There's a reason that when shilling for Weight Watchers on television Oprah feels the need declare, in big, bold Oprah fashion, "I love bread! You can eat bread!" As if admitting that you enjoy a mouth full of complex carbohydrates is akin to coming out. Admittance of liking certain food and allowing yourself to eat it shouldn't be a triumph, but here we are.
It's strange to say it, but when it comes to food women often find themselves on a metaphorical football field fighting over who can gain the most turf whether by eating the least amount of calories or giving the least amount of fucks about calories. But you know what? Football sucks. Let's ditch this field.
Not too long ago, I was at a bar with a friend. A food truck specializing in Asian cuisine was serving just outside. I looked at the menu and sighed. "I can't eat anything on the menu," I told her.
Without hesitation, a female acquaintance sitting across from us shot a "Why?" at me. There was some hostility behind it. I could feel it.
"I'm super allergic to nuts and sesame. Like, I can die," I responded, possibly a bit defensive sensing her air of derision.
"Oh!" she replied. She backpedaled a bit even though she hadn't really said anything. But it was there. I knew what she was thinking. She thought I was going to say something like, "I don't eat gluten," or "Sorry, but I sustain myself on ice cubes sprinkled with salt." And then, I can only guess she felt bad about the assumption she made.
This is probably one of the lighter instances of food shame I've experienced. In worse instances, people have called me all manner of variations of the word "fat ass" for eating anything non-diet-y. More often when I've been at my heaviest in weight. A random guy once disgustingly pig snorted at me as I was eating outside a café. People comment on the amount of food I'm eating, "You eat a lot, huh?" or "God, you eat like a bird!" Yes, sometimes if I'm very hungry I eat a lot. Sometimes I just snack. This is called being a human person who needs sustenance.
I've been on both sides of the shame game, though. I've fat shamed women with terrible, disparaging jokes that I can't believe I would ever say. I've made thin women feel like traitors to the body acceptance cause because they talk about their diet. But also, we all have a way of reinforcing food shame in small ways, like when we say we "shouldn't" get dessert.
I understand and don't blame any of my female food shamers. We women shame each other on the regular for what we eat, and even what we don't eat. It's a result of larger forces in this world telling us we're not good enough, like the mass media, antiquated social norms pushing us to compete with each other for husbands or the notion that to be healthy you have to be skinny.
Fuller figured women have spent their entire lives being degraded or treated with disgust because of their size. Our society is built around knocking them down. They don't fit. They're not desirable. If they lose weight, they are rewarded and encouraged to keep shrinking. Reminders are constantly going off all around them.
Smaller sized women are told they need to eat more. They're skinny bitches. They don't deserve happiness or success because they already have it easy. They, too, are constantly reminded.
And even this downplays the many, many complexities surrounding womanhood and size and shape. The female food wars are fought in different ways. There's the obvious one. Someone thin judging someone on their food. "Oh you're getting biscuits and gravy? I'm just gonna order avocado on toast. I'm not even sure I can finish it all!" Yes, this is extremely annoying.
Then there's the opposite side of the battle: women who defiantly eat and assert themselves as better, stronger or more evolved because they don't subscribe to your anti-pizza bullshit. They post their burger photos and in an indirect way they're ridiculing you if you choose to eat a salad.
Where this gets tricky, at least for me, is that I understand why they do this. It's a big "fuck you" to the mass media that tells them they shouldn't eat this way, and to anyone who has ever shamed them for their food choices. They're going to eat what they want, and here's the proof. Blam! Throw the Valencia filter on that bitch! I've definitely done this myself for this very reason.
While the f-u is aimed at a broader cultural problem, though, some of the shrapnel lands on women. It creates tension and competitiveness. Who eats better? Who is most confident in the body they have?
What I'm calling for is to make eating a feminist act. That we are all supported in our food choice. Eat whatever you want. Eat it when you feel like it. But if we choose the words we use wisely when posting or talking about food so that women don't feel bad for making a different choice, it helps reduce that food shame. Let's all sit at the table together. I'll save a plate for you, no matter what you put on it. And I'll probably ask for a taste.