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.

Work Redux: Power and Women

This morning I attended Pollen’s Work Redux: Power event. It featured some great conversations about women, power, the workplace, hierarchy, community, and what we can do to change the conversation. Like many of these events, I left with more questions than I came in with, but there were also a number of topics that were deeply relevant and didn’t get discussed. So for the next few days I’m going to be posting about elements of the conversation on women and power that seem to be deeply relevant but may get left out more often than not.

The first thing I want to touch on has to do with one of the questions that was asked of the stellar panel that presented. The question was as follows:

“All of the women on the panel are here because they’ve stood up and stood out in some way. How do you deal with blowback from women and/or the community who instead of supporting you, prefer to toe the line and maintain the status quo? How do you create a circle of support to nourish your ideas?”

The answers to this question were insightful, but took the two pieces of the question as separate. When I heard it, I interpreted them as connected: can we create a circle of support that includes those who prefer to maintain the status quo? Is there a way to support and welcome those who may not want your support, or who would rather see you and your ideas go away?

On a related note, one of the presenters mentioned that one of the best ways women can support each other is by pushing each other to do our best, not simply by providing comfort and kind words. A challenge in the sure knowledge that someone will rise up to it may be the best support you can offer another woman. Part of creating a community is asking others to step up and be their best selves, part of which involves having the wherewithal to see what their best selves could be.

These two pieces fit together. While part of dealing with the blowback may simply be stepping up and doing your best work, ignoring the haters, acting professional, and getting the job done, part of it also needs to be challenging haters to be better selves. For the most part, the conversation aimed towards positive actions that individuals can take to move past the difficult people who might want to tell them to go back to the kitchen (or other similarly negative things). It didn’t mention things like responding to negativity or calling someone out when they do something inappropriate.

There are many bad ways to respond to someone who is being negative, and often calling them out can appear to be petty. But when someone says something inappropriate in the workplace, tries to tell you that you shouldn’t use your power, tells you you don’t deserve your position, or in some other way attempts to take your power away from you, calling them out is an entirely appropriate response. Not only that, but calling them out may be an invitation for them to join you in your community if it is done in the appropriate way. It is asking them to be better.

When someone makes a sexist or racist comment in the workplace, it’s important to say “that’s inappropriate” or even “please don’t speak that way around me” if you don’t feel comfortable making a larger statement. Especially if the person speaking to you is from your own community and is tearing you down, ask them why they think the way they do, or whether they think they’re helping or harming themselves with their words. Challenge them. You’d be surprised at how often people know that what they just said was an unhelpful and damaging thing, they just need someone to remind them.

For those people who don’t understand why their behavior is inappropriate, or who may genuinely feel that a woman in power or a person of color in power is unacceptable, it’s important that they hear the opposing voice. There is power in speaking. There is power in simply saying “no”, even if you are not heard. And it’s always possible that you might start a change deep in someone’s mind. You might show them that they can embrace their own power. You might give them support simply by showing them you at your own best. When someone looks at you and says “you can’t be at this table,” and you say “That’s not something you get to say. Yes I can” and proceed to pull up a chair, you have shown them that you are willing to be present and you are modelling what they could be doing.

I suspect that many of the women who fight back against other women in power are afraid. Why be afraid of someone else’s power if you are secure in your own? That makes it even more important to welcome them into the circles of support that we try to build for ourselves. While it’s good to have like-minded people, it’s also good to keep the door open in some spaces for people who just don’t know. Make it known that you’re someone who is a mentor and who is willing to be a shoulder to cry on. Start a dialogue in your workplace, formal or informal, about what you see as sexism or racism in the workplace. Invite everyone and make it clear that all opinions are valued. Listen. Ask questions. Hear what is scaring someone or intimidating them or holding them back.

The women who fight us tooth and nail on our accomplishments are still women. They are still experiencing all the same difficulties that the rest of us are. And it’s up to us to provide community, support, and power to all women, not just the ones we like. While it’s hugely important to think about our own networks and support, we should also be aware of what we are doing to create more opportunities and support for every woman out there. Perhaps the best way to respond to backlash is to kill them with kindness.