The Shame of Sweetness: Food as Code

This morning as I was making my coffee (four creamers and four packets of sugar, thanks very much), I realized that I was mildly uncomfortable. There was another person in the kitchen with me, and I was shielding my coffee from her with my body, vaguely ashamed that I fill my delicious morning beverage with sweet, sugary goodness.

I’ve noticed this before. People talk about drinking black coffee like a badge of pride. They ridicule mochas and frappuccinos and people who put cream and sugar into their coffee as if it was a sin to want something that tastes yummy. And it’s not just with coffee drinks: think of the ridicule that people who drink appletinis face. Sure it’s not really a big deal. No one will beat you for drinking a pink cocktail of some sort, but there’s an undercurrent in which things that are sweet are consistently seen as “covering up” what you’re actually consuming, and thus as bad.

But why does it matter? Why do we care if people quietly (or not so quietly) judge our food choices?

For some insight, let’s think about the adjective that people use when they ridicule these drinks: girly. Girly drinks. With a little umbrella in them. For the ladies who can’t handle “real” booze or “real” coffee.

Sweetness is code for feminine. It’s code for not being able to handle “reality” and having to cover it up. Because people really need to read that much into a desire to eat or drink something that tastes good/actually listen to your palette when it says that you do or don’t like something.

There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit and/or hurt you when you eat them (cinnamon challenge anyone?). Oddly, putting oneself in situations that require pain or discomfort is seen as good and manly and powerful and strong, whereas actually doing things you enjoy is seen as girly (unless it’s eating a steak which gets a pass because killing things and eating their flesh is also manly). And for that reason, eating things that are sweet is considered feminine. It’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.

Food is an important cultural signifier. We use it to communicate our values (see veganism and vegetarianism), to communicate our in-groups (through ethnic food or family traditions), to bond with each other (group meals), and to communicate how we fit into the world (eating disorders are a good example of this, but many people choose their food to signify what kind of a person they are). We don’t often look to food consciously as a way to reveal our prejudices or assumptions, but it’s woven into every day of our lives (even when we’re not eating it).

As someone who has spent nearly five years spending the majority of their time thinking about food, I have found that what we choose to eat says a lot more about what we think than we might at first believe. Which means that this phenomenon of saying that sweet things are girly and because they’re girly we shouldn’t drink them or we should be horribly ashamed to drink them probably says more about American culture than what it appears at face value.

It says that acting “sweet” is covering things up, but it’s also feminine. It says that no one should want to be like that because it’s weak and it’s fake, but I guess if you’re cute and girly enough you can get away with it (but probably only if you have a big, beer drinking man with you). But it also says that if you’re sweet and pink and drink things with an umbrella, then you’re not to be taken seriously. You can go sit on the porch while the big kids talk.

I’ve seen this happen in an internalized misogyny kind of way too: women who refuse to drink anything but straight bourbon because they’re convinced it makes them look more “serious”. Women who feel like they  need to learn how to drink beer because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously when they go out with coworkers or go to networking events. Because we have to signal with what we put into our bodies that we are not weak: we can tolerate discomfort or bitterness. We can like it. We can be “one of the boys”.

And yet no one seems to question it. No one seems to feel any need to mention the fact that pushing people to consume things that they actually find horribly disgusting is a fairly harmful norm to be teaching (yes, do that thing you hate because it will show that you’re one of the guys!), and that it all stems from sexist notions that things which are pleasant are feminine and thus to be derided.

Fuck that noise. It is strong to know what I like and to listen to my likes and dislikes. There is nothing weak about doing things that feel nice. There’s nothing weak about things coded feminine. And guess what? Even men should be allowed to do things that they like and which are utterly frivolous. It might seem silly to start with food. That might seem like it’s unimportant, or not really making a change. But we eat every day and the ways we behave around food can easily translate into other, larger actions. I will make no apologies about what I like, and I encourage others to do the same. I feel no need to force myself to drink beer in order to learn to like it, and if men can’t respect me because I prefer a hard cider that’s their own damn sexist fault.

