For Christmas, a friend presented me with a copy of “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris. I had read a few of his essays, particularly ones about his struggles with various compulsions, but I had not read so many about his family.
In “A Shiner Like a Diamond,” he writes about his four sisters—particularly actress Amy (a Sirens crush)—and their somewhat fractious relationship with their father. “My father has always placed a great deal of importance on his daughters’ physical beauty,” Sedaris writes. “It is, to him, their greatest asset, and he monitors their appearance like a pimp … my brother and I were allowed to grow as plump and ugly as we liked. Our bodies were viewed as mere vehicles—pasty, potbellied machines designed to transport our thoughts from one place to another. I might wander freely through the house drinking pancake batter from a plastic bucket, but the moment one of my sisters spilled out of her bikini, my father was right there to mix his metaphors. ‘Jesus, Flossie, what are we running here, a dairy farm? Look at you, you’re the size of a house.’”
Sedaris blames his father’s attitude on his age (old) and ethnic background (Greek). My friend who gave me the book is also Greek, so I asked her if her father had similar views when it came to her eating habits. “Definitely,” she said, remembering how, as a girl, her father would often remark—with disgust—that she ate “like a house on fire.” These remarks confused my friend, not only because houses do not eat anything, whether on fire or otherwise. She was far from overweight, and was heavily involved in sports at the time and needed the fuel. Sports, it must be added, that her father insisted she participate in, even though she never cared for them.
Still, she wasn’t the only one in the household criticized for daring to nourish herself. Her mother got it whenever she seemed to enjoy her dinner a little too much. But one member of the household never had to justify having a hearty appetite, no matter his weight. “No one ever said anything to my brother,” my friend told me, still clearly angered by it.
Something similar played out in my household as a child. My brother was allowed to have a bigger appetite than I was, an argument couched in what seemed perfectly reasonable terms. He was five years older, growing fast (he eventually topped out at 6-foot-6), and a star basketball player. So, naturally, he was entitled to bigger portions. I would have been able to accept that if it hadn’t been for the fact that, at age 9, I committed the unforgivable sin of getting plump. After that, any time I seemed to enjoy eating was viewed with contempt by the adults around me. I remember one incident with the son of a family friend, who, upon being asked whether he would see me around school, said “Yeah, but whenever I see her, she always has cookie crumbs around her mouth.”
My father relayed this remark to me with glee. And the message was painfully clear: The reason I was plump was obviously because I had such a ravenous and unhealthy appetite for cookies. Never mind that this kid only likely saw me at lunch—he was a year younger and we had no classes together—and that the supposed crumbs may have come from a sandwich. No. I was a horrible monster because I was Eating Cookies While Plump. And—horrors!—enjoying them.
And, yes, it’s clear I’m still angry about that one.
Still, reading about how the Sedaris sisters’ and my friend’s appetites were also monitored, whether by family (and not just fathers, but mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc.) or acquaintances, made me feel less alone. As did a recent blog entry that appeared on the community side of Jessica Valenti’s Feministing last month. In “Femininity and Food,” community blogger Electrikoolaid talked about two specific food/body experiences that affected her: In the first one, she went to an Italian restaurant with her father and ordered a gigantic calzone. Her father didn’t say anything to her when she did this, but the two men at the next table had no such reservations. “When my massive calzone arrived, I got these looks from the table next to ours—a father-son duo, I think—complete with eyebrow raises and condescending smirks,” she wrote. “Maybe I was reading into it too much at this point, but after I devoured the entire thing, the glances and smirks became chuckles—and, again, very condescending-sounding ones. I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye, and the father actually said to me, ‘I’ve never seen such a small girl with such a big appetite!’”
Electrickoolaid’s second story was about a birthday party, where she was cutting up the cake. She cut a big piece for her 3-year-old cousin, and says the other adults thought the sight of a little boy with such a big piece of cake was adorable. Then she cut an equally big piece for her 5-year-old niece. “My grandma actually piped up with, ‘Once on the lips, forever on the hips, sweetheart!’” To a 5-year-old. At a birthday party.
