Terrible Genius

A new product has David Segal of the Washington Post a little nervous.

It’s chocolate that is specially formulated to help women alleviate the symptoms of PMS.

Would you like a moment to process that?

It’s a hunk of chocolate, designed specifically to alleviate the effects of premenstrual syndrome. (More than, say, a Snickers bar already does.) The irritability, the anxiety, the moodiness — all of it is allegedly soothed by the Wonder Bar, at $3.69 a pop. As it says on the wrapper, “Take sweet revenge on PMS, menopause & everyday cravings with this delicious Swiss chocolate, rose oil, herbs and soy.”

Sounds good to me.

Your first reaction to the Wonder Bar is probably something like, “Now, that is a great idea.” Among women, that might be the second and third reaction, too. But fellas, mull this one for a moment. Think about the concept of craving. Now consider a rather different concept: impunity.

Are you starting to see the terrible genius here?

You will after we call Adrienna Kramer, Ecco Bella’s general manager. Let’s get straight to the point, shall we?


At this point, you have to click “next” on the Washington Post website to see where David is going with this. And I’ll admit, I had no idea. Craving? Impunity? Terrible genius? I tried to guess what horrible flaw lay in this PMS-treating chocolate bar. My own theory was that the silly thing probably just doesn’t work, like so many other ailment-allieving “natural” products. But given David’s scare-tactic language, that couldn’t possibly be his concern. What, exactly, could be the terrible consequences of this chocolate bar?

It’s so obvious that I can’t believe I didn’t guess: If you give women chocolate and allow them to eat it to cure PMS, they will turn into fat cows.

It’s pretty clear that what you’ve created here is a candy bar that gives women license to pig out to their hearts’ content.

The horror! You mean we’ve created a type of delicious food that also has health benefits, and we’ve given women permission to eat it? And to eat as much of it as they want? Clearly, every thin woman in the world will use this as an excuse to get fat, and then your chances of ever getting laid again will disappear.

If your wife or your girlfriend is on her fifth bar of the day and gobbling her way to a couple saddlebags’ worth of extra poundage, she can say, “Honey, I’m doing this for you. Either I eat another Wonder Bar or I berate you irrationally and then burst into tears. Take your pick.”

Checkmate! A man will have no choice but to sit back and gawk in horror as the little missus turns into a Greyhound bus.

And ain’t nothin worse than dating a fat chick, let me tell you — except a fat chick with PMS. Because that’ll make her completely crazed and irrational. Or, more crazed and irrational than women usually are.

“It’s nothing like that,” says Kramer, without a pause. “You won’t find women sitting down and eating fistfuls of Wonder Bars.” She adds: “You don’t gain weight from eating chocolate. You gain weight from eating too much fat and junk food.”

This is true. And maybe it’s a little . . . uh, unseemly for men to nitpick anything that brings relief to women suffering with PMS. You can hear the ladies now: Dudes, go score us a few cartons of Wonder Bars and shut your yaps.

This is true, but I’ll still use the Wonder Bar as an excuse to complain about my wife gaining weight. Because when we signed that marital contract, I was clear that my growing beer gut is no excuse for her to not fit into her prom dress when she’s 40.

And I wish David would shut his yap. Until he’s had cramps so bad that he’s vomiting and has to go home from work or school to lay curled up in the fetal position with a heating pad on his abdomen, I don’t really have patience to hear his heartfelt concerns that eating chocolate will make me less fuckable.

So maybe this is really about fun instead of good health. Nothing wrong with fun, right? But if Ecco Bella is going to sell a delicacy that lets women indulge a craving and fob it off as a benefit to themselves and their mates, why not do the same for men?

How about, for instance, marketing a beer that supposedly fights baldness?

“Okay, I don’t know what to do with that,” says Kramer, laughing.

Hmmm. How about a cigar that allegedly freshens the breath and makes you pick up the underwear on the floor?

“I appreciate where you’re trying to go with this, but I don’t seem to have anything I can respond to with these things.”

