green lettuces on a white plate with bean sprouts, a cili pepper, and an orange fruit

Why Sad Salads Are No Laughing Matter: An Interview with Emily Contois

Whether you’ve seen The Hairpin’s 2011 “Women Laughing Alone with Salad,” or not, you’re in for a treat. Emily Contois analyzes this well-known photo essay in a recently published chapter, “Laughing Alone with Salad: Nutrition-Based Inequity in Women’s Diet and Wellness Media,” as part of Food for Thought: Nourishment, Culture, Meaning, edited by Simona Stano and Amy Bentley. Emily argues that wellness media—including stock photographs of women over-joyfully eating salad—create hegemonic eating norms in specifically gendered ways. As such, nutrition is an important lens through which to view the creation and sustainment of patriarchy, white supremacy, class distinctions, and normative body ideals. I recently interviewed Emily about this project.

Evan: What inspired you to write this chapter?

Emily: I remember seeing this photo essay when it came out, and it hit me hard as a woman eater but also as someone who’d worked in worksite wellness programming. We literally used one of these stock photos on the cover of a workplace salad bar guide we’d developed. I still feel awful about that. Since then, I’ve taught this photo essay a couple of times with college students and have given a couple of talks on it too. These images always get a laugh, but for women in the audience, there’s also a note of frustrated and resigned recognition. This isn’t about just a sub-genre of stock photos, but about how women are represented across wellness media, in particular, and media, more broadly. Part of what I tried to do in my book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture is to analyze these gendered dynamics relationally. By studying men and masculinity, I could actually reveal quite a bit about women and femininity, and about gender itself, including beyond the binary. I had a section on this photo essay in the book that was edited out, but I still wanted to explore it. I was excited that I could do that in this chapter.

Evan: As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about Ron Swanson from the TV show Parks and Recreation: the mustachioed meat eater that by his very existence as a character mocks such rigid and toxic masculine ideals. Do you think that character development was intentional to this kind of gendered analysis?

A meme featuring Leslie Knope and Chris Trager from Parks and Rec asking Ron Swanson if he wants a salad, to which Ron replies I am not a rabbit, so no
“Would you like some salad, Ron?” (Pinterest)

Emily: I start the chapter by unpacking one of the most repeated refrains about gendered food: “Salad is feminine. Steak is masculine.” I’m constantly returning to Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat in which she writes, drawing from Hegel, “Women may eat plants, since each is placid, but active men need animal meat.”[1] It’s a foundational assumption about binary gender, food, and power—and you can almost imagine Ron saying something like that! The magic of how his character works in Parks and Rec as a playful foil to Leslie Knope is how, as you write, he mocks these rigid and toxic masculine ideals even as they are written into his dialogue.

Evan: Your chapter discusses gendered marketing of salads/vegetables and meat. This made me wonder, have you seen any gendered marketing for vegan meat substitutes?

Emily: Yes! There’s still an enduring belief that masculinity requires meat, and so as vegan meat products attempt to capture a larger audience, their advertising engages these ideas about gender and, unfortunately, not always in transformative or progressive ways. For example, masculine archetypes are often invoked in commercials for fast food vegan burgers, such as in this Burger King and this Carl’s Jr. commercial. Each brand takes a different approach, but both deploy the multi-layered, symbolic meaning of cowboys, the west, agricultural life, and masculinity.

Evan: You explain in your chapter that your student came up with the term “sad salads.” Can you briefly explain the meaning behind sad salads, and explain how sad salad imagery reinforces gender stereotypes?

Emily: As my student intended it, a “sad salad” contains the bare minimum of fulfilling ingredients and nutrition: just lettuce (often iceberg with maybe a few leafs of romaine), water-filled vegetables, and low or no-calorie dressing. There’s no happiness in these salads because they lack the flavor punch and nutritional heft of any meat or cheese or beans or seeds or nuts, and so on. Instead, these salads ascribe to “negative calorie” lore, a diet culture remnant in which a food purportedly has so few calories and so much fiber that by the time your body is done digesting it, you’ve actually burned calories. “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” depicts mostly sad salads in small bowls, often gracefully clutched midair. Forks typically serve as functional props, as these waifish and mostly white women perform the pursuit of thinness through a tightly controlled appetite. But the kicker is that these women don’t just consume these empty salads. They do so joyfully, in a state of nearly orgasmic unconsumption, expressed through open-mouthed, perfectly toothy laughter.

