Femininity winds itself through the cultural history and current understanding of chocolate. Women’s sexuality and domesticity have been alternatively leveraged to sell chocolate for hundreds of years. In this blog post, I hope to illustrate how chocolate intersects with women’s health both as a cultural consideration and medical reality. Examining how chocolate relates to women’s relationship with menstruation and how marketers capitalize on those stereotypes reveals a new lens through which we can better understand chocolate’s complex role in society
Chocolate as Medicine: Past and Present
TheFlorentine Codex, an 16th century ethnographic study of Mesoamerica written by a Bernadino de Sahagún, provides the earliest analysis of chocolate and its role in Mesoamerican culture. Friar Sahagún wrote a detailed account of Mesoamerican society and culture, casting him as one of the world’s first anthropologists. In his account, he included passages and images that described Aztec interaction with chocolate. He highlighted the use of frothed chocolate as a medicinal supplement used to cure and treat a multitude of ailments. He warned against consuming unripe green cacao, but advocated consuming well prepared cacao in order to fortify oneself for battle.[i] Sahagún’s studies mostly involved how chocolate affects men’s health and virility. M. De La Cruz’s 1552 Badianus Manuscriptexpands on the medicinal uses of chocolate, citing its ability to cure disease and invigorate the body.[ii]
In the 19th and 20th century interest in chocolate as medicine faded and was replaced by sole consideration of chocolate as a foodstuff. However, in recent years, a renewed interest in the medicinal qualities of chocolate has given rise to a number of influential studies that declare various benefits of chocolate. Peer reviewed research has led to claims that chocolate has many different health benefits, many specifically aimed at women’s health issues.[iv] For example, a sustained consumption of dark chocolate can reduce women’s risk of stroke and diabetes because of chocolate’s antioxidant content.[v]
Spanish colonial forces slowly adopted a belief in chocolates medicinal properties and Europeans tried to work chocolate as medicine into their established frameworks for understanding medicinal practices. Carl Linneas solidified Europe’s peak perception of chocolate as medicine, claiming that the food could cure a variety of ailments from wasting to hemorrhoids.[iii]
However, chocolate’s role as a self-prescribed medicine taken by women to help quell their period pains and satisfy their cravings during menstruation highlights how chocolate as medicine occupies a muddy place between fact and fiction. Chocolate as a treatment or supplement for women on their periods is as much a cultural creation as a medical reality.
Rom-com tropes of caring boyfriend bringing his girlfriend chocolate when she’s on her period abound in mediocre movies and TV shows. In popular culture, chocolate is seen as universally craved by menstruating women. There is some science to back up this cultural projection. A survey of menstruating American women reported that about half of respondents intensely craved chocolate during the premenstrual phase of their cycle. Chocolate does have caffeine content and antioxidants that can help with the symptoms that accompany premenstrual hormonal changes. However, Dr. Amy Stavnezer, a professor in psychology and neuroscience specializing in women’s health believes that women’s perception of chocolate as period treatment is actually a learned cultural behavior.[i]
Messaging associating chocolate with periods is everywhere. Marketers have sold the idea that chocolate can tame the irrational or wild women. Irrationality and wildness are both culturally associated with menstruating women. In a 2006 Nestle ad, a crazy, irrational woman uses a voodoo doll to torture her boyfriend. She then finds some chocolate, eats it, and begins to treat the voodoo doll lovingly.
In the movie Chocolat, chocolate also is shown to calm and cure the irrational wild woman. A side character, Josephin, is mistreated by her husband and widely considered the town loon. Eventually she gets taken in by Vien, the exotic and alluring new chocolatier on the scene, and begins to mystically calm down and gain confidence. The movie tracks this development though Josephine’s chocolate intake, the chocolate makes her less crazy.
new startups focused on aiding menstruating women depend on this understanding
of chocolate as a period necessity. There is a new micro-industry that sells
subscription boxes to menstruating women in order to help ease their suffering.
The boxes are usually cutely and irreverently packaged and filled with goodies.
Some pack in luxury self-care products like face masks or aromatherapy and
others provide ibuprofen samples and heating pads. The only thing constant
across every box was chocolate. Each box contained chocolate in some form: hot chocolate
mix, chocolate bar, caramel-filled truffles, you name it.[ii]
Society’s perception of chocolate as a medicinal product has contorted over the past 600 years. Mesoamerican cultures relied on chocolate as medicine, European adopters promoted certain uses, and modern-day practitioners explore its uses. Chocolate’s intersection with women’s health, especially menstrual health, reveals the unique position that chocolate occupies in our understanding. Chocolate and its uses are intensely affected by both scientific realities and cultural constructs
[i] “Why Do I Crave Chocolate During My Period?” Psychology Today. Accessed March 11, 2019. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings/201402/why-do-i-crave-chocolate-during-my-period.
[ii] “I Tried 5 Different Subscription Boxes For My Period So That You Don’t Have To.” Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.buzzfeed.com/laraparker/i-tried-five-different-period-subscription-boxes-to-see-if.
[i] Sahagun B. General History of the Things of New Spain [Florentine Codex, 1590] School of American Research, University of Utah Monographs of the School of American Research, and Museum of New Mexico; Santa Fe, NM, USA:
[ii] De la Cruz M. The Badianus Manuscript, Codex Barberini, Latin 241, Vatican Library: An Aztec herbal of 1552. Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, MD, USA: 1940.
[iii] 1981Von Linné (Linneaus) C. Om Chokladdryken. Fabel; Stockholm, Sweden: 1741.
[iv] Wilson P.K. Chocolate as Medicine: A Changing Framework of Evidence Throughout History. In: Paoletti R., Poli A., Conti A., Visioli F., editors. Chocolate and Health. Springer Verlag Italia; Milano, Italia: 2012. pp. 1–16
[v] “Women Should Eat More Chocolate !,” Medical News Today, accessed March 7, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/235781.php.