Heh. Well, one major difference is that generally, men don’t have to justify or apologize for food indulgence. Most men don’t worry about looking piggish if they go to a steakhouse and order the Porterhouse. Most men don’t justify eating something other than a salad by telling themselves, “I ran three miles today. I deserve it” or “Ok, you can eat this now, but only if you skip dinner later.” Most men don’t know the guilt of finishing a large meal and then kicking yourself for not ordering a starter salad instead.

Now, fat men are certainly shamed in our culture as well. But this is an across-the-board issue for women, no matter what you look like. And next time you see a fat woman eating in public, look around and check out how other people are looking at her.

How does the Wonder Bar taste? Well, it’s dark chocolate with just enough medicinal flavor to make you think that it’s good for you. No guy will trade in his Chunky for one of these things. But judging from the reaction at the Ecco Bella booth on Tuesday, brace yourself for some terrible news, lads:

The ladies think it’s delicious.

Luckily for him, femininity in this culture is still defined largely by self-denial. We aren’t supposed to enjoy food too much, lest we become fat and offend the sensitive retinas of those around us. And so we are shamed out of eating, and held up against an unrealistic ideal of a female body. We aren’t supposed to enjoy sex, and so sexually powerful women are shamed, and conservative politicians attempt to limit all the things that make female sexual freedom possible.

Attitudes about food and sex, as far as I can tell, are deeply intertwined. This has been written about many times before, in books like The Sexual Politics of Meat and in studies of anorexia. Women’s denial of food is done under the same moral framework that the denial of sex is. The thin woman, the chaste woman, is the morally virtuous woman. She has self-control. She puts others before herself. She is not that mythical, voracious, consuming woman-creature that apparently scares the bejesus out of men everywhere.

I’m of the belief that denial-based attitudes toward both food and sex are inherently unhealthy. So are purely consumptive attitudes. Food and sex are two primary areas where human beings find pleasure, and ideally we would be able to indulge in both without guilt, and with the responbilities that pleasure brings — that is, taking care to be healthy and respectful. The attitude that food = fat = sin and therefore food is bad is not a healthy one; neither is the attitude that you have to eat, so you’ll eat whatever simply to consume something, without taking any pleasure in what you’re doing. I think that this comsumption mentality is a big problem in the United States in terms of both food and sex, but the food issue has become more obvious to me after living outside of the country in places where food is a central part of the culture, Italy being the most obvious example. Eating is a social affair, and food is highly valued. Quality is valued over quantity. The idea of Starbucks is ridiculous — why do you need that giant cup of mediocre coffee when this little cup of perfect espresso is so much better? Further, there are institutional controls which make sure that the food in that country is of higher quality — I didn’t know until last summer that much of the Parmesan cheese we eat in the United States isn’t allowed to be sold under the name “parmigiano” in Italy, and instead has to be marketed under the name “table cheese” or something similar. Why? Because the Italian government keeps tight control over the name and content of its food products. Parmigiano, to Italians, means a very specific type of hard cheese, made in Parma with a very specific method — the milk has to be heated to a certain degree, and the cheese has to age for a certain number of years before it can be properly called Parmigiano. Kraft simply cannot call its chemically-modified cheese parmigiano in Italy the way they can call it parmesan here. There are a million other examples of how food production is purified: The fruit isn’t genetically modified; if restaurants are using frozen seafood, they are required to disclose it on the menu; Italian-made products are labelled as such. All of this both reflects the importance of food in that culture and makes it easier for people of all income levels to access healthier foods with fewer preservatives and chemicals in them. It demonstrates a belief that food is worth something more than simple consumption, and that its role in society is more important than simply filling your stomach.

The parallel to sex, objectification, prostitution and pornography should be fairly obvious.