Now excuse me, I have a mocha to buy. Maybe I’ll stick a tiny umbrella in it.

Cross posted from We Got So Far To Go.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. This is so very true–thanks for bringing it up for our consideration.

    As a side note, one of the things that my husband and I bonded over early during dating was that we both like our tea and coffee SUPER sweet. He also only really likes sweet wines (another thing that gets sneered at). Interestingly, he’s a big, burly guy, and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone give him guff–apart from his mother, who worries about his sugar consumption. ;-)

  2. I see the argument, and I certainly agree with the idea that these food choices shouldn’t be connected with masculinity or femininity, but there is value to acquiring a taste that isn’t pleasurable at first. Food is how we learn many lessons, as you point out, and when you teach a kid to look past a strong initial flavor and try a food again, maybe they’ll learn to give Shakespeare a second shot, despite the stuffy language. But it’s also important to teach them that if they want to watch Spongebob sometimes, that’s ok too.

  3. A few years ago, Burger King had an ad called “I am Man”. It demonstrates all of these stereotypes. But it’s just more evidence of, for lack of a better term/if you don’t mind me saying so, a cultural eating disorder.

    What happened to eating for pleasure?

  4. Yep, happens with beer and wine too. I like sweet wines and beers that don’t make your face try to crawl into itself and it’s seen as wimpy. I feel like saying eff you, I like honey in my whiskey and you’re not paying for it so piss off.

    1. I dislike sweet wines A LOT. I can’t stand them. Ugh they are so gross. And I dislike sweet and sour beers, anything with too much sweet fruit flavors or whatever. I want a beer that I feel in my face! The more bitter hops, the better.

      And I like strong coffees, and I prefer my tea strong and black as well.

      And I like whiskey a lot.

      I think I just like a lot of flavor, and sweet stuff tends to dampen that (as mentioned). Although too much bitter IPA can actually kill your taste buds for a while too (which I like!).

      But I REALLY don’t like dark chocolate! I find it rather disgusting. In fact, in my aunt’s fridge (where I’m living atm; well, her house, not her fridge lol), she has 3 bars of hershey’s milk chocolate. Last night I had a dream in which she handed me one. It was a very happy dream. Man, do I love me some creamy milk chocolate. I also like white chocolate. ;)

      I still want a german chocolate cake. With a mug of dark, black, delicious coffee to go with it. Nothing quite like a super-sweet desert and a really rich (non-sweet) coffee to go with it! Splash of milk, please, thank you. ;)

      I find that tastes can run wild. One can enjoy super sweet things AND bitter things. I know I do. Why limit yourself? It’s a beautiful world full of beautiful foods!

    2. I like wine mixed with some fruit juice. But I also like dry wines. You forgot mojitos. I love mojitos. In fact, a lot of mixed drinks are apparently for women. (Some shouldn’t surprise you, with names like fuzzy navel and sex on the beach.)

      I never got the idea of “man food” and “chick food”. Am I some sort of gastronomic hermaphrodite? Especially when I go a Chinese restaurant and get Mongolian beef and hot and sour soup. (The hot and sour soup contains tofu.)

  5. I think the overarching point is valid, but my personal anecdote is that I think sugary stuff just tastes gross. Especially sugar in coffee. I will only put cream in coffee if someone has brewed it incorrectly and it’s super bitter. But never sugar. Blech!

  6. I have never seen a man publicly begrudge a woman for her girly cocktail, but I see men making fun of themselves for ordering them, because they’re delicious some of the time. So I can see how this is a problem.

    Since I went black, I find the creamer & sugar make a pretty bad after taste. But I love bitter. I can eat my weight in cranberries, and I heart beer, which is a safer choice for a petite lady.

    This is not to say I don’t enjoy a mocha every couple of weeks, but there are people who order one every morning and then complain that they are getting fat and going broke, and that’s when I tell them to change coffee habits.

    I pride myself on eating spicy foods with gusto as my white, male companion sits across from me sweating and wiping his nose to a milder flavor. Why do you do this to yourself, men? Nobody’s impressed! Hairy chests are out anyway.

