When Will Stock Photography End the Gender Stereotypes?

By now, most of us are well aware of the ridiculous and unrealistic expectations that advertisements and other forms of branding place on both men and women.

What you may not realize is how much stock photography plays a part in this game.

Stock photos, for folks who don’t spend their days poring over online editorial work, are simply ready-to-use professional photos intended for a commercial purpose. While we’re quick to make fun of the campy, contrived scenes they display, the reality is that stock photos surround us–and they aren’t going away. These glossy, smiley images appear on billboards and corporate websites and pepper your textbooks and junk mail. Sound familiar?

Overly white, overly groomed and overly stereotypical represents the typical lineup on popular sites like Shutterstock, Thinkstock and Stockphoto.com. But in recent years, stock photos have been called out for their racist and sexist tendencies. Sheryl Sandburg received notoriety when her organization, LeanIn.Org, partnered with Getty Images to produce the Lean In Collection. The curated photos aim to depict diverse and empowered female leaders, changing women’s portrayal in everyday visual communication. And the result is no less than captivating.

 Photo Credit: Getty Images

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Kevin Williams, creator of BlackStock, saw a similar need to banish cliches in favor of more authentic images of black life. His project claims to be “reinventing the black medium” while allowing users to offer constructive feedback along the way.

 Photo Credit: Blackstock

Photo Credit: Blackstock

Unfortunately, these initiatives haven’t exactly remedied the situation. Let’s take a look at one of the more pervasive stereotypes that is alive and well in stock photography collections: gender specific food and eating.

Here are a few prevalent tropes that become clear after a quick search of “men eating” or “women eating” on almost any stock photo site:

Manly Meat


Men only eat burgers, pizza and chicken, right? That’s the conclusion any logical human might draw from perusing a selection of stock photos featuring men and their food.


It’s not just in your head…there’s even been research that confirms the bizarre association of meat with “maleness” in Western culture. How about some photos of men eating rice and beans, samosas or spaghetti?!

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Laughing Salads


Conversely, women and anything green appear inseparable in stock photography. In fact, salads have become so hilarious in recent years that they’ve garnered their own Tumblr page, appropriately entitled, “Women Laughing Alone with Salad.” Why have calories or friends when you can enjoy jokes produced by your measly bowl of lettuce?

While the Laughing Salad phenomenon has finally been brought into the limelight as a silly marketing trend, stock photography still isn’t breaking away from conventional images of grinning, preened women gazing lovingly at their farmer’s market fare.


So, yes, this odd hamburger-salad dichotomy thing has painted men and women into two distinct categories of what constitutes normal, gender-appropriate food. Women happily munch on dainty “health” foods like fruit, veggies and yogurt, while men devour straight-off-the-grill steaks, fast food and general bachelor grub. While food advertisers remain stuck on meeting these cultural expectations, reality looks a little different.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Sexy Woman

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

But wait, we forgot to talk about the sex factor. What, you don’t normally eat lunch shirtless with freshly painted nails and perfectly tousled curls?


Stock photography exhibits the same sexualization of women found in those all too memorable fast food commercials. Lipstick, close-ups, body contortions and finger-licking–and food, of course!–might give you a clue that you’re looking at a stock photo in all of its sexist glory. And apparently desserts and other decadent treats are only reserved for these conventionally attractive and make-up-wearing women.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Gorging Man


Who is the Sexy Woman’s counterpart? The gorging, face-stuffing, food-lusting man. Often observed on couches, in bars, or strangely enough, wearing a business suit, the Gorging Man doesn’t sweat the small stuff like spilled popcorn or dribbling cheese. He’s too caught up in his calorie-laden bliss.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Can we please move beyond the man as primal animal mold?


Guilty/Sad Woman


Unlike the Gorging Man, the Guilty Woman can’t enjoy a judgement-free treat. These women must overanalyze every food decision and exhibit the resulting spectrum of emotion, from guilt and disgust to stress and confusion.


Stock photography loves to “catch” women at their weak moments, giving into temptation or weighing the pros and cons of an apple vs. a bagel. These images are just one manifestation of the larger global trend of policing and micromanaging women’s diets and the unfair pressure it can produce.

And, again, much like society as a whole, stock photography appears far too consumed with the fight against evil–evil food, that is–lauding those “healthy” women as heroes and celebrities in the endless food battle.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

So, let’s push for more realistic depictions of life, gender aside, when involving food. Because this woman is not really enjoying a slice of cucumber this much.


Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

BJ J3 years ago


Virginia Belder
Virginia Belder3 years ago


Anon E.
Cela V3 years ago


Julien Eberle
Julien Eberle3 years ago


Nellie K. Adaba
Nellie K Adaba3 years ago

Yes, I know, but I don't pay attention to that. I pass on/move on to something else.

Donna T.
Donna T3 years ago

thank you

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Jennifer Manzi
Jennifer Manzi3 years ago

Really?? I have much graver worries than stock photography and you should too.