There’s nothing more embarrassing than watching a woman eating. It’s like seeing David Cameron DJ-ing at a student night in Leeds.* It’s like limiting yourself to watching only one episode of Arrested Development at a time. It isn’t natural. Because, as everyone knows, women don’t actually need to eat but can in fact easily exist only on air as their stomachs are made out of fairy dust and diamonds. Right?
No. Women need to eat because humans need to eat. But if a woman dares to take her food into a public space it seems that the body police will be waiting to ambush. Seemingly inoffensive, even supposedly complimentary comments made to women as they eat – “don’t eat too much of that cake! You wouldn’t want to ruin that lovely figure” – can have a huge and devastating effect on that woman’s self-esteem, but monitoring and policing what a woman eats and where and how she eats it also has political implications.
Informing any woman that she must only eat so much, and exercising an assumed ‘right’ to freely comment on a woman’s choice of food suggests that she is permitted to take up only a limited amount of public space. It also reinforces the toxic idea that women must shrink themselves to be attractive. When on holiday, for instance, it goes hand in hand with all the awful ‘Bikini Body’ headlines in letting us know that, as women, we can’t possibly sit/stand/swim in a bikini with an ounce of fat on our bodies. When I eat, in public or at home, it is not to look pretty or to be admired by anyone for eating just the ‘right’ amount as is ladylike, in just the ‘right’ ladylike manner.
I remember waiting for the bus once, absolutely starving after having eaten nothing all day, and I was tucking into some cheese and chips with extra mayo (possibly an acquired taste, I’m willing to admit). A man at the same stop was watching me with a look of disgust and it wasn’t long before he started to express outright disapproval by shaking his head at me as I ate. I felt humiliated and thought about waiting to get on the bus to eat my less-than-healthy lunch, knowing that after half an hour’s wait it would be stone cold. But my humiliation turned to anger – I wasn’t bothering anyone, I wasn’t making a mess, why should I be judged? I felt that I needed to prove how very little I cared for his approval and how little I was bothered about looking attractive or delicate for this man. So on an angry impulse, I crammed a huge mouthful of chips into my mouth with my hand and ate them with my mouth wide open, staring at the disapproving man as I did, not breaking eye-contact once. It was messy and I felt a bit sick afterwards, but the look of sheer horror and utter discomfort I was greeted with was worth it.
Eating in public spaces perhaps reminds certain people that women are more than decorative objects there purely for viewing pleasure, which might be a reason why it seems to make so many onlookers uncomfortable. It certainly does seem to inspire strong reactions. Yet anything ranging from the insulting offhand comment – ‘Are you actually eating ALL of that?’ or ‘Not too many chips, now!’ – to actual anger and verbal abuse (yeah, seriously) all point to the same strain of thinking. As Amy Poehler put it in a recent interview, women are expected to be a whole host of contradicting things. We must be thin, attractive, accord with all the traits of the ‘cool girl’ in liking things like pizza and burgers while still maintaining said thinness, yet never actually be witnessed consuming said fast-food. And if we don’t? At best, we get a few gentle warnings, dressed up as compliments. At worst? Outright anger and disapproval, it seems.
Eating isn’t ‘manly’. It certainly doesn’t make you somehow less of a woman to eat. It’s just a thing all people need to do. And the more monitoring a woman’s eating habits is condoned, the more acceptable it appears to comment on, criticise and generally police women’s bodies as if they do not belong to the woman in question. So to the next person who asks me if I’m sure I want to ruin my figure: I will eat what I like, where I like, thanks very much, and I’ll have it with extra mayo.
* This is a fictitious scenario invented by yours truly to prove a point. As far as I know, Cameron has never DJ-ed at a student night. I’m not sure if he’s ever actually even been to Leeds (other than to get that one Greggs pasty, once).