Are you what you eat?

by Selin Ilgaz
When it comes to food, providing your body with the necessary nutrients and calories to maintain life is just one of many aspects.  Beyond nutritional values, food has many other social functions. It can become a way of expressing one’s emotions or can be symbolic of power and control: by eating or not eating one can articulate the presence of a struggle; could be either an individual one (i.e. anorexia) or a collective one (i.e. hunger strike). Social norms also dictate what we eat, how much we eat, in the presence of whom and what we should look like. And food is also a way of communicating who we are and what we think. If food consumption is heavily influenced by so many factors, what we eat would also contribute to social judgments. Here I look at the stereotypes and judgments that other people make about us based on our own food consumption.

The first and perhaps the simplest way to look at it, is to consider how the traits associated with the food we consume is understood to have a direct influence on our personality. “Primitive” cultures have long thought that you are literally what you eat; meaning that you assume physical and emotional characteristics of the animal that you consume [1]. Although less pronounced, nowadays people in the western world still link characteristics of the type of food consumed and the person itself. For instance, in a study, participants were given a description of a different culture including information on their dietary habits. The study found that people judged turtle-eaters as more turtle-like than boar-eaters (i.e. “good swimmer”) and elephant-eaters as more elephant-like than vegetarians (i.e. “big build”) [2].

The type of food someone eats can also influence our judgment on how masculine or feminine we perceive them. For example, in a study, participants were provided with dietary profiles of various males and females which indicated their preferred foods andparticipants were asked to rate the masculinity and femininity of each profile. Half the profiles were characterized as preferring “bad” foods (i.e. hamburgers, doughnuts, ice-cream etc.) and the other half as preferring “good” foods (i.e. chicken, whole-wheat bread, fruits etc.). Participants judged bad food eaters as more masculine and good food eaters as more feminine; and this regardless of the sex of the individual [3]. Likewise, high-fat food is often described as being more “masculine” whereas low-fat food is described as being more “feminine” [4].

Eating “good” or “bad” food can also influence your social appeal and more specifically your level of interpersonal desirability (i.e. likeability, physical attractiveness, the desire to interact with you). Indeed, people who consumed “good” food were rated  as more physically attractive, more likeable and more moral (ethical, kind, considerate etc.) than people who consumed “bad” food [3]. Similarly, on a questionnaire on personal qualities (conscientious, attractive, conventional, sensitive, emotional, self-controlled, intelligent, assertive and strong), profiles consuming a feminine diet were rated higher on the questionnaire than profiles consuming a masculine diet [5]. Although “good” / “feminine” food eaters are perceived as more moral and intelligent, they are not however perceived as fun or nice to be with. Many studies showed that while people rated “bad” food eaters as less physically attractive, less intelligent and less studious, they also rated them as more easygoing, more likely to attend parties and drink alcohol, more humorous and less boring than “good” food eaters [6-7]. Aside from all the good qualities associated with low-fat diet eaters, they are also in general perceived as serious, high-strung, unhappy and antisocial, people being less likely to socialize with them. In contrast, high-fat consumers are seen as unattractive and unintelligent but fun, loving, happy and sociable at the same time [4].

The last point goes without saying: eating habits and health are also linked in our judgments. While in reality, having a heavy weight does not necessarily indicate bad health, it looks like in our minds we we still appear to make this association in our minds. People rated healthy eaters as having a smaller body size, being fitter and more active than fast-food eaters. They are perceived as less likely to smoke but also more hypochondriacally driven, being more conscious about weight and health [7].

The kind of food we eat influences all these judgments whether that be animal trails, femininity/masculinity, social appeal and weight/health. In addition to what we eat, consumption stereotypes are also modelled by how much we eat. Studies that have measured femininity/masculinity ratings based on how much we eat suggest that we make similar judgments about people as we did for the type of food consumed. For instance, in a study where profiles of small, moderate and big eaters were described, participants judged small eaters as having more stereotypically feminine traits (i.e. “caring”) and big eaters as having more stereotypically masculine traits (i.e. “dominant”). Hence, meal size is linearly related to masculinity; the more we eat the more we are perceived as “masculine” [8]. This result was largely replicated for women profiles (the more a woman eats the more masculine she is perceived) whereas contradictory results are present as to whether or not our judgments differ for male targets according to how much they eat [1]. Similarly to women, some studies found that men are perceived as more feminine when they ate less [8] while other studies showed no effect of the amount eaten by men on our perception of masculinity/femininity [9]. It is therefore still unclear if meal size influences perceptions of men’s femininity and masculinity.

When it comes to social appeal or more specifically, physical attractiveness, how much we eat again becomes an important factor – although this time only when the target is a woman. People judge a woman as more attractive when she is described as having small meals although this effect disappears when the woman is presented visually (on video), suggesting that attractiveness ratings are notinfluenced once the subject is visible [8][10]. Additionally, regardless of the description type (written or video), people rated subjects as being neater when they were showed to consume small meals; and sloppier/messier when targets were shown to consume large meals [10]. For overall social appeal ratings, results are contradictory but there seems to be a trend towards perceiving small eaters as more likeable; raters indicating that they would be more likely to “become friends with” or “want to get to know better” when the presented profile was a small eater [11]. Once more, judgments on male profiles’ attractiveness do not appear to be affected by the size of the meal that they consume [8][10].

Last but not least, other eating parameters can influence people’s social judgments about us, such as the manner in which we eat, our speed of eating, the frequency and pattern of our meals and snacks and even the way we talk about food [1]. With food, having so many influences on our social judgments is one thing, but being conscious about those stereotypes could be a way of conveying a desirable image of oneself by modifying our eating habits in specific situations.

 

References:

[1] Vartanian LR, Herman CP, Polivy J. Consumption stereotypes and impression management: how you are what you eat. Appetite 2007;48: 265–77.

[2] Nemeroff, C., & Rozin, P. (1989). ‘‘You are what you eat’’: Applying the demand-free ‘‘impressions’’ technique to an unacknowledged belief. Ethos, 17, 50–69.

[3] Stein, R. I., & Nemeroff, C. J. (1995). Moral overtones of food: Judgments of other based on what they eat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 480–490.

[4] Barker, M. E., Tandy, M., & Stookey, J. D. (1999). How are consumers of low-fat and high-fat diets perceived by those with lower and higher fat intake? Appetite, 33, 309–317.

[5] Mooney, K. M., & Lorenz, E. (1997). The effects of food and gender on interpersonal perceptions. Sex Roles, 36, 639–653.

[6] Fries, E., & Croyle, R. T. (1993). Stereotypes associated with a low-fat diet and their relevance to nutrition education. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 93, 551–555.

[7] Oakes, M. E., & Slotterback, C. S. (2004–2005). Prejudgments of those who eat a ‘‘healthy’’ versus and ‘‘unhealthy’’ food for breakfast. Current Psychology, 23, 267–278.

[8] Bock, B. C., & Kanarek, R. B. (1995). Women and men are what they eat: The effects of gender and reported meal size on perceived characteristics. Sex Roles, 33, 109–119.

[9] Pliner, P., & Chaiken, S. (1990). Eating, social motives, and self presentation in women and men. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 240–254.

[10] Vartanian, L. R. (2000). Perceived femininity and weight as a function of meal size. Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Toronto.

[11] Basow, S. A., & Kobrynowicz, D. (1993). What is she eating? The effects of meal size on impressions of female eater. Sex Roles, 28, 335–344.

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