The Shame of Sweetness: Food As Code

This morning as I was making my coffee (four creamers and four packets of sugar, thanks very much), I realized that I was mildly uncomfortable. There was another person in the kitchen with me, and I was shielding my coffee from her with my body, vaguely ashamed that I fill my delicious morning beverage with sweet, sugary goodness.

I’ve noticed this before. People talk about drinking black coffee like a badge of pride. They ridicule mochas and frappuccinos and people who put cream and sugar into their coffee as if it was a sin to want something that tastes yummy. And it’s not just with coffee drinks: think of the ridicule that people who drink appletinis face. Sure it’s not really a big deal. No one will beat you for drinking a pink cocktail of some sort, but there’s an undercurrent in which things that are sweet are consistently seen as “covering up” what you’re actually consuming, and thus as bad.

But why does it matter? Why do we care if people quietly (or not so quietly) judge our food choices?

For some insight, let’s think about the adjective that people use when they ridicule these drinks: girly. Girly drinks. With a little umbrella in them. For the ladies who can’t handle “real” booze or “real” coffee.

Sweetness is code for feminine. It’s code for not being able to handle “reality” and having to cover it up. Because people really need to read that much into a desire to eat or drink something that tastes good/actually listen to your palette when it says that you do or don’t like something.

There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit and/or hurt you when you eat them (cinnamon challenge anyone?). Oddly, putting oneself in situations that require pain or discomfort is seen as good and manly and powerful and strong, whereas actually doing things you enjoy is seen as girly (unless it’s eating a steak which gets a pass because killing things and eating their flesh is also manly). And for that reason, eating things that are sweet is considered feminine. It’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.

Food is an important cultural signifier. We use it to communicate our values (see veganism and vegetarianism), to communicate our in-groups (through ethnic food or family traditions), to bond with each other (group meals), and to communicate how we fit into the world (eating disorders are a good example of this, but many people choose their food to signify what kind of a person they are). We don’t often look to food consciously as a way to reveal our prejudices or assumptions, but it’s woven into every day of our lives (even when we’re not eating it).

As someone who has spent nearly five years spending the majority of their time thinking about food, I have found that it says a lot more about what we think that we might at first believe. Which means that this phenomenon of saying that sweet things are girly and because they’re girly we shouldn’t drink them or we should be horribly ashamed to drink them probably says more about American culture than what it appears at face value.

It says that acting “sweet” is covering things up, but it’s also feminine. It says that no one should want to be like that because it’s weak and it’s fake, but I guess if you’re cute and girly enough you can get away with it (but probably only if you have a big, beer drinking man with you). But it also says that if you’re sweet and pink and drink things with an umbrella, then you’re not to be taken seriously. You can go sit on the porch while the big kids talk.

I’ve seen this happen in an internalized misogyny kind of way too: women who refuse to drink anything but straight bourbon because they’re convinced it makes them look more “serious”. Women who feel like they  need to learn how to drink beer because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously when they go out with coworkers or go to networking events. Because we have to signal with what we put into our bodies that we are not weak: we can tolerate discomfort or bitterness. We can like it. We can be “one of the boys”.

And yet no one seems to question it. No one seems to feel any need to mention the fact that pushing people to consume things that they actually find horribly disgusting is a fairly harmful norm to be teaching (yes, do that thing you hate because it will show that you’re one of the guys!), and that it all stems from sexist notions that things which are pleasant are feminine and thus to be derided.

Fuck that noise. It is strong to know what I like and to listen to my likes and dislikes. There is nothing weak about doing things that feel nice. There’s nothing weak about things coded feminine. And guess what? Even men should be allowed to do things that they like and which are utterly frivolous. It might seem silly to start with food. That might seem like it’s unimportant, or not really making a change. But we eat every day and the ways we behave around food can easily translate into other, larger actions. I will make no apologies about what I like, and I encourage others to do the same. I feel no need to force myself to drink beer in order to learn to like it, and if men can’t respect me because I prefer a hard cider that’s their own damn sexist fault.

Now excuse me, I have a mocha to buy. Maybe I’ll stick a tiny umbrella in it.

One thought on “The Shame of Sweetness: Food As Code

  1. […] “There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit and/or hurt you when you eat them (cinnamon challenge anyone?). Oddly, putting oneself in situations that require pain or discomfort is seen as good and manly and powerful and strong, whereas actually doing things you enjoy is seen as girly (unless it’s eating a steak which gets a pass because killing things and eating their flesh is also manly). And for that reason, eating things that are sweet is considered feminine. It’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.” Read more. […]

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