And because it’s healthy, dainty, diet-y, light, less-than, the salad has always been associated with women.
According to the book Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro, salads took off during the early 20th century, the era of home economics and scientific cooking. Because of their fussy, labor-intensive, and decorative nature, they were associated with refinement, wealth, and femininity. Some of the things categorized as “salad” at that time actually weren’t dainty or healthy at all, like “egg yolks mashed with mayonnaise, formed into balls, and rolled in cottage cheese,” or Jell-O salads (which signified wealth because you needed a refrigerator to chill them). But their actual composition didn’t matter so much as their label as salad: “Despite the often hefty ingredients that were assembled in its name,” Shapiro writes, “the salad course never lost its original image as a fragile, leafy interlude that was something of a nutritional frill. … Salads were perceived as ladies’ food, reflecting the image of frailty attached to the women who made them.”
Salads today would probably be classified as a health food before a “ladies’ food,” but research shows that people tend to think of healthy food as feminine, anyway. “Americans, in particular, strongly associate healthy or light foods, such as salad, chicken, and yogurt, with women, and unhealthy or heavy foods, such as beef, potatoes, and beer, with men,” reads a study by Luke Zhu, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Manitoba, and his colleagues. That study found that “both men and women preferred unhealthy foods with masculine packaging and healthy foods with feminine packaging.”
Why the division? Bentley suggests it could have something to do with cartoonish associations with hunter-gatherer days, where men went out and hunted mastodons while women gathered plants. (Though in reality, the division of labor was hardly that simple.) “You can’t draw a direct line between the way we think of salad and meat and the way hunter-gatherers did—that would be silly and problematic. But there’s no question that some of these ideas still hold over in our society,” Bentley says.
There’s also the more insidious truth that, as Bentley puts it, “very early on … the pressure to be thin and to look a certain way steers women in a direction to lighter foods.” And not only are women supposed to eat these foods; they’re supposed to love eating them. See: every yogurt commercial ever. And who could forget “Women Laughing Alone With Salad”?
There’s been some cultural pushback on the idea that women should eat daintily to be feminine, but unfortunately, much of it has come in the form of suggesting that, instead, women should eat like men, to be cool.
A 2007 New York Times article titled “Be Yourselves, Girls, Order the Rib-Eye” notes that “In an earlier era, conventional dating wisdom for women was to eat something at home alone before a date, and then in company order a light dinner to portray oneself as dainty and ladylike. For some women, that is still the practice.” But now, the Times reported, women were ordering steaks to portray the opposite image.