By Sarah Rowe
It was the final week of year seven, meaning the teachers had planned “fun” activities and excursions in place of the regular routine of homeroom, math, English, etc. One such excursion was to a local La Porchetta, followed by mini golf.
My best friend at the time, Tash* and I prided ourselves on being tomboys. She played soccer, embodying a sort of feminine jock, not afraid to get her shoes or dress muddy, unconcerned by a disheveled ponytail. I played guitar and openly burped. On “Medieval Day” (did everyone’s school have this, or just mine?), while the “other girls” clamored for the spots of Queen, Princess, Duchess or Lady in Waiting, Tash and I vied for the spots of the two Court Jesters (which we got, by the way).
On that particular excursion to La Porchetta, Tash decided to enshrine her status as “one of the boys” by challenging Jason, renowned for his ability to eat large amounts of foods, to a pizza eating contest. She vowed to match him slice for slice, crust for crust.
And she did. But I’ve since wondered, why? Why was it so shocking that a girl could eat just as much as a guy? Why was everyone so amused and bewildered? Why did she feel the need to prove something about herself by eating seven slices of questionable quality, mass-produced margarita pizza?
The Gendering of Food
Eating: it’s a behavior we all have in common. And yet, it appears that food, eating, and diet carry very different meanings according to gender.
Eating, particularly eating a lot, is somehow a masculine source of pride, or at least a masculine entitlement. Growing up, my brother was always given larger servings than me and my younger sister. This was attributed to him being “a growing boy” despite the fact that my sister and I were likely also growing during that period. Men apparently need to consume more to maintain their size. For example, we speak about men physically “bulking” and “growing.” After all, isn’t the motto for every “manly” thing: “The bigger, the better.” Just the other day, I saw an advertisement for McCain’s “Man Size Meals,” which seems to suggest that men need or deserve larger portions of food than women. More than that, this need to consume more is something we believe men should be proud of; we rarely expect men to apologize for how much they eat. In fact, we expect them to boast about how much they can eat. In a 2016 McCain TV Commercial, one man sits down for a Healthy Choice Protein Plus meal while his mate (dressed as a tradie and carrying a ridiculously sized dumbbell, just so we’re clear that he is a dude), says of his friend’s meal, “That wouldn’t fill me up.” It’s said in a tone of pride, not guilt or shame. For, there is nothing more masculine than a large body fueled by a correspondingly large appetite.
Women, on the other hand, are encouraged to eat as little as possible, to fit with the narrative of women being delicate, fragile creatures, free from sin. Not only this, but when we do eat, we should make every effort to be as discreet, quiet, and secretive about it as possible (need I remind you of the whole “Lady-friendly Doritos” saga from earlier this year?) Not only that, but for women, eating is tied up with ideas of morality. And our morality in turn seems to be tied up with what we eat and how it affects the shape and size of our bodies. Consider brands such as Lean Cuisine, who often advertise their foods as tasting “naughty”, but being “nice” (the implication being that it tastes like it would make you fat, but it won’t!). A more glaringly obvious example is the “Angels” featured in a series of commercials for Philadelphia cream cheese. Presumably, the women in the commercials are awarded their angelic status because they eat Philadelphia, which contains “60% less fat than butter or margarine.” We see the phrase “Sinfully Delicious” over and over in food marketed women.
And the less fat you eat, the less fat you’ll be, and this will make you a better person—a better woman! Because fat is bad, immoral, and disgusting. Comments about women’s eating such as, “Wow, you were really hungry” are daily reminders of the constant judgement and scrutiny received by women from others. This is also shown when we are praised for what we don’t eat. You only ate a salad for lunch today? You go girl!
Threatening to challenge the traditional feminine diet of “the less, the better” can often incur repercussions. Surely I’m not the only one who, when sitting at a restaurant or at home, a delicious meal in front of me and armed with the necessary cutlery, has been confronted with the question, “Are you really going to eat all that?” and been filled with instant shame. Am I? Is it bad if I do? Am I bad if I do?
Eating: it’s something we all do. But it’s time we start challenging the gendered black and white thinking around it. We need to retrain ourselves and others to disassociate ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, from our behaviors around food. We need to stop the culture of shaming women for daring to be proud about eating enough to nourish their bodies. We need to see the act of eating for what it is in its most basic sense—putting food into our bodies to keep them functioning.
And we need to start now.
*Some names and identifying details have been changed for the sake of privacy.