  7. I take your points about sweetness and femininity, and sure, you should eat what you want. But I sense a strong note of skepticism that anyone actually *like* “manly” things like black coffee, beer, or whiskey. As someone who routinely refuses to be shamed about my preferences (I like a lot of light beers like Miller, for instance), I can assure you that there is authentic love of these things.

    Some of the pressure to move away from sweet things and experiment with more challenging tastes has little to nothing to do with gender norms and more to do with expanding your horizons. If that’s not your thing, that’s fine, but I am legitimately happy about all the times I stepped out of my comfort zone, tried new things and learned to appreciate them on their own terms. For instance, I used to hate both seafood and eggs. I’ve since learned to love both, though I try not to overdo it on the seafood for ethical reasons. Whiskey used to gross me out. Now I really like it. I definitely don’t order it to show off, though. I tend not to order it at all, in fact, since there are other things I prefer.

    Anyway, I agree that these pressures exist. But there’s an entirely non-offensive set of reasons to experiment with unusual or bitter foods.

    1. Well put, Amanda. But there can also a fine line between encouraging people to train their tastes and shaming them for having different preferences than your own. I definitely know people who treat taste preferences as though they had a moral dimension: if you don’t like what they like, it’s not just a difference of taste, you are wrong. My partner gets this a lot; she’s strongly averse to intensely bitter flavors, and thus hates beer. She’s definitely given it a real try, and it’s just not something that fits her palate. (I’m the same way with olives.) But when we’re out drinking with friends, she still occasionally gets lectured by someone that doesn’t know her well that she just needs to experiment more and that she’ll learn to like it. It’s become a real pet peeve for her.

      I wonder how much of it is that sweet flavors are derided because of associations with femininity, and how much it is that slurs like “girly” are just a convenient way to put down someone whose preferences are different. I imagine it’s some of both.

  8. There’s something to be said, I think, for very intense experiences with food – I like espresso and whisky and spicy curries, myself. However, I would agree that food shouldn’t be something you suffer through but something you enjoy. I once infused a bottle of rum with habanero peppers and brought it to a party. Normally I and some other guests would do a shot or two of it, savour the delightful burn, and switch to something else, but a couple of guys there started daring each other to see who could hold it in their mouth longer. One of them actually had tears leaking from his eyes before he gave up, and I just didn’t see the point. This wasn’t a good-pain thing, it was just “I’m going to suffer to prove myself”.

  9. I used to love a lot of sugar in my coffee but the older I get the more I have learned to actually enjoy the variety of tastes that accompany different roastings of the beans and I much prefer unsweetened or black coffee now and almost never add sugar because that will mask the flavor. The same goes for wines. It took me many years to learn how to appreciate the multitude of flavors, including the bitterness of certain varietals and while I was introduced to sweet wines, I would likely never buy a bottle now. I think often as you grow, your tastes change and while you may indeed feel pressured to make certain choices early in your life because of culture and family and peer groups, those pressures dissipate as your experience and palate grows- if you open yourself up to experimentation.

    I also wonder if there is any science behind taste buds that points to this. Because I know a lot of people who hated seafood and things like black coffee until they were much older.

  10. I put flavored cream in my coffee and enough sweetener to choke a horse. Most wines are nasty, and most beers, and “acquired taste” is BS, and I am as manly as anyone. Anyone who brags about conquering an acquired taste just gets “so you fell for it, eh?”
    Also, I am in my forties, so if my taste buds just have to “mature”, they are way behind schedule.

    1. Just because “acquired taste” isn’t part of your experience, doesn’t mean it’s not part of others’. No one should be allowed to try to make you feel inferior for not liking black coffee, or wine, or beer, or whatever. But if someone is just expressing pride in having developed an appreciation for complex flavors, and you respond by implying that they’re just rubes who’ve fallen for something foolish, that’s really rude and dismissive. Lots of aesthetic experiences require experience or training to fully enjoy, and I think it’s generally a good thing when people develop their ability to appreciate and enjoy the things that interest them. I don’t really get ballet or opera, but I think it’s great that there are people that do.

