Julian Sheather on men, women, and chocolate

Once upon a long time ago I worked for a small charity that was much concerned with the plight of indigenous peoples. My role in the cause was a small one – it was a summer job photocopying press cuttings and grant applications in a pleasant, high-ceilinged room in a large house in West London – but nonetheless enjoyable. It helped, I think, that I was the only man, and that the rest of the team were intelligent and passionate women, devoted to the betterment of humankind. The outfit was run by a charismatic antipodean woman in her fifties, a gifted communicator and fundraiser. She struggled with her weight a little and at one point announced that she was going to give up chocolate, for which she clearly had a considerable weakness.

About a week into her abstinence I began to notice something surprising. Unable to eat chocolate herself she began to bring it into the office as a gift for others. It started off as a trickle: small bars of upmarket milk chocolate; a handful of truffles in a dandy box; a plate of diced chocolate brownies delicately dusted with icing sugar. But slowly the tide increased. She threw herself into nocturnal baking and rare was the day without some rich offering from her kitchen: Mississippi mud pies; Black Forest Gateaux; complex torta with dense variously-coloured strata of chocolate. Her industry was extraordinary. My first response was admiration. How noble of her, I thought, to give to others the good things she was denying herself, particularly as the sight of their pleasure must have quickened her own longing. But as the tide of chocolate rose to a flood, it was impossible to ignore the susurrus of complaint that began to rise from the other women – women on the whole younger and slimmer than their benefactress. It did not help that on presenting her gift she would remain in the office until the eating had begun, and that demurral evoked signs of slight but noticeable displeasure. Whatever was going on, there was clearly more to it than simple generosity.

In subsequent years, intrigued by the strong and frequently paradoxical feelings – desire and loathing; longing and guilt; craving and nausea – that rich food arouses in some of my female friends, I have more than once thought back to that office and to the strange emotional drama that the gifts of chocolate enacted. What mix of pain and pleasure, of longing and self-denial, of desire, frustration and punishment was my boss playing out in her heart as she bought in those daily offerings? Was it pleasure she wanted to give to her young colleagues or did she want to give them the fat she was driving from her own body? Was she rewarding them for their slender youth or punishing them? What part did fondness play and what part envy? Was it her body she was trying to control or theirs? I know that I will never know.

In an earlier blog on this site ‘On being a male‘ , Joe Collier enumerates a range of positive male qualities, including some, such as flamboyance and spontaneity, that I would not normally think of as gendered. When I think back to my time fighting for indigenous people I am tempted to add another. In addition to qualities that may be accidental, such as not being very good at photocopying – I was sacked after five weeks – I would suggest that men are also characterised by an inability to comprehend either the fathomless emotional complexity of women or the full symbolic significance of chocolate.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, British Medical Association