You’ve seen it. The groom takes a piece of wedding cake and smashes it into the perfectly made up face of his bride. This is the message: Ladies will not eat unless they are force fed.
Stop fast-forwarding past the commercials, and you’ll see men scarfing pizza, chicken wings, all manner of delicious cuisine. Women in commercials are mostly eating yogurt with teeny tiny spoons. Finger licking, lip smacking, satisfied tummy rubbing? That is for guys only.
I was recently at a ladies’ luncheon. You know what was served, right? Chicken salad on a croissant, with a side of field greens, that salad that tastes like it arrived at your plate directly from the dirt. And it’s dressed with a squeeze of lemon and angel tears.
I was ladylike in my manner of consumption. I cut the croissant in 4 bite-size pieces, and took 3 bites out of each piece, blotting my mouth before sipping my saccharine-sweetened iced tea. I ate my field greens with gusto, because ladies can. When I threw in my fork, you could have blown the crumbs off my plate and used it, unwashed, for tomorrow’s luncheon.
It was then that I examined the plates of the seven other ladies at my table. One woman’s plate was, as seen with the naked eye, completely untouched. A few other women had scraped the filling from their croissants, leaving those buttery, flakey puffs of lusciousness on their plates. Another woman was eating just the seepage around the croissant, and another consumed the ends, leaving the juicy elbow of the sandwich on her plate. Most of the women had consumed every leaf of the swamp grass salad.
I may have been imagining it, but they all looked sad and hollowed out, like the meal train had just passed up their station.
Our table was near the kitchen, so I watched waitresses carry plate after plate of uneaten food to the garbage. Now let me describe the attendees of this luncheon. Their average age was sixty. They were teachers who surely had worked up a healthy appetite. They were carefully dressed and many wore Spanx or other shapewear, to no great effect. These were fleshy Estrogen-starved matrons. And yet they did not eat their lunch.
There is some unwritten rule in our society that ladies who lunch don’t actually consume their lunch. They dab their lipsticked mouths with the corners of their linen napkins and profess that they are just too full, that they couldn’t possibly eat another bite. They tuck their uneaten lunches into styrofoam carry-out boxes, and they claim their leftovers will last two more meals. It is hard to believe that they are leaving satisfied. In fact, I bet a lot of those leftovers are eaten at the first stop light, dripping into soft laps.
As long as I can remember, people have had something to say about what I eat. When I was a little girl, I was all knees and elbows, and I thought eating was a bother. I had a very grateful mutt, Bootsie, who sat at my knee under the dining room table. Old Doc Wagner told my parents to feed me milkshakes and peanut butter. Membership in the Clean Plate Club at our house was mandatory. I remember a meal of Sweet and Sour Pork that I wouldn’t eat at dinner, so my mother served it to me for breakfast and lunch the next day, and I suppose I must have choked it down at dinner or it would still be sitting on that Formica table.
Then, something happened. When I was twelve, I began to put on meat and something repulsive on my bones. Doc Wagner said I had high blood pressure and it could shorten my lifespan. That was over a half century ago, and I can still remember the shame I felt sitting on that examining table. On the ride home, I cried. “Why did Doctor Wagner call me a beast?” I asked my mother. “Not ‘beast, Sweetie.’ ‘Obese. You’re obese.’” This was a vocabulary word nobody would let me forget for the rest of my life.
The next day I went to my Grandma Mootsie’s for my annual week-long visit. She adored me. She always had orangeade and Zwieback and sandwich cookies for me, treats I never got at home. And she let me help her make egg drop soup and chili and German potato salad.. But shortly after I arrived that year, she unveiled a new plan. She had made charts to record reps of our daily exercise and measurements, and we were only going to eat low-calorie foods. There must have been something really wrong with me if Mootsie found fault.
Meanwhile, my fourteen-year-old beanpole-of-a-brother was eating seven burgers on the fourth of July, and a dozen of Grandma Seilkop’s fried eggs on Christmas morning. This is the stuff of legends, of robust men, like Paul Bunyan. For some reason, my father took great pride in bragging about my brother’s appetite. Real men eat. A lot.
I did slim down in the next few years, without effort, as it turns out. Many girls have a pre-puberty pudge, and that’s what that weight gain was all about. I just got taller is all, which brings its own kind of hell. The short boys won’t date you. The basketball players are slobbering over the elfin cheerleaders. It seems that girls just weren’t supposed to take up a lot of space.
