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It’s Not ‘Just Cooking’; There’s Massive Emotional Labour In Getting Food On The Table

Traditionally the kitchen is women's responsibility, which includes emotional and physical labour, but they do not have an equal right to the eating of this food.

Traditionally the kitchen is women’s responsibility, which includes emotional and physical labour, but they do not have an equal right to the eating of this food.

Food is a pleasure which everyone loves to indulge in. The pandemic and lockdown has been a time to reconfigure food habits and everyday eating, and social media played an important role in this process by giving new meanings to the way we eat.

Eating involves several practices and norms, and is hugely affected by one’s gendered way of life. The various ways women had to negotiate their way around food consumption habits of families was seen during this corona crisis to increase the load on women disproportionately in getting food home, and preparing it to get it on the table, especially with members mostly at home and needing to be catered to differently. Add to this the fact that many women were also working from home, as well as doing child care and other care work.

The World Economic Forum Report which was announced depicted the pandemic’s unreasonable impact on women.

Gendered expectations from women to be the primary cook in the home

The pandemic and the stay at home dynamics have reshaped the way people cook and eat, and the frequency with which men and women cook.

Historically, cooking has been a prerogative of women and a responsibility which remains till today. Due to several societal changes the public private dichotomy has been changing in case of women, but the lockdown and working from home has meant that women carry a greater load of work in the kitchen. Women cook more than men and there have been huge disparities in the cooking patterns.

Women are also generally more prone to indulge in binge eating as a form coping mechanism. As immunity became the new buzzword in these times women slowly became more focused on healthy eating, and the sudden burst of cooking channels was the light in these darker times. The evidential shift from the daily food to novel organic immune-booster foods in the kitchen was a new angle in the food production and consumption patterns.

Traditionally in many communities, women are supposed to consume lesser than men. These gender differences are found in the eating habits of many women, and along with physical health problems, this can be a threat to their mental health, leading to stress and suicide, and in pandemic it has been enormous. The year marked a spike in hunger and women were more susceptible to it, and India is facing new waves of hunger and poverty, as a result of which food insecurity for women increased to 10 percent compared to men.

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Women being the permanent cooks have been suffering the double burden of cooking and work at home cultures due to the COVID induced lockdown.

Greater responsibility for the food but fewer rights to eat it?

Globally women are burdened with multiple responsibilities cooking becomes an inseparable part of her lives. Today, women continue to be the primary care givers and juggle responsibilities.

The shift in intra-household dynamics with the pandemic dragging more women into care responsibilities have changed their eating habits. The rise in foodie chefs, trying out new recipes, roof top parties, and many more cooking practices were viewed during this period of time. The new trends in cooking like eating good and clean food, and mindful eating were somehow the positive aspect of women’s cooking habits.

The pandemic also has challenged the way women shop and and the way food is organised. As restaurants are closed, women bear the brunt of cooking meals.

According to Vox reports, Sarah Bowen, a Sociology professor at North Carolina State University and co-author of the book Pressure Cooker has said that cooking is not just about chopping, stirring and sautéing, but the cognitive labour of getting food on the table has  increased. The demands and pressures of cooking have increased tremendously, for which women bear the brunt. Several research studies show that the cognitive labour of household work, like making grocery lists and modes and methods of cooking, is more gendered, and that women do more of it in any household set-up.

Traditional gender stereotypes in eating food have somehow been heightened in these times, where women end up eating lesser due to cultural norms and staying at home situations, and these existing inequalities are holding them back in the job market. Staying at home has become a problem for women, pushing them further back into doing most of the work, and also normalising their eating less.

‘Women in the kitchen’ has always been a thing

‘Women in the kitchen’ and the femininity associated with it has been around since ages, and not only in this pandemic. Women have been a major contributor in the kitchen during the great depression and World Wars. In India during the Bengal famine and the Partition also, innovative cooking habits were seen as a response to the circumstances, and women were again known to be disproportionately the ones responsible for organising food.

It is important to recognise the greater role of women in cooking, as the care givers, and juggling all this within additional duties with the lockdown. Their role in cooking should be given adequate respect, and in the eating of this food also there should not be any discrimination as they have an equal right to consume food as their male counterpart gets.

The one good this is the rise in creativity in cooking, and women’s participation in online recipe groups has empowered the women to a measurable degree, despite the gender unequal practices.

Image source: a still from The Great Indian Kitchen

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About the Author

NUPUR PATTANAIK

Dr.Nupur Pattanaik, Teaching Sociology, Department of Sociology Central University of Odisha, Koraput. She specialises in gender, migration, tribal and labour sociology. read more...

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