Food Is Food: Taking Morality Off the Table

Image by Kate Walford
Image by Kate Walford

By Kate Walford, Intern 2015

Food is food. But what is food in our society?

A luxury. A disparity. A contest. An unrequited love. A number with a moral value. Something to control.

Food is imbued with so many meanings and values. Some of which are wonderful. Some of which are increasingly harmful. The way society’s spun it, food’s not really food at all.

When you listen, you’ll notice moral judgments around food and eating are everywhere. Ideas about how people, namely women, should eat, what we should eat, and what this should make us look like are ever-present. It’s common knowledge that this messaging comes in large part from mass media, from diet ads to fashion magazines to yogurt commercials. But we also get this from other sources, more covert yet no less influential: other women. Our families, our classmates, our coworkers, our best friends.

This past weekend, my friend and I went to a concert. After ordering dinner at a stand, my friend left to go find a table, and I stood by the cart waiting for my basket of chicken strips to come out. Two women stood behind me trying to decide what to order. Every time one woman suggested something, the other woman said something negative and shaming about the food.

“Oh my God, we are so going to need to go to the gym in the morning!”

“We are being so bad! I guess we’ll just blow it today. Should we even get anything here?”

The woman next to me rolled her eyes, and I gave her a look of mutual exasperation.

In my recovery from two eating disorders, I heard a lot about triggers coming from food or stress. I didn’t hear much about how triggering talking about food with friends can be, especially with friends who are unaware of your disordered history with food. I don’t preface all of my friendships with “Hey, I used to have an eating disorder, please don’t make judgy food comments around me,” and I don’t want to have to. I have ended up choosing friendships based on this — and I don’t want to have to do that either.

This incessant chatter about food isn’t just harmful to those with a history of eating disorders — it promotes a disordered relationship with food and body image for anyone at the table. Moralizing food and how we eat it places judgment on our choices and lifestyles in an unnecessary and unhealthy way. When food and weight are deemed “good” and “bad” by these conversations, women’s actions and size are judged on these standards as well.

If we want to make peace with our bodies and with food, the insidious food talk masquerading as a vehicle for female bonding needs to end.

Poor body image and an obsession with weight and food are not only unhealthy — these things really hold us back, especially women. While women are not the only ones experiencing these issues, the dominant Western culture places high value on appearance and self-control for women. This additional pressure frequently leads to poor body image and spending large amounts of time dieting, exercising, or thinking about food. It saddens me that so many women continue to police one another, to trigger one another, to shame one another right along with the patriarchal system that holds us back as a whole, and that we fight hard against.

This chatter among women is also a form of self-objectification. Objectification in its purest form means to see or present something as an object rather than as its whole self. Objectifying women makes us see them as just that — objects valued merely for their appearance.

When we speak about ourselves in ways that primarily value appearance and eating habits, we self-objectify. When we open up our mouths and say exactly what the commercials and magazines are saying, we are putting the shit that oppresses us back out into the world again, for other women and girls to hear. Speaking about food in a judgmental or shameful way pushes these societal ideals on ourselves and our family, friends, coworkers — even strangers, like in my story above. It objectifies the women you are eating with, too — and who wants to do that?

When the focus comes off of the humans at the table and onto the details and bullshit moral values of the food on it, we miss out on a lot. We miss out on historical traditions of bonding over good food. We miss out on stories about our friend’s new baby and our mom’s new job if we spend our time discussing the caloric content of our sandwich. When we succumb to discussing what today’s patriarchal ethos wants us to discuss, we self-objectify and lose the progress we have been making in the fight for separation of a woman’s appearance from her value.

The women at the concert who made comments about the food they had chosen to eat took focus away from the events and relationships at hand and put focus onto the morality of our food and food choices. We were the objects of the problematic beliefs about food and body placed upon us. Every woman who heard her had no choice but to hear, from a fellow woman and human, that oppressive and misogynistic rhetoric about food and a woman’s self-control once more. We get this stuff from TV and magazines — we definitely don’t need it from our friends and allies.

To dismantle heteronormative, misogynistic standards of eating habits and appearance for women and to promote body love and acceptance for all humans, we must resist this self-objectifying discussion of the morality of food. While many of us, especially those with histories of disordered eating, cannot control the judgmental thoughts that pop up in our heads, we can choose to think carefully about how we speak to others regarding food.

We can choose not to push these oppressive ideas onto our friends and our family; we can use our own words and actions to show that we value ourselves and those around us for much more than what we eat or how we look. We can choose to set ourselves and those around us free from these standards when we are with them. We can break the broken record of judgment and shame running around our dinner tables and focus on valuing ourselves and our loved ones for who we really are. We can start creating a table to sit around where acceptance, self-love, and healing are really possible.

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