  11. I like black coffee. I also like coffee that turns into a candy bar when it cools down. I’m unfortunately not able to drink either without a heart problem acting up, so I resort to tea.

    Now, tea in the South is frequently taken sweet, and people of all ages and genders can be found drinking tea that contains 100,000 grams of sugar per serving without any shame. Sweet tea has been, for some reason, normalized in the South in a way that sweet coffee and sweet mixed drinks have not.

    I’ve long since switched to a pricy green tea that I enjoy without any sweeteners, but I told a friend the other day that the correct way to make green tea is whatever way you best enjoy it. I do think that sugar overwhelms the flavor of the tea, but I had a friend once who liked the different flavors of straight hot water and to her adding tea overwhelms the flavor of the water.

    We load up on the flavor we most want to taste. It’s arbitrary to decide that “I want to taste tea” is superior to “I want to taste sugar” and “I want to taste water.”

  12. Even if I were to concede that it’s okay to put sugar and cream into coffee — and it’s not — FOUR OF EACH? 300 calories? All carbs? Philosophy degree? Mail order?

    Coffee is glorious and while I am an atheist, coffee is proof of God’s existence and his infinite love. Cream and sugar come from Satan.

    1. You are not the calorie police. Your opinion on coffee is not fact. Your jab at Olivia’s education is utterly uncalled-for, and just plain dickishness.

  13. It’s an interesting question. I think the idea of “I like what I like and screw everyone else” is a little besides the point. There is no question that coffee and wine and beer and all sorts of other things can be required tastes. I’ve only recently become very deeply in love with strong IPA beers. They are extremely bitter, and “gross” to someone who doesn’t drink beer, but wow are they good to me.

    The deeper question is why do we associate these things with “manliness” of “feminine tastes.” I love spicy food, IPA’s, and the driest wine. This may be “manly” but why? Frankly, a woman who drinks a strong beer can be quite attractive. Again, why? No great ideas, but I do think the better line of reasoning is figuring out why bland and sweet is associated with women while spicy and strong is associated with men. It makes no sense on its face, yet it seems to be a recurring pattern.

  14. As a parent who loves baking I’m always sad to see on how much goodness kids are missing out (especially boys) because the thing is wrongly gendered. I swear that my strawberry cupcakes are pure delight, but since the strawberries turn the topping pink many boys don’t even think about eating one.
    ‘Cause it’s for girls.
    I personally like milk in my coffee, whisk(e)y (no Bourbon!), dry red wines (no whites), an occasional stout (an acquired taste. Nobody likes their first guinness) and also tasty sweet cocktails. Every once in a while we will have a cocktail party with the kids where we experiment with crushed ice, juices, sirups and alcohol for the grown-ups.

    1. I liked my first guinness! but I’ve always liked stouts. I think it’s because I’ve always enjoyed coffee, and the flavors can be very similar. Now I find guiness too sweet, almost. It’s not complex enough for me. But it does go well with some high-quality vanilla ice cream!

      Oh, yeah, everyone: Get some really good vanilla ice cream and make beer floats. Coffee stouts go REALLY well with ice cream. There’s this raspberry ale (that wasn’t sweet) that was okay before ice cream, and DIVINE after.

      Some people would probably judge me for “ruining” beer with sweet ice cream, but omg. Beer floats are THE BOMB DIGGITY. and they are SO fun to experiment with. Don’t use overly-sweet beers, but experiment and have fun! BEER FLOATS FOR ALL!

      1. Damn it, now I’m jonesing for a Guinness.

        My problem with bitter beers is not really the bitterness, I like bitter sometimes, I love vinegar for example, I don’t like the flavor of hops to overwhelm the beer. I keep trying IPAs because everyone seems to adore them and I’ve had what range from meh to good god why would you let me drink that? And I can’t stand flavored beers either, someone gave me a shandy recently and I couldn’t imagine why anyone thought that was a good idea.

        I’ve got ice cream at home too, going to need to pick up a Guinness though, is chocolate ice cream acceptable do you think?