Evan: How does race fit into the discussion of sad salads?

Emily: In this genre of stock photography and throughout wellness media, posing with a sad salad is a staged performance of happy, healthy consumption, on the one hand, and of white straight femininity, on the other. These images (and our broader eating culture) represent both aspects as interrelated and as aspirational ideals. Although women of color can certainly be represented in media as aspirationally healthy, it’s often expected that health be performed in these “white” ways, including thin, lean, young bodies, plates full of vegetables, and a particular open-mouthed laughter, often performed with one’s head thrown back and eyes blissfully closed. Bo Burnham’s Inside came out after I wrote this chapter, but he captures this well in “White Woman’s Instagram.” This visual style for representing consumption and health is deeply gendered and racialized, as well as classed and heterosexualized.

Evan: The last part of your chapter examines the cultural shift from diet culture to wellness and issues of class in both. This made me think about foods that are heavily subsidized and therefore less expensive, yet often less nutritious. What are the class implications of the wellness industry?

Emily: The wellness industry perfectly encapsulates “healthism,” what Robert Crawford described as the ways that the middle class (particularly in the U.S.) venerates health as a deeply moralized super-value.[2] Health becomes something to be enthusiastically pursued as part of performing, sustaining, and protecting one’s class status and distinction. At the same time, healthier food is often more expensive in terms of actual cost or with respect to the extra time, skill, and energy to procure and prepare it in our current food system. I continue to be inspired by Charlotte Biltekoff’s argument that the cultural politics of health and “eating right” demand that “good” eaters not just follow dietary advice, but embody it; to not just be someone who eats kale, but someone who likes it and wants it.[3] In gendered terms, I’m fascinated by how that nutritional cultural demand collides with commodity feminism. Remember how for a hot minute a certain kind of “enlightened” woman consumer owned an organic cotton T-shirt with KALE emblazoned on it front and center—or on a coffee mug or a tote bag? Along with gender and race, these class-based distinctions are part of how and why ideas about health can become so quickly commodified and remain culturally entrenched.

Evan: If you had an extra ten pages to work with, what direction might you have taken the chapter?

Emily: I’m still fascinated by the transition from yesterday’s diet culture and sad salads to today’s wellness culture and “power bowls.” As I write in the chapter, in the 2010s sad salads fell away and salads were resignified as powerful, fulfilling, and a bit less gendered, as they populated fast casual restaurant menus, blogs, Pinterest boards, and Instagram feeds. In Diners, Dudes, and Diets, I proposed the concept of “zero” to explain the masculinized version of the feminized notion of “diet.” According to this principle, salads for women had long emphasized what they lacked, as in low calories or no fat, while salads (and other “healthy” foods) for men would endorse what they contained, such as protein or particular vitamins or minerals. Both approaches are what Gyorgy Scrinis calls “nutricentric,” as they emphasize food components rather than a more rich and complex sense of foodways, but they’re also distinctly gendered and oppressive to women.[4] The shift to power bowls rewrote the cultural (and gendered) meaning of salads—though power bowls often promoted “superfoods” and so-called “ancient” grains, which further demonstrates how wellness trends reinforce social hierarchies with global implications.[5] I’m continuing to unpack these questions in my new research project, Like An Athlete, which examines how everyday American life has been reframed over the past fifty years in competitive, athletic terms, at the same time that the social safety net is weaker than ever, employment is more precarious, and healthcare remains inequitable.

So I’ll be writing well more than an extra ten pages on some of these questions!

Notes

  1. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, 25th anniversary ed. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 15–16.
  2. Robert Crawford, “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life,” International Journal of Health Services: Planning, Administration, Evaluation 10, no. 3 (1980): 365–88.
  3. Charlotte Biltekoff, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health (Duke University Press, 2013).
  4. Gyorgy Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice (Columbia University Press, 2013).
  5. For more on “superfoods,” see: Jessica Loyer and Christine Knight, ”Selling the ‘Inca Superfood’: Nutritional Primitivism in Superfoods Books and Maca Marketing,” Food, Culture & Society 21, no. 4(2018): 449–67; Tina Sikka, “The Contradictions of a Superfood Consumerism in a Postfeminist, Neoliberal World,” Food, Culture & Society 22, no. 3 (2019): 354–75.

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