The Vagenda

Sugar and spice and all things nice

Women – like people who aren’t white and/or Western – have learned to be suspicious of arguments about how their biology fits them for certain things (being a housewife, not being in charge of their own money, slavery etc.). If, and it is a big if, women prefer sweeter foods –scoff Mr Kiplings like there’s no tomorrow, lap up Baileys from a cup made of fondant icing and then eat the cup – does that mean they are biologically determined to do so? The argument seems all right, but then, it’s structured in exactly the same way as ‘Women do more housework, so it must be because they’re biologically better fitted for it.’ The final piece of this argument, of course, is: ‘Therefore they should be the ones to do it.’ A finer argument in support of the status quo you cannot find. And, of course, it’s utter botty. I’m not biologically better fitted for anything than a man, except maybe having kids, or writing rude things on Femfresh’s Facebook page. 
So when I recently got to thinking about the infantilization of women’s tastes, and how we are associated with sugary, less strongly flavoured things like cakes and chocolate rather than more savoury items like whisky, steak and cheese, I did a bit of digging in Science to find out whether the widely held assumption that we like sweet things more than men is actually based on anything, and if so, what – i.e., whether I AM definitively weird for having a meat tooth rather than a sweet tooth. Yes! British Library card in hand, I sallied forth to read actual scientific studies, pausing only to be horrified at the woman sitting next to me who was reading about the benefits of homeopathy (the BL should BURN that shiz). The results? No study I found has definitively proved that women are biologically determined to like sweet things more than men, let alone that they definitely actually do, although there are gender differences in our preferences that partly depend on where we live. Some studies have shown that men actually prefer more highly sweetened products. There is some evidence that women are more sensitive to different levels of sweetness in foods, and this may be why. That being said, given a choice of snack in one study, women were more likely to go for sugary snacks like biscuits and cakes; men went for pizza and other bulkier savouries. But this isn’t necessarily biological – it could well be cultural. One study I looked at (Parker et al., Appetite 40, in case anyone’s interested) showed that North American women crave chocolate more than any other food product, and more than men do; in Spain women still crave chocolate more than men, but unlike in North America they report the same number of cravings for savoury things as men; and in Egypt cravings for savoury foods are the most common kind in both men and women. So there are obviously cultural pressures that play a part in our food likes and dislikes. Our preferences cannot simply be put down to biology. 
It’s true that women are more prone to choose sugary foods when they’re pre-menstrual, i.e. tired and grumpy. To cheer them up, duh. But comfort eating is an equal opportunities employer, and feeling sad or fed up is not confined to women. It’s like they never watched The Biggest Loser: basically a Benetton ad in a funhouse mirror, but with more exercise-induced vomiting.
Despite this science bit – hope you were concentrating, ladies! – people THINK that women like sweet things more. This would be weird if it wasn’t for the obvious cultural connection between women and sugar. The very word ‘sweet’ is used to describe two kinds of people: women and children. Men are rarely ‘sweet’ or ‘sweethearts’. Children are ‘sweet’ when they do or say naive things; women are ‘sweet’ when they do things for other people. There’s an unpleasant whiff of condescension here. When Mel Gibson called that cop ‘sugar tits’, he wasn’t being nice: he was patronizing her (in a completely hilaire way). I can reveal that neither I, nor any of my friends, have ever considered calling a man ‘sugar balls’. Amusingly (or not) the OED also gives an obsolete meaning for ‘sweet’ – ‘gentle, or easy’. Hmm. Why are little girls made of ‘sugar and spice, and all things nice’? Because they’re easy to deal with.
Economic pressures obviously play a part in our food choices too. Sugar isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s also an issue of the poor – sugar is cheap, so it’s added to bulk out cheap foods, and it’s habit-forming, so if you’ve eaten lots of processed foods at one stage, you’ll probably have developed a taste for it. Naturally, women and the poor are significantly overlapping groups, what with our not deserving the same wages as our male overlords and all. But economics aside, another issue to remember is that sugar has always been a ‘naughty but nice’ vice. It’s a little treat, not too expensive, without being morally unacceptable. For the last couple of hundred years, displaying an appetite for sugary things has been acceptable in women, unlike appetites for alcohol, smoking or sex (or, y’know, having a job and stuff). These were off-limits to women, because women were like children: immature, weak, and requiring of protection from the more adult things in life. 
Advertisers who present sugary products to us still play on this ‘naughty lady treat’ angle, where the product is presented as a little bit indulgent, but not really wicked. These Maltesers are ‘lighter’, so they’re OK! You’re giving yourself a little treat, but you don’t have to be ashamed! Those ads for Magnums and Haägen-Dasz in which ice cream is basically A MASSIVE FUCKING SYMBOL FOR SEX are saying – ‘Fancy some sex? Eat this ice cream instead, it’s basically the same thing, but more acceptable, and you can buy it in Tesco’s!’ Ice cream and chocolate are being sold to us as safe, infantilized versions of other pleasures. I could say the advertisers were replacing the signifier with the signified, if it didn’t make me sound like a poncy twat. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, a classic book about the science of gastronomy written in 1825, made it explicit: ‘Gourmandise is not unbecoming to women: it suits the delicacy of their organs and recompenses them for some pleasures they cannot enjoy, and for some evils to which they are doomed.’ 
Yeah. Got it in one, Jean-Anthelme. We’re not allowed other kinds of fun, and we need to eat to cheer us up when we’re on our periods. That’s the subtext of modern food advertising to women. That’s how we’re sold sugar.
- MJ