Now, these are obviously ideals that are only available to certain segments and populations around the world — not everyone has access to the kind of food that is pleasurable to eat, and a lot of people have to eat whatever they have to for simple survival. Same thing with sex — not every woman is in a situation where she gets to choose her sexual partners or plan her own sexual life, and many women make sexual trade-offs for greater freedom in other areas. An example of those sexual trade-offs, borrowed from a book I’m currently reading: A young woman who agrees to be circumcised in exchange for her family allowing her to go to school. And there are cultures, like ours, where (in my opinion) unhealthy attitudes about food and sex seem to be battling it out, with our Puritanical self-denying roots going head to head with our bigger-faster-more comsumptive desires. And it creates quite a strange dynamic for all of us trying to wade through it. It’s part of the reason why, I think, we see women’s bodies used as walking representations of sex while you hear those same women talking about their virginity or their conservative sexual beliefs. It’s part of the reason why the anorexic body is idealized in American movies, television, fashion and advertising, and yet Americans are apparently part of a growing “obesity epidemic” (there are plenty of people who argue that this epidemic is over-blown, but I think we can all agree that there are a lot of overweight people in this country).

It’s all much more complicated than this, obviously. Weight doesn’t necessarily correlate with food intake, and I would also point a big finger at the sedentary lifestyle that many Americans lead — driving to work, sitting at a desk all day, driving home, sitting on the couch, etc — as one of the reasons that Americans are generally fatter than people elsewhere in the world. Obesity does have economic influences as well, and our institutions in this country haven’t really stepped up to the plate on health and poverty issues.

But as a general rule, I think that unhealthy attitdues about food correlate to similarly unhealthy attitudes about sex. Both of these things are highly gendered, and self-denial of sex and food confer similar social benefits on the woman doing the denying.

And with asshats like David here to remind the little ladies that indulgence will make us entirely unattractive to men, the woman who puts her own needs and desires last and who routinely denies herself pleasure will be around for a long time.

Thanks to Yurie for the link.


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30 comments for “Terrible Genius

  1. July 14, 2006 at 6:59 am

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but SNL used to run a sketch with Dan Akroyd, Chris Farley, John Goodman, Mike Myers and I’m forgetting who else where they were all morbidly obese Chicago Bears fans. Farley would usually have a heart attack or two each skit and the commentary was punctuated by bouts of binge eating and drinking. It remains one of my favorite SNL running sketches. But I can’t imagine what it, or most other simplistic male comedy, would be if you could say this for men.

    Women’s denial of food is done under the same moral framework that the denial of sex is.

    I have to see, that sentence sounds like the worst fate in the world. Women get that, whereas the moral framework for men in regards to food and sex tends to be more in line with a Roman bacchanalia. Ye Olde Double Standard, hard at work.

  2. July 14, 2006 at 7:00 am

    And does he think that women don’t eat chocolate now to alleviate PMS? Hell, I eat chocolate all the time, even without a PMS excuse.

    I also love the idea that if you tell women it’s ok to eat it, they will lose all self control and eat five of them a day. Because, you know, we’re all little children who can’t figure out how to take care of ourselves properly.

    Also, $3.69 each?

  3. July 14, 2006 at 7:17 am

    Oh JUST what I wanted to read first thing this morning. Thanks Dad, thanks David Segal, for looking out for us and making sure our asses don’t get too fat. I bet you were nodding in agreement through that whole article about Nia, the schizophrenic who was finally cured of her tormenting symptoms, but gained weight as a result, what a TRAGEDY that was. Who’d rather be sane than fat?

    This is all so tied into the idea that the REAL concern for fat women is not about obesity but because it causes moral panic because the woman is OUT OF BOUNDS. Same as a sexually “promiscuous” woman. Amp posted about this a while ago here and I thought it was such a good article:

    It strikes me as intrinsically connected to both misogyny and homophobia, this. The terror that fat seems to inspire, the moral terror, seems rooted in the same fear and loathing that has traditionally been reserved for the promiscuous woman. She is not obeying. She is “out of bounds”–much like the fat that oozes over the sides of the airplane seat. Her problem is a surfeit of appetite–which is the reason that no matter what medical studies might actually show, people will continue to frame the problem of obesity wholly in terms of eating and of appetite.

