There are some things that all human beings need to survive and food is one of them. Aside from food’s biological necessity, it also serves a social necessity for human beings and their culture. Everything from food choice to food intake is shaped by the social and cultural factors that give food a symbolic meaning. These cultural factors are part of the human experience that is always evolving and changing. With this in mind, my paper will explore how the relationships between males and females shape the production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food across cultures in diverse ways. Within these relationships, food is recognized as a source of power. The gender that possesses it and regulates it has the ability to control the other gender. Because of the heterogeneity of gender relations across cultures, I cannot attempt to generalize about gender roles and statuses in any one culture. My aim in this paper is to explore the diversity among cultures of how food shapes the ways in which men and women define themselves and each other.
The phases of food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption, though unique to each culture, are usually intertwined. An individual’s relationship to each of these phases, within the context of their interactions with others, reveals a culture’s perception of the order of its gender relations. I will explore the food habits of the Wamirans of southeastern Papua New Guinea, the Hua of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the peoples of the town of Bosa in the Italian region of Sardinia, and people in the United States.
The Wamirans are a hunting and gathering society whom reside in the extreme southeastern tip of Papua New Guinea. The Wamirans use food to communicate and control gender qualities, gender relations, and other social settings (Kahn 1986:1). In public, relations between the males and females are reserved and segregated (Kahn 1986:1). The labor of each sex is assigned a value that bestows upon the producer a social worth. This social worth defines who holds the power within the relationship (Kahn 1986:107). Each individual’s role in the production of food is gender segregated through the distinct division of labor. Men predominantly hunt, fish, and trap while the women gather the food, water, and fuel. The women also prepare and cook the meals. If you asked a Wamiran who works the hardest between the sexes, each would say that they do (Kahn 1986:26).
For Wamiran men, there is one area where their power over women wanes. Men lack the ability to reproduce human life. To regain this lost power, Wamiran men control taro plant production and pig domestication and exchange through elaborate but rigid rituals. All of this is done in an attempt to create their own form of reproductive power (Kahn 1986:9).
Since women reproduce offspring naturally, men feel the need to create their own reproductive powers. In Wamira, men depend on women to perpetuate society. This, combined with the strain on men from a matrilineal kinship system, creates ambivalence between male and female and male and male. This ambivalence must be alleviated for the benefit of the community (Kahn 1986:74). Men are in what is called a "double bind" – if they do not marry, they cannot reproduce; and if they do marry, "they lose their patrilineal substance to matrilineal kin" (Kahn 1986:150). In Wamira, the male ability of taro production equates to the female ability of human reproduction, thus allowing each individual the opportunity to own their respective realm of power (Kahn 1986:91). The ritual of taro production is very organized and rigid. The men communally prepare the plots and then, in secrecy, they individually plant their taro seeds. The women are then given the task of cultivating the plots. Finally, the men reveal to the whole community through an elaborate show what their crops produced. This production serves as a show of group solidarity and cooperation while alleviating the ambivalence that consumed the sexes (Kahn 1986:108). Men treasure and guard the replantable stalks of their taro plants as a way to control and ensure their reproductive abilities with each new taro crop they will plant (Kahn 1986:109).
To Wamiran men, pigs are symbolic of female sexuality and reproduction. Pigs, like women, are an economic and social extension of the man who owns them. Thus, through the domestication of piglets and the exchange of pork to eat, the husbands and the brothers of the same women resolve their antagonisms while possessing a way to manipulate the symbols of female fertility and decrease their dependence on women (Kahn 1986:74-75).
The Hua of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea also have food rules that govern its production, preparation, distribution, and consumption. How these food rules dictate gender relations is somewhat different from the Wamirans. The Hua believe that all food contains a substance called nu, which in simplest terms is the entire physical essence, from body fluids to body wastes, of the producer of the food (Meigs 1996:97-98). All transactions of food encompass the transaction and interaction of nu from producer to consumer (Meigs 1996:98).
An example of Hua foods that incorporate their belief in nu, while emphasizing the difference and opposition between the sexes, are best described in the rules imposed on male initiation rituals. Male initiates are prohibited from eating various mushrooms because these mushrooms look like a woman or because they grow during a time of month that all women are considered to menstruate (Meigs 1996: 102). If men violate these rules, their growth would be stunted. Their adherence to these rules or taboos preserves and enhances the male’s perception of their differences and superiority to females (Meigs 1996:102).