19 thoughts on “Sugar and spice and all things nice

  1. Ever noticed how when you’re on the way home late at night you can always get manly, savoury munchies (e.g. a kebab) but not any chocolate etc? Regardless of whether our sex really does influence our taste, society thinks men like meat and chips and women like curly-wurlies, and it seems to use that to tell us not to go out at night. I’m a proper stereotype, frankly, given that I have bosoms and a sweet tooth, and it’s much harder to get the snacks I want than what my hairy-chested, carnivorous life-partner desires on the way home from a night of alcoholic fun. But then he has every right to be out after the clock strikes twelve, non? Whilst I should be at home fastening my chastity belt.

  2. “One study I looked at (Parker et al., Appetite 40, in case anyone’s interested) showed that North American women crave chocolate more than any other food product…”

    OMG! Have they ever tasted North American chocolate? (yeah, I knows that’s an oxymoron). That stuff is like horse shit! I remember my first holiday in America, I didn’t eat chocolate for over 2 weeks because the stuff was so foul! And I don’t go a day without it at home.

    I think that a country that will accept such substandard chocolate has a greater cultural mental health issue than anything to do with sexism.

    (yes, I do jest, but just on that last line. It really does taste shitty)

    • @Cat, here is a fun choccy fact for you (or at least something I was told as fact, and choose to pass on as gospel without research): during WW2 Hershey’s were forced to use rancid milk in their chocolate because it was all that was available. Fast-forward to the end of the war, and they start making it with nice fresh milk (or powdered probs, but powdered non-rancid milk anyway) and everybody complains that it doesn’t taste right. So they deliberately alter it to taste like it did in the good old wartorn days of rancid milk, and even though the milk is good, the taste is awful, and everybody is happy.

      Weird but true (or not). Just like America.

    • Absolutely. I remember unwrapping my first (and last) Hershey’s ‘Kiss’ and looking around to see who had vomited next to me. It actually DID exude the aroma of fresh sick. Foul. Then there’s the ‘Fat free Half and Half’ milk which I wrote about in EATING MY WORDS. I am sure this messed about with, white slime will be responsible for children being born without limbs in future generations.

