What’s Eating Women?

For the past month, Selena Gomez has been widely covered in the media. But it’s not for her music, acting or business ventures. The coverage has been centered around her body. Recently, Gomez admitted she was affected by the attention to and negative comments about her body online. Living with lupus, a disease affecting the immune system, her weight has fluctuated often over the past few years, giving way to public criticism and condemnation. 

After seeing the slew of media coverage on this topic, I ask you, have you ever seen headline after headline vilifying a man in the public eye for his body?

This is not to say that men do not struggle with body image and unrealistic standards created by the media. However, a man’s morality, work ethic and sense of self are usually not contingent on his appearance. 

Eating is a necessary metabolic function, along with drinking water, using the bathroom and breathing. Yet, eating is the only one that we condemn, particularly when it comes to women. 

To be a hungry woman is to be a dangerous woman. In a world that associates food with morality, and encourages women to take up as little space as possible, the message becomes clear that to eat, especially for pleasure, is shameful. A woman choosing to eat is akin to a sinner confessing at the altar. 

Brenda R. Weber, a gender studies professor at Indiana University, comments on how we make assumptions about a woman’s character and mental sanity based on her physicality. She discusses how thinness is equated with “rational individualism”, the idea that someone is in control of themselves and has power over their desires. In this instance, it is an emblem of a woman who is mentally strong because she is able to control her actions surrounding food.  In the media, larger bodies are criticized and seen as evidence of “poor impulse control […] a darker and more dangerous indulgence that is written on the flesh.” With Weber’s analysis in mind, it is evident that our society’s fixation on eating and thinness goes beyond the body. It is a way we measure our ability to counter our own human nature, to be supposedly mentally strong enough to outsmart our own biological cues. A slender female is seen as someone who is more feminine, in control of her impulses and able to perform well professionally. 

These societal expectations of the female body inform women’s food choices. Professors Ewa Kopczyńska and Katarzyna Zielińska looked at how men and women behave in relation to food, using Poland as a case study. The social pressure for women to be smaller, in order to be perceived as feminine, is clearly global. It extends to Polish women tending to, “have lower food intake, choose less fatty and healthier food and diet frequently”. They also found that men in Poland eat twice as much meat as women. Meat-eating has strong correlations with power, masculinity, hierarchy and autonomy in European culture. It is thus seen as an assertion of masculinity for a man to eat meat and a denouncement of femininity for a woman to do so. Thus, societal roles and morality continue to be correlated with food. 

Choosing what to eat for a meal is not simply a question of what appeals to our taste. It is often portrayed as a question of your character. The researchers conclude that “the body is seen as a product of disciplinary practices.” We view appearance as something under our control, contingent on our discipline with ourselves or lack thereof. We must eat according to the societal roles we wish to embody. 

This gendered perception of food exists in the United States as well. It even occurs in settings like Colgate. Examining students in a college dining hall, none too different from Frank, shows a shift in the behavior of both college-aged women and men based on who they are eating with. When men ate with women, they tended to purchase more calories than they did when eating with other men. Conversely, women eat less in the company of men and more when dining with their female peers. While men assert their masculinity through the abundance and power that accompanies eating, women restrict themselves in order to appear more feminine. Women are more relaxed in their demeanor and food choices when eating solely with members of their gender. Thus, the mixed-sex table creates pressure for women to appeal to societal notions of femininity associated with daintiness, impulse control and selflessness. When women ignore their physical needs, they deny themselves the ability to be fully present. They are forced to shrink themselves to the version society deems acceptable. 

We teach women to doubt themselves and their instincts. We have warped hunger into an agent of desire that must be controlled, rather than a need for survival. We tell women to first drink water if they feel hungry, and then to eat an apple. And if they’re not hungry for the apple, they must not truly be hungry. We crucify women for perceived physical flaws. For a woman to be worthy of respect, she must be conventionally attractive. Women are taught to make themselves smaller in order to make their voices larger. 

Food is fuel. Food is a necessity. Food is fundamental to life. We must end this condemnation of women listening to their bodies’ cues, of taking up space. There are greater crimes to worry about than a woman eating a burger.