Husband and I are having lunch at a café, as we often do. We’ve brought laptops, but they’re still in our bags for now. We’ve ordered coffee, and food. The waitress trots over holding two coffees: a frothy cappucino, sprinkled with chocolate, and a long macchiato, dark and silky black with a thin ribbon of milk along the top.
She sets the long macchiato in front of Husband, and the cappucino in front of me.
Husband and I laugh, and swap. The waitress laughs, and apologises for the mistake.
This happens all the time. At every café we go to. I actually find it hilarious; the idea that a strong dark coffee is a manly drink and that adding froth and chocolate sprinkles to a drink somehow makes it more feminine, as though some strange chemistry of chromosomes, hormones, genitalia (or not?), and sexual identity affect one’s taste buds profoundly. The mysterious gender binary of coffee. You think it ends with the toy aisle in Target? With steel-toed boots and construction hats? With nursing and teacher biases? God, no. No, it’s so much worse than that. The patriarchy has taken our coffee, people. Rise the fuck up! Wave your flag of rebellion! SIEZE YOUR COFFEE OF PREFERENCE.
Yeah, as Rebel Yells go, that might not be one.
But read on.
The food comes out. For reasons described elsewhere, I generally eat keto. My gut, it appears, doesn’t absorb carbohydrate properly, and this leads to an abundance of upsetting symptoms.
The waitress (and due purely to the gender dynamics of the service industry, it’s usually a waitress, but waiters do exactly the same thing) comes out with two meals: a delightfully prepared lamb salad, and a plate heaped with scrambled eggs, bacon and – if we’re very lucky – haloumi.
She sets the lamb salad in front of me, and the pile of protein and fat in front of Husband.
Once again, we laugh, and swap.
Women eat salad. Men eat piles of protein and fat.
This happens all the time. It happens everywhere. And, again, I do find it kind of hilarious. Don’t think that I’m in any way saying it’s a huge deal.
But I am what I am, and I do like to unpack things, so let’s unpack this.
A long macchiato is seen as a serious coffee. For people who take their coffee seriously. In the Melbourne hipster coffee culture, a long macchiato garners you respect! Not as much a short black or espresso, of course, but a bit of barista cred ends up in your folio.
By contrast, a cappucino is a frothy, frivolous sort of coffee. It’s had the taste altered enough that some people question whether you really like coffee at all.
Alright, that’s a stretch. It is actual dialogue that I’ve encountered, but it’s more funny than anything else.
Let’s get to the food, because that is the one that bothers me.
Here’s the stereotype:
Women eat salad. Women eat salad because they’re trying to be healthy, because women care more about their health. Or women eat salad because they’re trying to lose weight, or watch their weight, because all women are trying to lose weight. Or anxious about fat. And they won’t let that go even to go to a café for a fun lunch, which does make me wonder why they’re ordering cappucinos.
To be clear, in case my tone isn’t crystal: I do not in any way support this stereotype. I’m guessing that a lot of people, regardless of gender, order the salad because they like salad. Husband is a bit of a salad fan. He’s quite selective. He has all our local cafes carefully pegged as to whether he likes how they do salad or not. There’s good salad and boring salad and salad with quinoa (which, according to Husband, is The Devil). He’s not eating it because he’s trying to lose weight. He’s eating it because he likes salad. Also, he’s drunk some of my keto Kool-aid, and most salad tends to be pretty keto-friendly.
I, in fact, hate salad. I cannot eat salad. My sensory processing issues mean that any salad-like substances I attempt to ingest will return to the outside world in short order via the gag reflex.
The idea that I might voluntarily be eating a plate full of delicious protein and fat (and let us not forget that haloumi might be involved, if I am lucky)? It’s weird. It’s unexpected. It’s unfeminine. And it makes wait staff (at least, wait staff who are not familiar with me) blink and pause for a moment. Even if it is just me in the café and Husband is nowhere to be seen.
Here’s the flip stereotype:
Men don’t care about their health. Men eat artery-clogging delicious food because paying attention to their body state in any way other than pumping iron is somehow showing weakness; it’s soft; men don’t eat salad. Because no self-respecting man actually gives a crap.
This one feels a bit more complicated, probably because I’m on Fitocracy and I constantly see buff gym bros discussing nutritional planning and swapping meal prep tips, so maybe it’s more of a sub-type and a bit less universal. I have seen older men ordering the salad and crossing their arms over their chest and staring at me defiantly and talking about their health, as though daring me to criticise. Perhaps it’s generational. I certainly grew up with my dad mocking joggers and so on, but then, it was the 80s; that was fairly standard, as I recall.
Also, eggs and bacon don’t clog your arteries, and salads aren’t always the “healthy” choice, and it’s obviously a wee bit more complicated than that, but that’s an entirely different story to be told another time.
So what is all this?
This is ridiculous, that’s what it is. If anyone wants to pooh-pooh and say what a silly thing it is to get upset about, let me repeat again: I’m not particularly upset. In the actual moment, I do find it kind of funny. I don’t take offense or think anything less of wait staff for applying what is probably a perfectly reasonable Bayesian heuristic to their serving habits. It’s fine.
What I think is interesting is the plethora of underlying assumptions that lead to this behaviour, and even what may well be a correct pattern of food and coffee ordering. I think these little assumptions and patterns are worth thinking about, as great examples of unconscious bias. Why do we make these assumptions? Are they correct? Are women more likely to order the salad? Are they more likely to order the cappucino? If that’s the case, why would that be?
Is it self-reinforcing? That’s another question. If a woman or a man finds that the wait staff continually swap the food around, do they start to feel uncomfortable, and order something different next time? There are a lot of very shy, self conscious people out there who aren’t comfortable violating gender norms in any way – do they end up missing out on their favourite foods and coffees due to an understandable mistake?
I think it’s easier just to find it funny, but that’s true of a lot of things.
Meanwhile, having written this, I believe it’s now time for me to go make myself another espresso.