Friday, 12 February 2010

Feeling sinful?

[originally published at The Samosa, 13.02.10]

I have a confession to make: I am indifferent to chocolate in all its forms. This makes me abberant as a female, because everyone knows it’s been scientifically proven that all women love chocolate. The presence or promise of chocolate makes us go gooey inside: we melt, simper and attempt to fellate small sticks of foil-wrapped refined carbohydrate whilst a slurpy jazz soundtrack drones in the background.

On Valentine’s Day, the zenith of the candyman’s calendar, we women love chocolate harder and more urgently than usual. Unless a man buys us chocolate, we will weep tears of rejection into our pillows. Even women at the peak of their careers obligingly to confess to craving one thing above everything else: “I just love any excuse to eat chocolate, really…eating chocolate is my whole way of life,” said celebrated actress Anne Hathaway, promoting her forthcoming film, Valentines Day. Forget financial or professional gain; forget personal and emotional fulfilment;w hat every woman truly wants from life and love is a box of cut-price truffles.

“I think there’s a very real sense in which women are supposed to say ‘chocolate’ whenever someone asks them what they want,” writes Dr Nina Power in her recent book, One Dimensional Woman [London: Zero Books, 2009]. “It symbolises a naughty virginity that gets its kicks only from a widely-available mucky cloying substitute…the kind of perky passivity that feminized capitalism just loves to reward with a bubble bath and some crumbly cocoa solids.”

Chocolate is the one form of female desire that is positively sanctioned in the schema of corporate feminine identity. The sickly, sugary stuff is promoted as a legitimate excuse for the expression of pleasure, of selfishness, of lust. Chocolate is ‘sinful’ – but not really. It is explicitly associated with sex, and touted both as an aphrodisiac and as a direct replacement for sexual enjoyment. The inference can be subtle, as in the infamously phallic Flake advertisemets, or the Milk Tray narrative of a lusty adventurer risking life and limb to swoop into a lady’s bedroom with a box of mid-range caramel centres available in any garage. It can also be explicit: a recent survey, helpfully commissioned by Cadbury’s, claimed that 52% of women preferred eating chocolate to having sex. The reason? “Chocolate never disappoints”.

Cadbury’s International Science Director, Paul Hebblethwaite, offered the following rigorous analysis: "It's not just the endorphins -as it melts in the mouth at body temperature, chocolate's creamy texture and unique aroma hit all of the body's senses, heightening the sensuality of the experience." With a chocolate market worth £5billion in the UK alone, it’s surprising that we aren’t constantly dissolving in paroxysms of uncontrollable lust. My own sciencetastic experiments have drawn the conclusion that the brief sugar rush and tacky aftertaste of most commercial chocolate normally leaves one feeling merely a little bit full and a little bit sick.

Chocolate orthodoxy holds that the stuff is emotionally rather than bodily nutritious. Upsettingly large quantities of women self-define as 'chocoholics', and there are even support groups for women who have become physically and psychologically addicted to chocolate - an understandable phenomenon in a culture saturated with messages that chocolate is both a permitted conduit for the expression and acceptance of desire and that rare, precious thing - a way of being kind to yourself.

Being high-calorie, high-fat and almost entirely void of nutritive value, chocolate runs dangerously close to violating the other golden rule of commercial femininity – the imperative to get rid of one’s insulating fat layer at any and, indeed, every cost – but marketing executives have found a solution to this problem. Last Christmas, billboards across the land proclaimed Goodwill to all women : not only was consuming a KitKat Senses the ultimate in chaste, cheeky decadence, at only 165 calories a stick you, madam, could experience the corporate sanctioned female pleasure principle whilst continuing to take up as little space as humanly possible.

All of this heady indulgence comes with a cost. Whilst the Fairtrade movement is gaining currency, almost half the chocolate consumed in the West still comes from Ivory Coast, where child slavery and forced labour on cocoa farms is rife. It is estimated that in Ghana and Ivory coast there are 6.3 million children under 14 working in cocoa production, many of them victims of human trafficking working in brutal conditions. Go on, take a bite, you know you want to.

This Valentine's day, I have asked my boyfriend to exempt himself from the hordes of confused-looking men shambling through Thorntons in search of the key to women’s desires. I'd prefer a conversation to a box of chocolates: what I want from love and life is infinitely more complex and multifarious than a slice of dubiously-sourced, semiotically overloaded candies can provide. On the other hand, maybe I should just shut up and stick a Flake in it.


  1. Oh gods this, so much this. You put it all perfectly. And it echoes something that's been bothering me a lot this week, as the V-Day craziness sees all those lurid chocolate adverts take over the tv. (And diamonds? Wtf? Why am I supposed to crave - nay, *demand* - a deeply unethical shiny bit of rock at a ludicrous price? Give me a book on geology any day; *that* I can get excited about. :-))

    There is something so offensive in this idea that women are supposed to desire chocolate (while hating ourselves after eating lots of it, naturally), but *not sex* (let alone actually lusting after someone else's body), that it leaves me speechless. It's not just annoying, it is a profound reflection on how utterly fucked up our culture's attitude towards women's wants and desires are.

