Chocolate and Gendered Consumption: An Interview with Jane

While research shows that there is no significant gender difference in psychological impact of chocolate consumption, there are important emotional, psychological, and social differences between genders, as illustrated by Jane Doe’s changing relationship with chocolate over the years (Watson et al. 3-80). Research has shown that the psychological impact of chocolate consumption is similar if not the same for both men and women. However, because of the strong relationship between chocolate and gender norms that holds in modern day America as a social construct, women and men have profoundly different emotional, psychological, and social relationships with chocolate consumption. In this paper, I hope to illustrate this point using an in depth interview with a 22 year old female college student at Harvard, who I shall call Jane Doe for the purpose of protecting her privacy, about her psychological, emotional, and social relationship with chocolate.

Research shows that chocolate consumption has similar if not exactly the same psychological and physiological effect on men and women. Cocoa beans contain stimulant substances, such as theobromine, caffeine, and theophylline, named purinic alkaloids, which affect the central nervous system (Watson et al. 105). There is no scientific evidence to suggest that these stimulants affect men and women differently (Watson et al. 106). Furthermore, research has shown that chocolate is generally unhealthy for both sexes. “A double-blind, placebo controlled, randomized trial failed to find any beneficial health effects of dark chocolate and cocoa consumption on neuropsychological or cardiovascular health. Furthermore, an increase in body weight has been found owing to the consumption of just 25 g of chocolate per day, and dark chocolate and cocoa consumption has been associated with significantly higher pulse rates (Watson et al. 144).” The results are same for men and women. Thus, chocolate does not affect men and women differently in terms of physiological, neuropsychological or cardiovascular health. Yet, men and women have profoundly different relationships with chocolate because of societal constructs around gender norms and chocolate consumption.

Multimedia source 1 (Table on chocolate nutrition):

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Multimedia source 2 (Blocked quote from Jane’s interview):

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Women and men have different psychological, emotional, and social relationships with chocolate, as illustrated by Jane Doe’s story. As a child, Jane was not yet introduced to societal constructs around chocolate consumption and gender norms. As the result, her relationship with chocolate was not yet gendered. The early stage of Jane’s life is an example of how gendered relationships with chocolate are not biological but constructed by society. As a child, Jane enjoyed a gender-neutral relationship with chocolate and considered it a rare sweet treat just like her male peers. Jane recalls, “My mom never kept sweets around the house. She thought sugar rotted children’s teeth and ruined their health.” She said, “I would beg my mom for candy whenever we went grocery shopping together but she would say no. I would stomp on the floor and throw a tantrum but instead of getting my way I only got chastised by my mother later at home.” Her mother was also strict about watching television or reading magazines, so Jane was sheltered from chocolate advertising. “She wouldn’t let me watch television or read magazines- we only had books in the house and we were encouraged to read for entertainment,” said Jane. On birthdays or holidays when she was allowed to have a small treat, Jane went for a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar because her friends at school talked about it and consuming it helped her feel a sense of belonging. Although chocolate was a means for Jane to feel close to her classmates and fit in at school, it was also a sweet treat she enjoyed. At this early stage, Jane’s relationship with chocolate was thus gender-neutral because she was sheltered from chocolate advertisements. Thus her experience shows that gendered relationships with chocolate is a societal construct and not biological. Center for a Commercial-Free childhood estimates has found that, “As young children are developing their gender identities, they are flooded with ads for product promoting sexualized stereotypes. There are 40,000 Disney Princess items on the market today. Violent movies, like Spiderman and Transformers, market toys that promote violence to boys (“Sexualizing Childhood”).” Thus, young children often have gendered relationship with consumption not because of biological differences between sexes but because of societal constructs about gender norms, such as but not limited to child advertisements and marketing that promote female sexuality or male violence around consumption.

Multimedia source 3 (block quote by Jane):

