For something which everyone has to do in order to stay alive, eating is fraught with way too many social boundaries, judgements about weight and health, strange unspoken rules about what men and women are supposed to eat (or enjoy), and much more. It’s a mess, and everyone knows it, but nobody really talks about it like normal people. The obese get talked about a lot, as do those with eating disorders – not men, mind you, because nobody likes to acknowledge that men suffer from eating disorders as well – but everyone else ends up wandering the desert and speaking in strange codes. Time for some feminism, which seems to be alive and ready to do some kicking.
Dessert Is Not a Moral Issue
Of all the weird food codes, “guilty pleasure” is most insidious. If, like most people, we occasionally enjoy something kind of sweet and not really diet-squad approved, it’s okay to talk about it in public so long as we call it our guilty pleasure. Even yogurt which tastes like it once wandered past lemon cheesecake is marketed as something we ought to feel guilty about enjoying, so the idea of enjoying an actual slice of lemon cheesecake is only acceptable if we claim to feel a little naughty about even having a bite. Suddenly, food becomes a moral issue, something to feel guilty about even if it’s “part of a balanced breakfast”, or lunch, or dinner. It’s easy to say that it’s just a figure of speech, but when we’re talking feminism and the whole messed-up culture surrounding how women are allowed to eat, everything we say on a regular basis tends to run deep. Thankfully, a lot of feminists are now taking a stand against the idea of food-related guilt: “I don’t have guilty pleasures because I shouldn’t feel guilty about my food,” wrote a Guerilla Feminism contributor, which is about as no-nonsense as this kind of thing ought to be.
Our Eating Habits, Ourselves
Quick question: if you’re told about a lazy, self-indulgent, unemployed woman, what does she look like in your mind’s eye? Probably not thin, though maybe not obese – most likely somewhere in between, and definitely overweight. We’re subliminally told time and time again that fat people are slobs, thin people are vain and probably have eating disorders (but are definitely the right candidate for the job), and that there isn’t really a weight or way of eating that doesn’t come with supposed personality traits attached. People suffering from eating disorders are, unfairly, hit particularly hard, with the assumption that they’ve brought their disorder on themselves through vanity or just perfectionism. “An eating disorder is characterized by an extreme disruption in regular eating habits, whether it is eating too little or eating too much,” according to an expert at Psychguides.com, but popular culture would rush to reassure us that what eating disorders are really characterized by are personal failings. However, we all ended up getting painted with the same brush, just in different colors.
Food Doesn’t Need To Be Justified
Ordering dessert – or even just a fatty, delicious steak – in a restaurant can be a fraught moment. Regarding ordering cake when your friends are abstaining, The Story of Telling writes that a “great waiter knows that an emotional decision is being made. He understands that he’s not just there to scribble down an order—he’s there to support the dessert orderer’s choice.” That choice is often justified by ‘well, I’ve eaten well all day’, or ‘I had a salad for lunch’, because society is convinced that we should be held accountable for every small indulgence we grant ourselves. It’s become such a common tactic that it’s now used to advertise cinnamon buns and cakes – something which bemuses even those involved in the diet industry, one of whom wrote that “there’s nothing inherently evil about this or any dessert. Though I would imagine that promises of burning the calories later are more likely lead to weight gain than simply making sure that you eat dessert in moderation.”
This, of course, is the paradoxical heart of nutrition double-talk – not only does it make us feel worse, but it also makes it difficult to have a healthy relationship towards food, and therefore difficult to eat well. It’s a vicious cycle, and one we could all do with getting off.
NolaFemmes reader Susie Price is now a travel writer, but before she took to sitting at her desk musing on the places she’s visited, she spent a good deal of her life working in the leisure industry in different roles. Now she combines random scribbling with motherhood and is pretty happy with her lot.