    A great book to read on this whole notion of women’s appetites (what is enough? for food? for sex? for power? for posessions?) check out Appetites: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp. Studies her own recovery from anorexia and alcoholism as well as social implications of the female appetite. Excellent read.

  4. Lya Kahlo
    July 14, 2006 at 7:55 am

    I am so done with WaPo. If this sort of mean-spiritied, mysogynistic crap is what they consider worthy of publishing, I see no reason to continue my subscription. What a worthless waste of time this newspaper has become.

    The Middle East is erupting into all out war and all this moron cares about if the circumfrence of his s.o.’s waist? Just pump a little less air into your blowup doll, Segal, that’ll fix the problem.

  5. R. Mildred
    July 14, 2006 at 8:04 am

    It’s a hunk of chocolate, designed specifically to alleviate the effects of premenstrual syndrome. (More than, say, a Snickers bar already does.) The irritability, the anxiety, the moodiness

    I love how all the effects are outward ones that might affect him, what about cramps, quesiness and head aches? It”s basically a chocolate happy pill that alleviates the male PMS problems.

  6. AB
    July 14, 2006 at 8:25 am

    Oh, WaPo. I have such a love-hate relationship with you.

    This article definitely made me spit up my coffee a little yesterday morning. I couldn’t really imagine what in the hell the editors of the style section were thinking. Gross, gross, gross. But I’m also inclined to cut the paper a little slack, because they do certainly have a history of putting very out-there, not-what-you-would-expect-from-a-newspaper pieces in the style section. Sometimes this results in brilliance (a la Robin Givhan’s takedown of Dick Cheney’s outfit to the Holocaust memorial about a year ago). Sometimes it results in… this. Urgh.

  7. frumiousb
    July 14, 2006 at 8:46 am

    Oh Dog I just read the article on msnbc and had to flee to a feminist blog to stop my eyes from bleeding. The creater of the bar is not much better than the writer. She’s taken a bunch of pseudo-scientific nonsense and marketed it to women by taking advantage of their love-hate relationship with both food and PMS.

    And unless you have access to the medical records of all the thin women who you seen in American movies, television, fashion and advertising, I am going to have to ask that you add a disclaimer that you have insufficient evidence to diagnose them as anorexics and are making medical judgments based on looks alone.

  8. July 14, 2006 at 8:48 am

    And unless you have access to the medical records of all the thin women who you seen in American movies, television, fashion and advertising, I am going to have to ask that you add a disclaimer that you have insufficient evidence to diagnose them as anorexics and are making medical judgments based on looks alone.

    I wasn’t trying to say that they are all actually anorexic, simply that the anorexic body (that is, the body that appears to be anorexic) is idealized.

  9. Cortneytree
    July 14, 2006 at 9:29 am

    Thank God I have a man in my life, because, really, who else would be there to tap his foot demeaningly and scold me to stop me from ‘overindulging’? Is he serious? I cannot imagine any scenario in which my s.o. would have the GALL to say, “now honey, don’t you think you’ve had enough? Don’t want to get all chubby, do you?” Aside from the appalling double standard re: men and women and weight, just who the hell thinks they can talk to another ADULT like that? Your wife/girlfriend is not a child looking for an excuse to get to stay up late and munch Kit-Kat bars. She is an adult human being, who, so far it seems, has managed to live in this world without you watchdogging her diet. Isn’t it possible that she avoids gorging herself on chocolate bars not simply because it’s societally frowned upon, but that she avoids it because she’s somehow, in however many years of adulthood, developed an ounce of what we call SELF CONTROL? No one’s looking for a medicinal scapegoat here, and if you need one because your s.o. has such a strangle hold on your body image and diet that he won’t LET you otherwise, you have much larger problems than PMS.

