A family sits at a dinner table lined with piles of leafy salad. Mom gleefully munches on a piece of lettuce while Dad stares down at his dish with disgust. He’s longing for a more satisfying meal: Specifically, a thick slice of pepperoni pizza.
This Domino’s commercial that aired earlier this fall — in which the mom is deemed “Sally Soulsmasher” for serving up salad — reflects the sexism in the American diet, especially when it comes to salad.
The word “salad” alone usually evokes an image of unappetizing rabbit food reserved for women watching their waistline. One study shows that Americans have especially strong associations between healthier fare like “salad, chicken, and yogurt” and women, and “unhealthy or heavy foods such as beef, potatoes, and beer with men.”
Cultural resistance against the gendered food divide only underscores this sexism more clearly. Individuals and companies encourage women to eat these less healthy, “manly” foods as a twisted version of empowerment. One New York Times article urged women to “be yourselves” by “eating a ribeye.” “Unfortunately, much of [the cultural pushback] has come in the form of suggesting that, instead, women should eat like men, to be cool,” Julie Beck wrote in The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, few voices — if any— are rallying for guys to eat more vegetables. Women described a man’s decision to order a salad on a first date as “wimpy” and “boring,” according to one survey. We assume that men should eat hefty, “macho” foods like burgers or ribs, with little or no consideration of their nutritional value.
A dietary dilemma
We’ve allowed societal constructs to dictate not only our food choices, but also our health. With two-thirds of American adults now overweight — making them more prone to type-2 diabetes and heart disease — the associations we make about food are more than sexist; they’re dangerous.
When men are conditioned to order heavier, unhealthy foods and women are encouraged to follow suit, we have a public health problem on our plates. Several so-called “masculine” foods — including red meat and fries — have also been listed as some of the top foods that cause cancer. If we don’t change how we view food and the kinds of food we eat, we can expect our health risks to keep increasing.
Meanwhile, salads — exempting the ranch-drenched, bacon-topped varieties — are some of the healthiest meal options and relatively widely available. Why is there no effort to liberate men and women to eat lettuce? Most likely, it’s because Americans don’t want salad or vegetables to begin with. We automatically view unhealthy food as more appealing. To make matters worse, we’re inundated with advertising campaigns, like this one from McDonald’s, that assume that everyone prefers fast food to a salad.
How to savor your salad
We need to erase the sexist ways we view healthy food. Because our taste buds have grown accustomed to foods high in fat, sugar and salt, standing up for salad isn’t a persuasive proposition. In order to truly make a difference, first, we need to make them appealing, with or without the health halo.
Fortunately, salads happen to be among the most versatile foods and can be customized to suit any craving. Sesame chicken, snap peas, and onions on a bed of Romaine with honey-ginger dressing can hit your Asian take-out craving without making you feel sick an hour later. Top a bowl with corn, black beans, fajita veggies, and lime for a satisfying, Southwestern version. Salads can even be sweet simply by tossing in some fresh berries or dried fruit.
While some may argue that salads are too “skimpy” for men, who generally need more calories than women, this can be remedied by adding in more substantial ingredients. Focus on protein, like grilled chicken, lean beef or nuts, and fiber-rich foods like black beans and whole grains. Throw on some healthy fats, like hard-boiled eggs, olive oil or sunflower seeds. If you need more substance, make the salad just half of your meal.
Serving up change
Commercials like Domino’s illustrate how we’ve made it acceptable to demonize healthy eating in exchange for another sales pitch advertising mass produced, fat-laden fast-food. It’s time to reevaluate American priorities. Will we side with mass marketing or public health? Will we choose cultural stereotypes or dietary discretion?
These questions deserve to be brought to the table. One thing is clear: change will not come by labeling salads as “women’s food,” and certainly not by belittling those who eat it.