Electrickoolaid’s indignation was echoed fervently by other community members, who had their own stories of either getting shamed for wanting bigger portions or watching female relatives get shamed having an appetite at all. Moreover, the taboo on hearty female appetites seemed a common thread no matter a woman’s background: “I’ve noticed that in my family and in how Latinos (particularly Mexicans and Mexican Americans) are portrayed in the media,” wrote Bianca. “The man always gets the big meal, then the son, then the daughter—and then the wife. This is very typical in a lot of households, especially wherever I am with family. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either. I, for one, love to eat a lot. I love food. I hate how guys tell me, ‘damn, slow down,’ like it’s OK for them to chow down but I can’t.”
It’s hard to step away from that anger (and clearly I have yet to do so entirely), but I have to wonder why so many societies are invested in curbing female appetite. In “Our Tortured Relationship with Food,” I wrote about our society’s blithe acceptance of the idea that women are—or should be—on a permanent diet lest the worst happen to them, and they get fat. We are therefore encouraged to eat less caloric “feminine” foods.
But where does this idea come from? I found one answer in a variety of sources. The most compelling ones were Naomi Wolf and Mark Twain. They seem an unlikely pair, but have similar arguments about what happens when a society restricts women’s appetites.
In “The Beauty Myth,” Wolf devotes an entire chapter to women’s relationships with food. While much of it is focused on eating disorders and disordered eating, she offers an interesting perspective on female appetite, current and historical. Women’s appetites, she says, are not as important as men’s, because men are more important than women in modern patriarchal societies (and for pretty much all of recorded history, we have lived in a patriarchy). “Food is the primal symbol of social worth,” Wolf writes. “Whom a society values, it feeds well.”
When food is scarce, she continues, women get less than men because of their lower position in society. This was pointed out by Twain almost a century earlier in “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World.” In one chapter, Twain visits Honolulu, Hawaii, and talks about King Liholiho, son of Kamehameha. Liholiho, Twain writes, changed society drastically by abolishing “tabu,” a set of draconian laws which made the most innocuous things—such as stepping on the wrong piece of lawn—punishable by death. “The tabu was the most ingenious and effective of all the inventions that has ever been devised for keeping a people’s privileges satisfactorily restricted,” Twain writes.
The most restricted by tabu were women. When it came to food issues, they were not allowed to eat with men, though they were allowed to cook for them and serve them. The men ate first, and ate the best food: “the good things, the fine things, the choice things … by the tabu, these things were sacred to the men; the women spent their lives longing for them and wondering what they might taste like; and they died without finding out.”
And guess how Liholiho broke the tabu? He had dinner with his mother.
Things thankfully changed for Hawaiian women, and have changed for women in many countries—though sadly not all—that once saw nothing wrong with feeding females less than males simply because of their gender. The strides we have made—at least in industrialized nations over the last 150 years—have meant that “women are inferior to men” is no longer an acceptable excuse for keeping our bellies empty and men’s bellies full. The alarming thing is that another, even more insidious excuse has taken its place: Health. That’s right, women’s appetites these days must be restricted for “health” reasons. As Wolf puts it: “The traditional pattern was cloaked in modern shame, but otherwise changed little. Weight control became its rationale once natural inferiority went out of fashion.”
After all, everyone knows excess fat is unhealthy. And I am not going to argue here that it isn’t, because I can’t. Of course having so much fat on your body that you develop diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and osteoarthritis is bad. But as the fat acceptance movement continues to remind us, not every fat person has these problems. And why do women continue to be the most restricted?
Fat men face plenty of discrimination every day, but it is nothing compared to what women—and I am talking all women, even ones who aren’t technically overweight—face when just taking a simple bite. And men, unless morbidly obese, are allowed to enjoy a large meal without judgment or concerns about their “health.”
And speaking of health: Why, per Wolf’s research, do the poorest women in India eat 1,400 calories a day, while certain fad diets expect women to survive on 800? That, by the way, is 400 calories below the absolute minimum recommended for most women. How is starvation healthy?
But the saddest thing of all is how so many of us buy into this crap and bully others into it. Is it any wonder seven out of 10 women in this country have food issues?
I will end this with a plea: If you are ever tempted to judge (even silently) a girlfriend, a female relative, or even a woman you don’t know for eating a large meal and enjoying it—stop. And the next time you are hungry and want to enjoy a big meal—do it. The time for women to apologize for their appetites is past.
– A.K. Whitney