Call for articles for the special issue of About Gender journal, entitled “Food and gender. Representations, practices, hierarchies” and edited by: Vulca Fidolini (Université de Strasbourg, France) and Luisa Stagi (University of Genoa, Italy).
“Men eat, women prepare” is a sentence by Susan Bordo (1997), a revisitation of the famous statement by John Berger (1988) “men act, women appear”. In her famous book Unbearable weight the feminist philosopher argued that this division could hardly have changed because it is based on certain ideological foundations, such as the fact that nourishment is the role of women in private, that women feel satisfied especially when they nourish others and not themselves and, again, that “the female appetite” must be limited and hidden.
We thought it interesting to set this call starting from Susan Bordo’s sentence – as well as from the stimuli that are produced in the approach to Berger’s original one – since such a start leads to the opening of two main analytical perspectives: the first starts from the concept of nourishment to introduce the multiple relationships between gender and diet, the second passes through food to reach the relationship between gender and the body.
The assumption is that around the social and cultural meanings connected to food and nutrition, unequal gender relations continue to be perpetuated. The naturalisation of the link between nourishment and femininity, for example, is one of the construction territories of the division between the public sphere and the private sphere. In the classic study Feeding the family, Marjorie De Vault (1991) starts from the assumption that food care work is central to the production of the functionalist family model. According to the author, cooking as cure is a way to “do gender” in which “a woman behaves according to a recognisable femininity”. Some more recent studies (e.g. Aarseth, Olsen 2008; Bugge, Almas 2006) tend to confirm that women continue to do most of the care work and feel responsible for feeding the family, with variations that depend on national context and the type of family life project (Cairns, Johnston, Baumann 2010).
From the 2000s onwards, studies that have focused on tracing connections between food and gender have increased (Avakian, Haber 2005). One of the first and most important works that connected the history of food and nutrition to the relationship between genders was Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro (1986). The encounter of these first reflections with the intersectional and post-colonial approaches, starting from the Nineties, produced the development of an important analytical perspective (Avakian 1997, 1998). There would therefore be numerous post-colonial approach studies aimed at tracing the practices of female resistance to cultural assimilation in the context of nutrition (for example Counihan 1999; Kanafani-Zahar 1997). In which ways can the relationship between food and gender produce practices of resistance or subjectivation?
Within the framework of the relationship between welfare and individual engagement and accountability, the principles of nutritional science are a fundamental component of the neoliberal structures and the family is seen as the privileged place for the application of nutritional science and its technologies. This is why the discourses around the correct diet use a series of devices to model families with “good” and “healthy” life practices. The subject towards which the set of devices and technologies
of the self – also spread through nutritional guidelines – are often addressed, is the mother she is considered to be the family “guardian of health”, according to a division of gender roles which is no longer defined and justified according to a functionalist perspective of social hierarchies, but on the basis of a choice narrated as desire, responsibility or competence (Beagan et al. 2008). Is it possible that, as Elias Canetti (1981) suggested, feeding others has to do with power? The concepts of food work and
provisioning are useful to highlight even more viscous aspects of women’s feeding work (Cook 2009), that is, how to value care; in some circumstances, it can result in a service for neoliberal demands and workfare (Fraser 2014; Casalini 2015). It is no coincidence that mother blaming – the blaming of mothers who are not good enough, played on the power of family care through food – finds a privileged ground in nutrition (Benasso and Stagi 2018; Maher 2010). In what ways then, are maternal responsibility (and/or the paradigm of “intensive maternity”), food health, phenomena such as food desert, or more generally the logic of the agri-food market, and the impact of neoliberalism on educational systems and on what remains of welfare correlated? How many and which spaces does the state have to correct in order to correct or sanction family food behaviours considered deviant?
A significant aspect of food in the family context is the ritual dimension of being together at the table as a moment of socialisation to roles, values and norms, in which authority relationships are played within the family. Some of the main studies on media representations of the link between gender and food, for example, have often started from the kitchen as a symbolic place of gender roles divisions. The work of Cindy Dorfman (1992) – a historical excursus on bourgeois American cuisine as a feminine place – tried to analyse change in the media representation of the kitchen as a symbolic territory of emotions and intimacy. Ten years later, Sherrie Innes (2001) followed a similar path, deconstructing the discourses and representations conveyed by popular media about women who cook. According to these analyses, cookbooks, advertisements and magazine articles help reproduce the idea that cooking for the family is “naturally” rewarding for women, both emotionally and aesthetically. Indeed, even today, food advertisements use ideal figures that embody different gender models based on sex and sexist roles and stereotypes. If a woman tends to represent passivity, nourishment and is placed in the private sphere, man, inserted in the public space, is represented as active and assertive (Adema 2000). Food is then combined with the dichotomy of female models: the “saintly” woman corresponds to food-nourishment, while the “temptress” woman is matched with food-enjoyment (Calamita 2014).