  3. Being an inquisitive sort, when I stumbled across this blog site I thought I’d be open minded and give it a look. To be honest I’d always thought of feminist groups, websites etc. as humourless, overly PC affairs, but maybe I was being judgemental. Alas, as I took a read through the blogs what did I find but exactly the sort of humour free, militantly PC propaganda I was afraid of.
    First of all your attacks on lad mags come off as nothing more than childish whining. I am a gay man and have many straight male friends who read these magazines and, contrary to your lazy stereotypes, are not the mindless, chauvinistic idiots you paint. They have had long term relationships with intelligent, independent women and have never been anything less than understanding towards my life as a gay man. Is it not possible that a man can be an essentially decent individual but not also jack off to a bit of tits and ass when the mood takes him? You claim to be concerned of the effects of these magazines and such on today’s young women and how it is damaging to their self-esteem, but what about militant feminism and it’s harming effects on young men? I’m not alone in thinking that a lot of today’s young men are being made to feel ashamed about their perfectly natural sexual desires, or that they are somehow bad people who are disrespecting or oppressing women.
    Your attacks on women who ‘support’ this culture are also equally short sighted. My older sister’s ex-boyfriend was a man who, like most, read lad mags and watched internet pornography. He was a funny, charismatic and very well read man who I got on with very well. My sister would occasionally pick up and have a read through his magazines and, far from being offended, took much of its un-PC but essentially harmless humour in the way that it was intended. Am I to believe that my sister, who has always been someone I’ve looked up to, is some worthless traitor to her sex simply because she possesses an open minded humour that you and your readers lack?
    You also seem to find sexism in just about every direction you look. I’m not so blind as to believe that sexism no longer exists in our society, but to suggest that such trivial things as general interest magazines actively discriminate along gender lines is laughable. I would hazard a guess that the reason fishing and car magazines are aimed at men is because the majority of its readers are men! I’ll go one further and suggest that the reason gossip and beauty magazines are primarily aimed at women is because – wait for it – the majority of its readers are women! You would no doubt argue that the women who read these magazines are brainless morons who are simply adhering to what society tells them to do, which shows a real lack of faith in your fellow sisters don’t you think?
    When I came out as a gay man I was pretty sensitive about my sexuality and if I looked hard enough I could find homophobia in places it didn’t exist. My straight male friends will often good naturedly deride one of their group for being gay if he does something they consider as not being traditionally ‘masculine’. Now does this really mean they think less of him or will no longer continue being his friend? Does it mean they think less of me or think that I am somehow not as good as them? Of course it doesn’t, because we are intelligent and sophisticated enough to realise that it is meant as a joke.
    Gay and sexist jokes are harmless as long as we are aware of them. There is a difference between telling a sexist joke in the knowledge that it is sexist and telling one because you actually think it’s speaking the truth. I am sympathetic to your aim in wanting equality for women but the way that you go about it is simply showing you up as the stereotypically humourless militants that many believe you to be. Which in the end does you, your readers and womankind in general, no favours.

    • Just to pick on the ‘perfectly natural sexual desires’ – in my understanding, desire is nearly always conditioned and cultivated by cultural norms, so I think what is being challenged in regards to lads mags is a normalised form of desire which casts women as only so many objects, tits and arse as you say. I am guessing that the issue here is trying to make this form of masculine desire a less prevalent and standardised one.

      Overall, in my understanding the articles in this blog attempt to challenge and question socially constructed norms and conventions much more than explicitly ostracise any people as traitors etc. And since you mention homour several times in your comment – perhaps the slightly over the top tone presented in them is, in fact, just that?

    • so one basic argument here is that a humourous feminist blog is humourless because it talks extensively about sexism…?
      unless I’ve got it very wrong (and feel free to let me know if i have, because i tend to call myself a feminist) feminism is about achieving equality between the sexes, so being feminist is about challenging this inequality, which can otherwise be referred to as, wait for it… ‘sexism’.
      so a feminist blog that didn’t talk extensively about sexism… well, that’s just a blog mate.
      therefore i suggest if you don’t like reading about feminist issues and find articles about them to be “humour free, militantly PC propaganda”, don’t read feminist blogs. simple really.

  4. Dear James, I am a scientist. I am a girl. When I go into W H Smith/Tesco/various other newsagents, I have to buy New Scientist magazine from a stand that’s called ‘Men’s Interests’.

    I also quite like reading The Economist, when I’m feeling a bit geeky. When I go into W H Smith/Tesco/various other newsagents, I have to buy The Economist from a stand that’s called ‘Men’s Interests’.

    This, to me, is not trivial.

    • New Scientist is awesome, I had it delivered (for the huge discount) and so avoided being stereotyped by magazine racks, but that is ridiculous!

      I would like to thank the generations of ‘humourless militant feminists’ that have come before me, who have made it possible for someone like me, unremarkable but hard working and determined to have the opportunity to aspire to more than what the status quo would have allowed me.

      Also, this blog is hilarious!

    • Hold up both hands, Sarah, I’m high-fiving you, too!

      As for James: look dude, my husband struggles with this, too. Confronting the sheer quantity of sexism in our culture is horrifying because it makes you, as a man, feel implicated in it, when in reality you may be perfectly nice, and truly feel and behave as though men and women were both just people. We’re ALL implicated in it as long as we stand idly by and say things like, “Oh, that sexist joke is ok because we KNOW it’s sexist!” (facepalm).

      P.S. you should call your friends out for using ‘gay’ as an insult, because that is shitty behavior, and you deserve better.

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