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