        1. Now that I read this, vinegar is more sour rather than bitter. But I love really dark chocolate which can deffinately be bitter-ish.

          Oh, and I once had a stout that had mint in it. It proved that I don’t love all stouts. :)

          1. I really like pickled EVERYTHING, but I REALLY don’t like sour beers, or sour-sweet beers. Although I’ve liked a few that were more balanced. I also don’t like shandy, and I am not one to enjoy flavored beer, although every now and again I’ll find something I like if it’s not sweet.

            I REALLY LOVE HEFS AND WHEAT BEERS! My dad, a lager lover through and through, likes them too, so anyone who tends toward lighter lagers should try a good wheat beer. Put an orange in it. Lots of flavor and a nice mouth feel, without being too heavy. Not bitter at all. Very refreshing on a hot day.

            I dislike dark chocolate a LOT but am in love with bitter IPA’s. Isn’t that weird? Milk chocolate all the way!

            Although I like dark chocolate when it’s with other stuff, like dark chocolate espresso beans, which you’d think were more bitter, but coffee has a unique, robust flavor.

          2. Also have you ever had a coffee stout? If you like stouts, and coffee, you will like it! Or coffee porters. Gaaah so good (…especially with ice cream). Wait, are porters and stouts the same thing? I don’t know enough about stouts or porters, it seems…

          3. Oh, I definitely like wheat beers and I love a good oatmeal stout as well. I think stouts and porters are both technically ales, but I’m not sure. I’ve never tried a coffee stout but I do love cream ales so I should try one.

            So, when is it time to go home?

        2. Actually, chocolate ice cream might go well with a stout! I’ve never tried it. I might pick up some vanilla ice cream too. Then you should expirement:

          One float with chocolate
          One float with vanilla
          One float with both!

          And then come back here and report. :D

          Also, mixing different beers together can be tasty as well. I can’t for the life of me remember any of the mixes my friend made up, but they were all very good. It might help you to mix a lighter Ale with a bitter IPA….:)

        1. Beer and lemonade? YUM, that sounds like a shandy!

          What is your opinion on the USain custom of serving our Hefeweizen with a wedge of lemon?

  15. I think that your post here hits on some valid points but you miss a dimension of interest regarding sugar. It has been my experience (as others have mentioned) that many people find their taste “dries out” as they get older. I do not believe this is some change in the taste buds, instead I believe it’s more a matter of a change in focus on what they want to taste.

    I find that sugar masks the taste of many complex flavors, and that sugar is almost invariably a monotone — and thus rather boring — flavor. I have such a dry preference that I tend to ignore most deserts, as I find them very cloying (much to the chagrin of my very Southern in-laws). To me it tastes like eating sugar from the bowl. It’s nigh-on impossible to become immersed in the subtle flavors in wine, whiskey, coffee, if your taste sensation is saturated with sugar. Fruits and chocolate flavors that pair well with sugar can modify that sweet taste somewhat, but many other flavors just disappear. To visualize this imagine whether you could savor cheese or milk or oranges if they had heaps of salt in them. All you’d taste is salt. Sugar can be that way with many flavors.

    That’s not “girly” or “manly” to say (although it’s true many sexists state it that way). It’s just a desire (on the part of someone with dry taste) to investigate that deeper experience with being distracted by sugar. Unfortunately sugar sells, so many things are saturated with it, which I blame for leading many to never experience flavors without it.

    I think you straw-man those of us like that undeservedly. Saying: “There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit” or “[i]t’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.” Yes, people like this exist, and yes people do eat things that taste like shit to show off, but I would claim that the vast majority of people who prefer dry tastes (especially in wine and liquor served neat or on ice) do not treat others that way. Being lumped in with the jocks isn’t very fair to us, and claiming everything I like is “shit” is also quite uncharitable.

