidemic.'

I don't think I've seen any articles about whether people eat less if women are doing the cooking, but I can't say I've investigated this, or plan on doing so any time soon.

Miss Self-Important said...

You make it sound as though, left to their own devices, women would all become vegetarians. I don't have much hard evidence on this, but given what I saw in women's mags from the '50s and '60s when I was doing some research on them in college, the staples available and the ideas about nutrition differed pretty sharply. Maybe women had different ideas about portion sizes, but they were still mostly relying on chicken, beef, and pork with a side of something very starchy--potatoes, noodles, bread--and something containing four sticks of butter for dessert. This was a food environment in which Redbook ran ads for Karo syrup as a really healthy snack for children. Also, keep in mind that many of the foods we now view as healthy were imported or incorporated into our diets by foreigners, and such exotic fare was not likely to be in many people's pantries until recently.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, this article may be of interest.

Dana said...

Because I am planning a classic menu of roast chicken, challah, potatoes, and tarte tatin for a Friday dinner party, I'm inclined to agree with Miss Self-Important. I probably do use less fat and salt in general than most restaurants, but only recently did I start making masoor daal and Vietnamese spring rolls. I do the majority of the cooking b/c I have a grad student schedule, and they tend to be hearty dishes. I like them, and my partner prefers them. And while he would not seek another woman's kitchen, in general it's such a pain finding something that you both like that you end up meeting in the middle anyway, or else it's a waste of time, effort and food. I hate making a lot of something that he won't touch, and vice versa. I just eat less, because I can only handle big portions when I'm having an eating competition with my brother.

Phoebe said...

Rita,

"You make it sound as though, left to their own devices, women would all become vegetarians."

Not vegetarians. (Mmm, steak.) But I more easily imagine men who'd happily go years without a vegetable or piece of fruit, were it not for a woman (mother, wife) gently pushing plant matter in their direction than the other way around. Of course, your findings from the 50s and 60s may help to destroy my argument altogether. (As might the giant plate of cheese spaetzles I just ate, and which my boyfriend wouldn't touch.)

I'll have to take a closer look at that article, but good title!

Dana,

"And while he would not seek another woman's kitchen, in general it's such a pain finding something that you both like that you end up meeting in the middle anyway, or else it's a waste of time, effort and food."

Ideally, yes, and that's typically how things work in my household as well, cheese spaetzles excepted. I suppose what I was picturing was not a modern-day, equality-valuing couple, but a family with six kids and a father working all day, with what to have for dinner left up to the mother, a decision beneath the man of the house.

Interestingly, another critique I got (and seriously, I doubt I'm right on this, so critiques are not only welcome but I'd be kind of surprised if anyone thought I had a point here) was that women in more traditional homes would in fact make a point in serving men especially large portions. This, too, seems like a possibility. Well, more than a possibility--it's something we've probably all witnessed at one family get-together or another, but I don't know if/when/where that behavior is/was typical.

I'm still left thinking, though, that the default for a woman cooking is smaller portions (fine, point taken, maybe no one naturally likes salad) and that it takes an conscious effort for a female cook to change her idea of a portion to please her man. How many women with husbands and kids ever went the default route is another story.

Petey said...

"But then it hit me that maybe the fact that women, not men, did most of the cooking did help keep us thin back in the Golden Age, that home-cooking on its own wouldn't solve the problem. After all, women tend to be smaller than men, and perhaps some gendered food preferences preceded the Great Split of our restaurant-going age."

Look, I do get the general point you are making about gender preferences in portioning, and I do understand that you speak from experience for the proud Lilliputian community.

That said, and not to sound overly harsh, but this is the worst kind of essentialist garbage.

The cause of the obesity epidemic at issue here is simply the rise of the two-worker household.

It's not that women aren't cooking, but that no one is cooking.

(Tangential point: sometimes we don't discuss this because the gender equality revolution that produced the two-worker household was an overall societal good, but it's worth remembering that overall societal goods can sometimes have bad side effects that we're capable of acknowledging.)

Petey said...

"Tangential point: sometimes we don't discuss this because the gender equality revolution that produced the two-worker household was an overall societal good, but it's worth remembering that overall societal goods can sometimes have bad side effects that we're capable of acknowledging."

And FWIW, I note this because until we come to terms as a society with what we culinarily lost with the rise of the two-worker household, we won't be able to figure out ways of satisfactorily replacing it in the context of the gender equality revolution...

Phoebe said...

Petey, you've simply recited the conventional wisdom (fast-food versus home-cooking made us fat) without addressing, as the other commenters have, what might make my theory wrong. I'll admit I may be way off, but your comment doesn't say why. As I wrote in the other thread I linked to, it could be that in general, home-cooked is better than not-home-cooked, and in fact we all pretty much agree on this, but it could still be *even* better if a woman rather than a man does the cooking.

Petey said...

"I'll admit I may be way off, but your comment doesn't say why"

Because the degree of sexual dimorphism in humans just isn't large enough to account for what's been going on.

Here's the relevant thought experiment:

What if, instead of a revolution towards two-worker households, we had had a revolution towards men staying at home and doing domestic chores while women worked? Would the obesity epidemic still have occurred?

I think not.

As I think you'd generally agree, essentialism often seems to explain far more than it is actually responsible for. The spheres in which essentialism really holds sway tend to be more limited than intuitive perception would have it.

I'll further posit that your personal experience of being a proud member of the Lilliputian community may be throwing off your perception on the issue.

Phoebe said...

My guess was not that male cook vs. female would make as big a difference as home-cooked versus fast-food, or that we've all been wrong in condemning restaurant meals and McDonalds when the real issue is gender. My point was that both might matter, that there might be a factor we've ignored. A minor one, perhaps, but not a totally insignificant one, either.