In general, television discourses about food can be retraced according to similar interpretative axes, the main one undoubtedly being that of nourishment/pleasure (food work/food leisure) (Ray 2007). The men who cross the border of the kitchen must try to distance themselves as much as possible from the female models, since they run the risk of “demasculinising” themselves; for this reason, they stage performances of almost caricature masculine, located in scenes far from domestic environments (Ketchum 2004). The representation of gender in kitchen broadcasts reproduces the traditional models: the woman, always anchored to the domestic sphere and to the role of care, is in fact a cook and not a chef. From these representations it clearly emerges how for the female gender cooking is both an attitude and a duty, not a profession and not even a land of enjoyment (Stagi 2016). So, what is the role of media production on food and nutrition in the reproduction of gender hierarchies and confinements? How far are gender stereotypes still present in food advertisements and what is their role in naturalising the division of reproductive and care roles? What role do a new lifestyle and makeover television formats play in all this?
To get to the second question posed by Susan Bordo’s statement – and its approach to that of Berger – better it is then necessary to go through the concept of food modernity, which is built around the interconnection of three phenomena: the overabundance of food, the reduction of social controls of the group and eating together – which has left the consumer with the weight of an increasingly individualised choice – and the proliferation of discourses on food – which produces “a constellation or a
cacophonous and contradictory mosaic of food selection criteria” (Sassatelli 2001). The existence in the modern age of a gastronomy without rules and, at the same time, subject to enormous contradictory injunctions therefore produces, as a first consequence, a state of confusion and anxiety for the food consumer (Meglio 2012).
The neoliberal ideology, placing health as individual responsibility, eliminates the role of the social context; the “new paradigm of health”, however, assumes a particular value with respect to the female body since, like all “power operations”, it has its roots in gender norms (Moore 2010). Diet as self-control and in general alternative eating styles compared to the food standard are practices that produce different meanings in the intersection with gender. If in fact a lean body in the society of the end of welfare becomes synonymous with good citizenship for all, for the female gender it assumes an even more significant meaning, since it connects with (and therefore reinforces the value of) certain models of beauty and seduction. Even the phenomenon of eating disorders, which has also undergone an evolution in the last 10 years in terms of variables involved (Stagi 2008), continues to concern mostly girls. In what ways and for what reasons, despite its mutation, does the phenomenon of eating disorders continue to affect mainly young Western women?
Gastro-anomy (Fischler 1979) and food risk in general (Beck 1992) have produced different forms of reflexivity in relation to gender (Adamiec, Fidolini, Wolff 2019).
Critical consumption, food dissidences, vegetarian or vegan choices, are thus articulated in unprecedented ways with the dynamics of gender identification. As mentioned above, the social sciences have often analysed the asymmetries that govern the relationship between men and women in food consumption practices, especially in the patriarchal context (Adams 1990). On the other hand, the minor interest reserved to the masculine point of view is clear. Some research has highlighted how, in social representations, correlations persist between the expression of hegemonic masculinities and carnivorous food consumption (heterosexual and virile) (Roos et al. 2001; Sobal 2005; Gough 2007; Mycek 2018), and between masculine subordinated profiles and the adoption of “alternative” regimes such as vegetarianism and veganism (Potts, Parry 2010). Recently, new studies have started to deconstruct the meaning of this gendered food hierarchy, showing how new forms of hybridisation and reconfiguration of masculinity can be expressed through the eating styles adopted (Irvine 2015; Greenebaum, Dexter 2017). How are masculinities constructed through food choices? In which ways what men eat or drink (Barnao 2011) allows them to be recognised as “men”? How are the representations of masculinity negotiated in collective mealsharing contexts (with family members, with a partner, work colleagues, female friends and male friends …)? Our interest is also directed to the influence that these dynamics can have in the reorganisation of gender and food asymmetries within the division of domestic tasks related to the preparation of meals, or to the socialisation of food for the other members of the family (children for example), and within different family structures (nuclear or extended families, single parents, homo-parental families…).
The call is addressed to potential authors belonging to different disciplinary areas. The articles must be of between 5,000 and 8,000 words (bibliography excluded). They will be written in one of the following languages: Italian, English or Spanish. Please follow the instructions in the “Guidelines for the Author”.
All contributions must be accompanied by: a title in English, a short abstract (maximum length: 150 words); some key words in English (from 3 to 5). The texts must be transmitted in a format which is compatible with Windows systems (.doc or .rtf), following the indications provided by the Peer Review Process. Please also see the Journal guidelines.
Contributions must be sent by 30th October 2019.
The issue will be published in May 2020.