    I like chocolate. Like it a lot if it's dark and fair trade and covers a brazil nut or a cherry in brandy. Nom. But, you know, that's it. I like it. It doesn't give me orgasms, it doesn't comfort me when I'm down, it doesn't fulfil my deepest needs. My comfort food of choice is a very rare steak with good chips and some nice vegetables. Or failing that, a whole bowl of cherries. But if I desire to experience emotional comfort and physical pleasure, I'll spend some time with my husband or my boyfriend, thanks. Neither of whom are getting me anything for Valentine's Day, and neither of whom I'm going out with tomorrow. Though I think a pub lunch and a nice stroll with the former is on the cards today, and the latter and I may be hitting London museums next time I go and stay with him. :-)

  2. Considering we're more or less programmed to like fat and sugar since the age we lived in caves, it's no wonder people like chocolate.

  3. The Valentines present de choix
    Is Luxury chocs in a box
    'Tis ever so cute
    As a sex substitute
    For it carries no risk of the pox

  4. Fair enough, but where do you stand on marzipan? Speaking as a heterosexual male who tries to be part of the anthropocentric solution, not part of the phallocentric problem, I'm still pretty much anyone's for a slice of battenburg.

  5. Maybe he should give you an onion instead?

    Of course, you overlook that when chocolate is marketed to men, you end up with the 'joke-sexism' of the Yorkie ads.


  6. Hmmmm... whatever.

    Child labours not all bad. I, for one, had a paper round when I was a lad. Never did me any harm.

    I suppose slavery isn`t too much fun though.

  7. Chocolates are nice. I enjoy them very much. But I also enjoy curries, fried fish, chips, pies, steaks, things with gravy, roast dinners... most things with a high carbohydrate and fat content, to be quite honest, short of actual lard (which isn't very nice). I can make *any* food a seriously sexual experience, because I just enjoy food. Chocolate isn't all that special.

    So, this Valentine's weekend, my male and I studiously ignored Valentine's weekend. I cooked a home-made curry for him on Friday, because I'm learning to make curry. He bought me books on Saturday, because it's my birthday in two weeks. We went to a gig together on Sunday, because it was a super exclusive thing by a band we rather like. We did not buy chocolates or cards- except a dime bar each on the way out on Saturday, because we forgot breakfast. No flowers. No diamonds. No "happy Valentines!" at an expensive restaurant.

    More and more people every year engage in anti-Valentine's events. Going to "singles not looking to hook up" clubs, refusing to buy chocolates or cards or flowers, not going anywhere near romantic restaurants or places. There's a bit of a backlash against corporate sponsored sickly obsessions.

  8. I just stumbled upon your blog via a link from SuperPennie's. May I say a great post one containg ideas I was hoping to touch on myself, but you have put them so eloquently, my efforts would seem mediocore.

    In agreement with the comment above, I would say I receive a sexual experience from most caloric foods. Chocolate is something I try never to buy for myself, it is saved for special occasions. (recently this has been every day) Case example, while reading your post I was delving into a huge piece of chocolate fudge cake made for my flatmate's birthday. While eating I had mixed emotions of pure joy and ultimate guilt. As you said, I now feel slightly sick and am extra aware of the muffin top edging over my trousers.

    I spent my valetines with another singleton drinking wine, watching Mammamia and of course...eating chocolate!(special occasion)

  9. As far as a buzz goes smack beats chocolate, grog, or a meat injection from a man.

  10. I was in the wholefood shop today, buying chocolaty delights, and the chap serving me also likes chocolate. Even though he's male! And has a beard!

  11. I have to speak up for Thorntons.

    The factory is just down the road, and every time someone doesn't buy a box of Thorntons that puts jobs in this not very rich part of Derbyshire under threat.

  12. As someone who didn't have a Christian upbringing, I for one welcome the commercialisation of holiday related foodstuffs. If it weren't for the racks of pancake mix and squirty lemons prominently displayed near the entrance to the supermarket, how would I know it was Mardi Gras? Only the other day I was reminded by the presence of piles of foil-wrapped ovoids by the till that I should really think about buying my boyfriend a Valentine's Egg. Useful.

  13. Being serious, I note that, by your own admission, you smoke, and drink alcohol and tea. Whilst I am sure that there is more fair trade tea around than there used to be, I'm pretty sure there are a lot of dubious things about the tobacco industry.

  14. Something worth pointing out - in Japan, woman buy MEN chocolates on Valentine's Day - not just lovers, either. The women don't get presents (though they get candy and perfume a month later on White Day).

    Our association of women = chocolate lovers is totally culturally created. There's no core truth in it.

  15. I agree with this so much! I hate the fetishisation of chocolate. It actually makes me feel sick when I hear people saying "mmmmmm, ooooh, that's so good" when they're guzzling it down like making quasi-sexual noises in public is somehow acceptable when it's chocolate that's prompting them... and it's even worse because it is so un-nutritious. Watching one of my friends eating a chocolate mousse is like watching hideous home-made gross niche porn...


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