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Body Image, Food, and Gender

NOTE: While not everyone identifies as male or female, for purposes of this piece I’m focusing on two genders – no offense is intended to anyone regardless of how they identify.

A recent study in Maine found that if nutritional information is provided in restaurants, some people will choose lower calorie meals. This didn’t surprise me. What caught my attention, though, was the breakout by gender:

  • Women: 50% (two out of four)

  • Men: 25% (one out of four)

That’s a significant difference, and it reminded me of how the way we approach food and body image if often tied to gender. That’s especially easy to think about this time of year, with numerous images of Santa Claus and his round belly (how many female icons can you think of who are supposed to be fat?), but many other examples abound.

For instance, the book Teenage Waistland by Lynn Biederman and Lisa Pazer is a fictional account of some teens considering gastric bypass surgery. One of them is a boy who realizes that if he has the surgery and loses weight, he’ll never make the minimum weight requirements for a certain football position, something that’s very important to his father. And in a related discussion, a friend recently commented that he knows a guy with a very high metabolism who struggles to keep his weight up and how it’s a sensitive subject because skinny guys feel a stigma, too, not just overweight ones.

Marc David also noted this in Nourishing Wisdom: “For many men food is also directly linked to weight, but whereas a woman sees fat when looking at food, a man sees protein, the potential for food to add muscle weight to his body.” (p. 101)

This is something that took me a long time to understand. I used to assume that anyone heavy would want to lose weight, and that anyone thin would be happy with their body, regardless of gender. It unfortunately made me sometimes judgmental about how I saw other people eating, thinking I knew what they wanted because it was what I wanted for myself.

Knowing now that this is not the case, I think about that study and wonder if fewer men are swayed by calorie counts because they want some of that additional bulk. I don’t know, but it may be a factor.

So many things go into our food choices, after all, sometimes without us even being aware of them. While that can be hard to remember, I do my best these days, reminding myself that we’re all in different places, have different needs, and that no one way of viewing food or body image is going to be right for every person.

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