With the Bosa townspeople of Sardinia in Italy, the modernization of bread production, preparation, distribution and their effects on consumption have diminished relations between husbands and wives, among neighbors within the community, and within families. In Sardinia, bread is not only a food staple, but also a symbol of life (Counihan 1997:288). The production of bread served as a mutual exchange of labor between men and women. Its distribution in the form of neighborly giving and receiving affirmed community ties. Its consumption at meals was central to family communality (Counihan 1997:290). With the introduction of capitalist modes of production and distribution, individualism became the norm. Gender and community relations broke apart (Counihan 1997:293). Male and female cooperation disappeared, social interdependence among community members decreased, and family consumption lost its symbolic meaning (Counihan 1997:293).
This act of modernization has also affected other cultures. In the society of the Zimbabwean Ndeble, the women possess high status in their roles as bearers of children and managers of the households (Fieldhouse 1995: 107-108). With the development of a cash economy and the subsequent employment of men in food production industries, men are now regarded with higher status. The women’s power and economic independence have diminished while that of the men has increased (Fieldhouse 1995:107-108).
In western society, food-eating habits are a production of the structure of social relationships. In the United States, women are still predominantly responsible for the production (shopping) and distribution and preparation (preparing and cooking) of food. (MacClancy 1992:137).
Women in the United States work harder and longer in the production and preparation of food. They usually do not control how much or what is bought since their husbands’ preferences and purse strings dictate those decisions (Fieldhouse 1995:113). The act of cooking is usually work over creative pleasure. These everyday food activities become rituals of dominance and deference to husbands and family. For a woman to ask for help in her domestic duties suggests that her efforts are burdensome work and not an expression of maternal caring and love (DeVault 1997:197). Men who do share in the duties dismiss mistakes or incomplete tasks with less anxiety than a woman because they consider this type of work as an option for them but as an obligation to the woman (DeVault 1997:189).
In the United States, the differences between the sexes in their acts and attitudes surrounding food consumption maintain gender boundaries (Counihan 1996:19). Here in the realm of food consumption, women are most powerless of all (MacClancy 1997:37). In the United States, unlike many of the cultures so far observed, eating is regarded as a very individual choice and the individual’s level of adherence to the rules of consumption convey a standard of self-control (Counihan 1995:55). The individual choice and self-control uphold the hierarchy of gender relations (Counihan 1995:55).
This is very different from the Wamirans. To them, individual choice amounts to greed. Their fear of greed promotes a social expectation for individual and communal generosity and sharing of food. This act serves to strengthen the community (Counihan 1995:59).
Western beliefs in consumption as an individual choice have been studied in relation to gender hierarchies and eating disorders. Differences between men and women are more poignant over how much is eaten, not what is eaten, and it is usually men who are the judge of what is acceptable and what isn’t (Counihan 1995:61-62). I can relay two personal experiences in this arena. When I first started dating, I was always concerned about how much I ate in front of my male counterparts. I did not want to appear to be "a pig". In addition, at a party, a male guest continually berated a female guest who made many trips to the buffet. He made an effort to single her out by counting each trip she made when there were males making just as many trips. From this, he decided that he would make a judgment about the female guest based on how much she was eating. She was in his eyes fat and out of control.
Studies of eating disorders among women in the United States have revealed that acts of bulimia and anorexia are a woman’s way of conforming to, while at the same time violating, male imposed food rules (Counihan 1995:62-63). This level of control over her food consumption allows a woman to gain the autonomy and control that will give her power over others, especially males (Counihan 1995:62).
Food sustains life. At the same time, it symbolizes social life and cultural identity for various groups of people throughout the world. The responsibilities of both sexes for their role in the production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food in their society reflect their status in that society. In many cultures, food habits also reflect an individual’s means of manipulation – to censure, to reward, to encourage, and to control other members of the society, usually members of the opposite sex. As I hoped to point out, there is tremendous variation in the roles and beliefs among cultures and how this shapes their gender relations. There is a considerable amount of flexibility in the amount and level of interdependence and cooperation between men and women. One would assume that in a westernized, post industrial countries, the division of gender relations would be less rigid than the gender relations in the cultures examined in this paper. This is not always the case. In many regions of the world, males and females can possess power through food, despite the fact that they might be in a dependent or subservient position. This is a strong testament to universality of food and its role in shaping gender relations.
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