  10. zuzu
    July 14, 2006 at 9:46 am

    So, anyone want to lay any bets on how long it’ll take *someone* to show up and start lecturing us about how unhealthy obesity is?

  11. July 14, 2006 at 9:49 am

    The way that the production of different kinds of cheese is controlled in Europe is more of a brand protection thing than about any moral kind of devotion to the purity of what’s being grated over your salad. I’m wary of attaching a moral significance to the way that a person eats food. I love food and I love to cook but I don’t have to think I have some kind of mystical bond with it to eat wisely, for my diet to satisfy me, or any of the other things that will make me a good food person. Food is not a tool to be used to make you a good person, it’s a tool for making you not hungry. The only other significance I can attach to my diet is that it’s fun.

  12. July 14, 2006 at 10:06 am

    I prefer my foods without a lot of medicinal herbs in them, because I don’t especially trust some random company’s idea of what the herbs are actually going to do. (On the other hand, if you do want to go herbal, The Honest Herbal and Rodale’s have good summaries of the research on various herbs.) But if there were a chocolate bar that I trusted to alleviate some significant medical symptom, I wouldn’t listen to anyone’s panic that I was doomed to lose all self-control and wind up weighing 300 pounds if I ate any of it.

  13. July 14, 2006 at 10:44 am

    So, anyone want to lay any bets on how long it’ll take *someone* to show up and start lecturing us about how unhealthy obesity is?

    Waiting for Dilan Esper in 3…2….1…

    Yeah, I wanted to post about this (and the other recent fat blowup on Feministe) on my site today but I KNOW there would be at least two “well, to be honest obesity REALLY IS a health risk” comments and I just can’t take that right now. I posted about food instead haha.

  14. Medicine Man
    July 14, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    Also, $3.69 each?

    If it works, this is dirt cheap. :)

  15. Medicine Man
    July 14, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Although… could a bloke really buy a crate of these for his lady without her taking it as a sly critique of her demeanor?

  16. piny
    July 14, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    It’s a hunk of chocolate, designed specifically to alleviate the effects of premenstrual syndrome. (More than, say, a Snickers bar already does.) The irritability, the anxiety, the moodiness

    I love how all the effects are outward ones that might affect him, what about cramps, quesiness and head aches? It’’s basically a chocolate happy pill that alleviates the male PMS problems.

    This was really irritating. I had minor cramps (which were mostly constipation, really) and a little bit of loginess near the beginning. Some women are uncomfortable or downright miserable. And yet, he needs to reduce the issue to one of hysteria–solving an innate lack of control with a different kind of indulgence. Wonder why.

  17. Norah
    July 14, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    “I appreciate where you’re trying to go with this, but I don’t seem to have anything I can respond to with these things.”

    I can just hear Adrienna Kramer thinking “You fucking dick.”

  18. frumious b
    July 14, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    Have you seen any actual anorexia sufferers? The “anorexic body” is a whole lot thinner than the body of your typical thin model. Even Terri Hatcher has several pounds on an anorexic woman. Our culture celebrates thinness, but hardly celebrates the appearance of anorexia sufferers.

  19. piny
    July 14, 2006 at 12:59 pm

    Have you seen any actual anorexia sufferers? The “anorexic body” is a whole lot thinner than the body of your typical thin model. Even Terri Hatcher has several pounds on an anorexic woman. Our culture celebrates thinness, but hardly celebrates the appearance of anorexia sufferers.

    That’s at the extreme end of the disorder. It’s not true that all anorexia sufferers look thinner than Hatcher–who seems to be attracting so much attention as much because of recent extreme weight loss as natural extreme thinness–or that they even look really abnormal. The Olsen twin who did have an eating disorder looked really thin, but she didn’t enter living-skeleton range. She looked…a lot like Teri Hatcher.

    Here’s an article about a pro-ana website that uses pictures of fashion models for inspiration. This woman might not have an eating disorder, but she’s very thin.

