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Friday, 4 January 2013

Food Guilt: Society's Tool to Make You Thin

By Rose Walker
One of my parent's favourite stories to tell about me is set in that long lost realm of children's birthday parties - a magical land set in village halls, peppered with party bags, pass the parcel and a trestle table containing a gigantic array of finger food. I was an incredibly shy child (aged 12, I  spent the entirety of a friend's Halloween party in a room with her dogs to avoid social interaction) but, so I am told, I was in my element at birthday parties. I have a severe allergy to nuts, so my parents used to stick around for the party; presumably in case I was  gripped by a sudden urge to shovel down the nearest bowl of peanuts. This meant they got to observe my social skills, which weren't great with the other party-goers, but set me down next to some cheese and pineapple on sticks, and I would be content. My mother is very proud when she says "you were always last to leave the food table", and the idea of 'greed' or other negative associations with food have never existed in my household.

It was quite a shock when I discovered that society as a whole takes serious issue with women enjoying food.
Going to an all-girls secondary school was my first experience of this, and it was a bitter pill to swallow. Generally most flack I got from buying food from the canteen at break-time was good-natured (my obsession with cheese and onion pasties was disliked by my friends because of the smell, rather than the fat content) but there were absolutely barbed comments from the less pleasant members of my class. Perhaps it was because it genuinely baffled them that I could eat 2 sausage rolls and a doughnut and not immediately gain twenty stone - if this was the impression their Laura Ashley bedecked mothers had given them, I was certainly a mystery.

For the last three summers I've worked as a waitress, and this has given me another interesting vantage point into a bigger demographic of how women treat food and meals. It's a modest cafe, with a glass-fronted cake cabinet next to the counter that I fold napkins on and try to be friendly across. My, that cake cabinet. Full of deliciousness; chocolate, lemon, carrot, date and walnut, coffee, toffee, fruit, scones and teacakes. Placed there because customers cannot avoid looking at them (my boss is a smart cookie.)  And, a lot of the time, the bit of orders that I dread. The bit of an order  where the customer (always a woman, I have NEVER encountered this with a man) will attempt to pull me on-side with her sickly sweet, 'girls together' vibe, because the poor sod needs convincing it is okay for her to order a piece of cake. The incredibly frustrating deliberation she goes through, usually involving one or more of the following phrases:

'They look lovely, really tasty'
'Quite big slices, though'
'I might be naughty and have a piece of...'
'Well, I have been good today'
'No, I shouldn't'

Now, I'm sort of patient and sort of not. This, I have no patience for. Lady, there is a queue gathering behind you. Children are opening the ice cream cabinet and attempting to climb into it. I just want to scream at you, 'IT IS OKAY TO WANT THE CAKE! I WANT THE CAKE! I WANT ALL THE CAKE. JUST BECAUSE SOCIETY TELLS YOU IT'S NOT OKAY TO HAVE THE CAKE, YOU SHOULD WANT TO HAVE AND ENJOY THE CAKE.' But I can't do that, because my boss would be severely unimpressed. What I do instead is attempt to paste a smile of encouragement on my face and only allow myself to respond with 'Ha, well, I like the chocolate best.' I cheer inside if they do order some, and hope they aren't internally justifying it. I serve them their cake, and hope that the icing isn't left behind when I clear away their plates later.
But I am still left angry, even if they rave about how delicious the chocolate cake was when I bring them their tea. I am left angry because society leaves a very sour taste in my mouth, that it's no doubt pleased with itself because it'll put me off eating. I am angry because it is acceptable, no, encouraged in society for women to be ashamed of their appetite, to only want stupid foods like a Cadbury's 'Crispello' bar, that are marketed directly at women. That Maltesers are 'the lighter way' to enjoy chocolate, so that makes them okay for women. A man is allowed to enjoy food, because he is man. He is allowed to want steak and burgers and cheese and Doritos and all the deliciousness that exists in our world, simply because society says so. Women are reduced to bargaining with themselves, "I can have this chocolate bar, if I go for a run later", and engaging in bonding sessions over their GUILT 'Let's both get dessert and then we can be naughty together!' Tee-fucking-hee.

I want women to realise this. I want women to realise society manipulates them to such an extent that they will deny themselves something they want because they worry about what other people think of them. I want my friends to not refuse to walk past a table of guys with an extra-large plate at Toby carvery, because they worry about what they will be thinking. I want those women who I serve at work to turn down a piece of cake because they are full, not because they feel guilty about it. I want women to take pleasure in food, and not punish themselves for it. And I want society to make it possible for women to do that. 

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  1. I am SO GLAD you have written about this. I work in a chocolate shop and the shame and secrecy with which some women buy chocolate is ridiculous; it's like they're buying crack. So frequently I, like you, have to smile through their justifications of: 'well, it IS the weekend' or 'they're not all for me!'and it makes me feel a little bit sick inside. I like to think I'm pretty healthy so an 'everything in moderation' approach is very much my ethos, but increasingly women seem to be expected to live on a very immoderate diet of bits of celery stick and muesli.It's total bullshit.

  2. Excellent, very well written and very truthful, this is an important thing to encourage, along with the wider issue of women learning how to be nice to themselves. Well done kid.
    P.s. my dogs appreciated your company that night.


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