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At fourteen, Jane went to boarding school and turned to highly processed chocolate products to fulfill an emotional need with devastating consequences for her health. Without parental guidance, Jane was making choices for the first time about what went into her body without a transition period between a strict controlled household and a boarding school with unlimited dining options. The result was the development of an emotional dependence on sugary products, including chocolate. “I would eat an entire carton of Ben and Jerrys after a particularly rough math exam,” she said. She reached for chocolate or products with chocolate in it (such as vanilla ice cream with chunks of chocolate or cookies with a thin chocolate coating) to feel better every time she felt lonely away from home or felt stressed out about school in a highly competitive boarding prep school. She explained, “I would eat (these chocolate products) when I was tired, or lonely, or stressed out. I gained 15 pounds my first year in boarding school despite only growing an inch in height. The thing was, when I ate, I would only temporarily feel better before feeling worse than when I first began. I would feel more tired after the sugar high crashed. I would feel guilty about eating so much sugar so I would skip dinner with friends and feel even lonelier. I felt more tired after the sugar high crashed and then eat more sugar.” Jane’s experience is a scientifically documented phenomenon: Scholars have found that people tend to crave chocolate when distressed. Chocolate craving reflects physiological mechanisms, including increased serotonin production; the release of endorphins; the actions of methylxathines, phenylethylamine, and anadaminedes; and the supply of magnesium (Benton 205). Furthermore, Jane’s experience is a common one although she felt isolated at the time and ashamed that she could not control her cravings. A Canadian survey reported that 68% of men and 97% of women experienced food cravings where 85% say they often give in to them. Jane’s experience illustrates a real individual example of Benton’s argument that 1) chocolate contains “druglike” substances that influence the brain chemistry and 2) the psychological mechanisms are predominantly important; that is, the attractive taste is a major reason for eating chocolate and/or it reflects an attempt to improve mood (Benson 206). Sugar has been shown to be as addictive as drugs, and thus difficult to quit like in the case of Jane. Available evidence in humans show that sugar and sweetness can induce reward and craving that are comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs (Ahmed SH et al.).” Thus, Jane’s addiction to chocolate in high school is normal and scientifically documented. Her weight gain is also typical of increased sugar consumption.

Multimedia source 4 (Sucrose for Comfort):

Sucrose for Comfort

Source: Mother Jones

Jane’s experience was not atypical but she was able to get out of the rut by learning about nutrition and letting go of guilt. “I took a nutrition class senior year that helped me understand that food addiction is real and not a sign of a personal weakness,” said Jane. Gradually, by learning about nutrition and understanding the addictive properties of sugar, Jane was able to stop feeling guilty and lonely. She eventually started eating healthier and consuming sugary goods in moderation by her senior year. “I would eat a Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chunk ice cream once a month instead of every few days. I would also try to eat vegetables with every meal,” she recalled. Her weight stabilized and her skin cleared up.

Multimedia source5 (blocked quote from Jane);

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In college, chocolate became a social event for Jane thus fulfilling her emotional need to fit in with her female friends. Many of the social gatherings with her female friends included tasting chocolate, which was cheap and easily available around Harvard Square. Every Sunday night, her roommates would buy wine, cheese, and chocolates, gather around the common room and catch up. Her other social events including chocolate were trips to Burdicks to sip their hot chocolate or an outing to Finale’s to split the Finale’s sample which included a molten chocolate cake. Although Jane was frequently around chocolate, by college she had stopped feeling distressed and subsequently also stopped using chocolate to ease the feeling of loneliness. Most importantly, she stopped eating chocolate alone as a coping mechanism and also stopped feeling ashamed of the act. She would focus on the social aspect of chocolate gatherings and eat in moderation, in addition to her regular diet of healthy foods.

Jane also noted that as a female she felt pressure to like chocolate. She said it was, “because chocolate consumption was this sexy, indulgent experience. Girls are supposed to like chocolate, especially on their periods and you almost want to fit in by liking chocolate.” She noticed that none of her male friends had consumed chocolate in a social setting, and were often made fun of if they liked chocolate but that her female friends often socialized by consuming chocolate or conversed about their love for chocolate. Jane consumed chocolate in college as a social activity but also to conform to gender norms and feel accepted. Advertisements of chocolate create and reinforce this idea that chocolate is a female experience.

Jane’s story illustrates an individual’s complicated relationship with chocolate that mirrors many topics covered throughout the course: how marketing targeted towards children can creates unnatural gender norms, the addictive properties of sugar, the link between chocolate and weight gain, and the gendered way that chocolate is marketed today. While research shows there is no significant gender difference in physiological impact of chocolate consumption, there are important emotional psychological and social differences that play out along gender lines. Jane astutely observes that her personal experience with chocolate after the brief period of childhood when she was sheltered was heavily gendered. Chocolate consumption is heavily gendered- from the way individuals interact with chocolate to the way that chocolate companies market their products. This class has taught me to break down Jane’s story and read it for sugar addiction, chocolate and health, and gendered consumption.

Works Cited
Ahmed, SH, K. Guillem, and Y. Vandaele. “Sugar Addiction: Pushing the Drug-sugar Analogy to the Limit.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 16 July 2013. Web. 06 May 2015.
Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.
“Sexualizing Childhood.” Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.
Watson, Ronald R., Victor R. Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. New York: Humana, 2013. Print.

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