Ever stopped to think about the difference between a nonfat yogurt commercial and a bacon cheeseburger commercial?
In the former, a fit twentysomething woman smiles at nothing in particular while sitting on a porch and neatly swirling key lime pie-flavored Yoplait or what-have-you with her spoon. In the latter, a husky dude is typically found biting into a burger while leaning against his truck, without a care in the world about the caloric content of his meal or that he's getting ketchup all over his face.
Are advertisers telling us that meat is masculine and diet-friendly food is girly, or are they playing into our preconceived notions of these stereotypes? Though it's difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, a new study published in the journal Social Psychology touches upon how food manufacturers play into the pervasive belief that healthy food is somehow inherently feminine.
The report, conducted by the University of Manitoba and cheekily titled "Macho nachos: The implicit effects of gendered food packaging on preferences for healthy and unhealthy foods," surveyed 93 adults about how they would gender-categorize foods if they were prepared two different ways, with one version being healthier than the other (for example, baked chicken versus fried chicken, or light potato chips versus regular potato chips).
As one might suspect, the less-healthy options were perceived as more masculine by a landslide, while the foods prepared in more wholesome ways were seen as feminine. After all, there's nothing girlier than a tray of baked fish, right?
For the second part of the study, lead researcher Luke Zhu and his team presented participants with mini blueberry muffins that were packed in either a stereotypically feminine way—with an image of a ballerina and the word "healthy" emblazoned on the wrapper—or in a more "masculine" way, with pictures of men playing football and the word "mega." (How a miniature blueberry muffin can be considered "mega" is perhaps just one of life's greatest mysteries.) There were also some packages that mixed up the imagery and wordage in less conventional configurations.
Nobody really liked those ones. Apparently "mega" and ballerina just don't go together. The study subjects even said that those muffins tasted worse than the ones with more clearly gendered marketing, even though all of the muffins were the same.
"With packaging, we expect healthy eating to be associated with femininity," Zhu told Time. "But what if healthy food is packaged in masculine packaging? That's an expectation violation."
The takeaway: even if advertisers and food manufacturers wanted to abandon the conventions of masculine versus feminine association with health or junk foods, consumers would be wary of it. Perhaps we're so conditioned to the idea of soothing packaging for organic foods and bold primary colors for processed crap, Zhu suggests, that our brains go a bit haywire at the thought of kale chips in a bright red, crinkly bag, or cheese doodles in a minimal white and green box. Ditto the image of a pilates instructor on our taco wrapper, or of an MMA fighter on our almond milk. And our psychology is so deeply tied into these aesthetics that they can even make food taste different.
But when it's time to discuss why men are hesitant to adopt healthier diets—well, break out a helmet before reading the comments.