At 13 I was at a healthy weight, curvy but in no way fat. Twiggy was all the rage then, and though I used eyeliner to draw in her iconic lower lashes, I couldn’t keep my thighs from rubbing together, and my boobs couldn’t pass the pencil test. So I boarded the lifelong diet train. Friends, that is over a half a century of denial, carefulness, and shame around food. For guys, food is just food. Their forks are not heavy with regret and disgrace.
There was little a young woman in the 60s should love with gusto. If we liked a boy, we weren’t supposed to show it. “Don’t look too eager,” we were warned. “Don’t be too available.” The girl had to wait until he called. Until he asked her for a date. For his invitation to go steady.
Girls shouldn’t be too much.
And we weren’t supposed to eat too much, either. Shouldn’t love it or want it. Was it Emily Post or Teen Magazine who warned young women to eat before going on a date, so they wouldn’t be too hungry? Around boys we were to pick at our food like we completely filled up. We were dainty, delicate, controlled, and so easily satisfied. We didn’t require a lot. We were low maintenance.
Food, I came to understand, meant something different for males and females. For males, food was, well, food: Energy. Nourishment. Sometimes deliciously satisfying. But for females, food was sustenance, yes, but sustenance wrapped up in indignity and restraint and, when alone, comfort. And why is that?
For me, I think my fork got so heavy with emotions because of the attention my eating attracted. For many years I was too thin, and my family was constantly urging me to eat. Then, when I got pudgy, there was this familial panic that I would get fat. And that was clearly something very, very bad. And at all times, no matter what I weighed, I had to clean my plate.
My weight was under everyone’s purview. No one felt shy about commenting on my figure. My father, in particular, sized me up: “Do you really need to eat that?” “You don’t need dessert.” Women in my life were scrutinizing me as well, suggesting that boys might love a little less of me.
The compliments were almost as bad –“You’ve really slimmed down.” “You’re lookin good”—because I was aware that my body was constantly being judged and that I would need to either starve—or vomit—or exercise obsessively to keep getting that approval.
My father always felt it was his right, maybe his obligation, to critique every woman’s body he saw: nurses, doctors, waitresses, my friends, my daughters, my mother. Even at 88, on oxygen, he ogled the women at the beach, and when a hefty lady walked by (sometimes a lady my size) he’d roll his eyes and shake his head like a doggie on a dashboard, and say, “Can you believe that lard ass? I can’t believe she’d go swimming.”
On television, fat men get thin women: Don and Carrie on King of Queens; Bob and Midge on the 70s Show; Ralph and Alice Kramden; Homer and Marge Simpson; Fred and Wilma Flintstone, and their friends, Barnie ad Betty. Can you think of a single counter example, where a thin actor is paired romantically with a large actress? Molly is allowed to be in love, but only with Mike.
All men have permission to comment on all women’s bodies. Our President, for instance, calling Miss Universe Miss Piggy, “Miss Eating machine.” Using a numerical system to rate women’s attractiveness.
Our President who was 6’2” on his driver’s license years ago, but when campaigning he had a growth spurt and “grew” to be 6’3,” according to his doctor, thereby avoiding the “obesity” label.
I would be the last person who would engage in fat-shaming, but I find I must call attention to the fact that Donald Trump, like my late father, is a roundish bloke with substantial girth. And Donald Trump calls a beauty queen fat? Isn’t that a matter of a bigly pot calling an average-sized kettle black?
Can you imagine the influence of this president’s public body shaming could have on our children?
Thank you, world, for your diligent inspection of our bodies. This is where it’s gotten us:
38% of American women are obese compared to 32% of men.
90% of Americans with eating disorders are female.
13% of women over 50 have eating disorder behaviors.
Almost half of 3 to 6-year old girls worry about being fat.
Nearly all of us women are dieting. Fat women and thin women. We go to bed at night, thinking not about good work we’ve done, or the kindnesses we’ve extended, but how many calories we’ve consumed. We’re all walking around with our Fitbits. All shopping for slenderizing fashions. Won’t swim because we don’t want to be seen in our bathing suits. Won’t go to the doctor because we are ashamed of getting weighed. Won’t wear sleeveless tops in the summer. Bringing half our chicken salad sandwiches home in Styrofoam boxes.
Because our bodies are just out there, vulnerable, displayed for the world, we can’t get away from this judgement. We dress to camouflage and we leave the table hungry, all so men won’t weigh in on our weight.
For those who feel obliged to size up my size, I say this:
Mind your own damn business. Mind your own fat ass.
This is my body. Don’t weigh it or measure it or rate it or berate it. You don’t get to judge what goes into it, how much it’s covered up, how much space it inhabits, where it plays, or how much it jiggles.