    What I DO think happens here, and that SHOULD happen, is that we sometimes try to encourage young adults to move past the taste for sugar so they can discover the subtleties of dry wine, straight whiskey, etc. I have two adult children, a son and a daughter, and I never suggested that their taste drying out was somehow gendered. I also never suggested there was something wrong with them if they didn’t have that experience. What I DID do is tell them that if they tried things that weren’t as sweet, and gave it some time, a whole new world of subtetly and joy in taste would open for them. My son and I have treasured the shared bottle of peaty scotch from Islay many times, an experience that I treasure so much it hurts. My daughter is starting down that path at her own pace. It’s a joy for me that I helped them experience it.

    And if anyone claims there’s something wrong with pushing your children to go outside their sugary comfort zone, then I ask why it was OK to do that to them when they were 3 with respect to brocolli? I’m still their father, and my reasoning has not changed: Encouraging them to move past sugar is a way to expand their taste and thus their joy in life.

    1. Encourage your children all you want! I think that’s a fine idea.

      But when it comes to other people? Be careful. It’s okay to suggest they try something, and explain why they may like it, but if someone says no, then just stop. Don’t push them. You will come off as condescending. You’ll BE condescending. Adults can make their own decisions about what they eat, and while it’s perfectly fine to suggest things, or make things for them to try, etc., don’t be an asshole about it.

    2. Encourage your children all you want! I think that’s a fine idea.

      But when it comes to other people? Be careful. It’s okay to suggest they try something, and explain why they may like it, but if someone says no, then just stop. Don’t push them. You will come off as condescending. You’ll BE condescending. Adults can make their own decisions about what they eat, and while it’s perfectly fine to suggest things, or make things for them to try, etc., don’t be an asshole about it.

    3. Oh, and that’s not a strawman, btw. Even you said “yes people like that exist.” But you’re using that fallacy incorrectly, I think.

  16. I agree that there is a lot of weird gendering when it comes to food (which becomes even more apparent when you spend time in cultures that tend not to gender food), but an important element here is that while sweetness in some circumstances is coded as being feminine, it is much more strongly coded as being childish. I’m actually really surprised that this point has only come up indirectly in this discussion (Corey mentioning tastes drying out over time).

    I think what we’re seeing with sweet drinks and coffee is a secondary gendering as feminine of childish characteristics (i.e. strongly preferring sweetness to bitterness) that persist into adulthood. Which in itself is hugely problematic but slightly different from the kind of gendering that happens with salad (which is not coded as childish, but rather related to concerns of body-image/sexual attractiveness).

    1. This, exactly. I lived in China for two years, and sweetness is strongly coded as childish, but not consistently gendered. A preference for sweets in adults is an idiosyncracy that can be found equally often (and with a similar range of emotional affects, from pride to embarrassment) in men and women. Spiciness is as often gendered feminine as it is masculine (a particular kind of searingly hot kebab loaded with Szechuan pepper, for example, was a popular “girly” afternoon snack when I was there, though other spicy dishes weren’t gendered at all).

      The preference for sweets in childhood does actually, I believe, have some biological basis (probably related to neophobia in toddlers and helping to minimize inexperienced children eating toxic substances). The association of femininity with childishness is one massive cultural process. And to bypass the debate about “acquired taste” for a moment (personally, I have a number of acquired tastes I now love, as well as a number of other tastes you couldn’t pay me to try and acquire, so whatever), it is problematic in itself that men are disproportionately expected to relish painful experiences even when those aren’t beneficial, and that women are disproportionately NOT expected to rise to challenges and learn to like things that are seen as “difficult” (from black coffee, to math and science…), even when it would be worth it. Whether or not you think that acquiring tastes is a worthwhile process in general, it’s pretty clear that the sexist dichotomy exists, to the detriment of both individual men and individual women.

  17. Yeah, ordering a salad and a diet soda gets me weird looks especially if I am around macho-type guys. Like my brother in law looks at any guy who would order anything other than a steak and a beer as a wimp. Often, my wife and I will go to dinner and I will order something light and she will order a steak and the server usually puts the food in front of the wrong person.

    1. This happens to my spouse and I, too. He usually gets the chicken or fish while I get the pork or beef, but I’ll be damned if most servers don’t give us each the wrong food come serving time.

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