  20. Julie
    July 14, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    My husband would be estatic if something like this worked…. I can admit, I turn downright mean right before my period. I remember right before my last period (which was awhile ago) screaming at my husband with tears running down my face because he had had the audacity to ask me why I had skipped lunch that day after I bitched for an hour about being hungry. I can’t imagine him saying something like “Oh, I think you should stop eating that, lest you get fat”. That guy sounds like a real winner.

  21. July 14, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    Have you seen any actual anorexia sufferers? The “anorexic body” is a whole lot thinner than the body of your typical thin model. Even Terri Hatcher has several pounds on an anorexic woman. Our culture celebrates thinness, but hardly celebrates the appearance of anorexia sufferers.

    My question would be have YOU seen any actual anorexia sufferers? Yes, this can be the state in the extreme, last stages of the disease, but many anorectics are people you’d look at and think “they’re thin”, and they would be underweight for their height, but red flags wouldn’t go off.

    Many anorexic girls I’ve spoken to said they refused or hesitated to seek treatment because doctors had told them “you don’t look anorexic.” The stigma that anorectics are all walking skeletons is just not correct.

  22. July 14, 2006 at 3:37 pm

    She’s taken a bunch of pseudo-scientific nonsense and marketed it to women by taking advantage of their love-hate relationship with both food and PMS.

    Love-hate relationship with food? Sure. But does anyone have a love-hate relationship with PMS?

    ow about, for instance, marketing a beer that supposedly fights baldness?

    “Okay, I don’t know what to do with that,” says Kramer, laughing.

    Hmmm. How about a cigar that allegedly freshens the breath and makes you pick up the underwear on the floor?

    “I appreciate where you’re trying to go with this, but I don’t seem to have anything I can respond to with these things.”

    When one exists, I’m sure it will be marketed. Worrying about why a product that does not exist is not being marketed the way that one that does exist is being marketed strikes me as odd.

  23. PLN
    July 14, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    I want to second Sara’s point–not all the institutional features of Europe’s food culture are necessarily desirable, and we should be careful about assuming that just because the whole package tends to make for better outcomes, each of the parts is good. The cultural attitude towards quality and meals as social events is probably great (I seem to recall some interesting research about the importance, for Americans, of having been raised in a family that shared family dinners), and more labeling is generally helpful, but as Sara said, many of the restrictions on what one can and can’t produce (to say nothing of the agricultural price supports and tariffs) are basically protectionist and serve to *raise*, not lower, prices.

  24. July 15, 2006 at 12:21 am

    True, but real parmesan (even if it isn’t made in Parma) is still better than that powdered crap. I can’t believe that that stuff is actually cheese. It has to be petroleum based.

  25. Ledasmom
    July 15, 2006 at 10:25 pm

    I seem to recall that, when I was in college, the campus satirical paper (which I think was called, for some reason that at that age made sense, the Rabid Squirrel) published a cartoon of “Period Chocolate”, with ibuprofen and other useful substances included.
    If the Wonder Bar were made in the form of heavily-buttered nearly-charcoalized toast, I’d be happy.

  26. Cassandra
    July 16, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Although… could a bloke really buy a crate of these for his lady without her taking it as a sly critique of her demeanor?

    Well, if they’d been dating for a while and if she had specifically complained about PMS, then yes. Like, “Well, honey, I know you hate PMS almost as much as you love chocolate, so, voila!”

    My PMS was emotionally horrific about three or four years ago (I just finished high school so my mum got the brunt of it), I think because I was already going through a hard time emotionally and didn’t usually let myself see it unless the hormones tipped enough to make it all come out at once. Or something. Since then most of my yucky symptoms–cramps, pretty much–happen during the first few days of my period, and have gotten somewhat better, so PMS isn’t much of an issue. But if my mom had been able back then to say, “Cassandra, before we fight, have this chocolate,” I think we both would have had an easier time of it. That said, I agree that this product probably doesn’t work.

    And also the article I think might be the single most offensive article I’ve ever read, so, I’m just going to not comment anymore.

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