This summer I’m doing research at my college, and I’m living with two roommates. Something I’ve noticed is that I’ve been actively avoiding eating in front of them, and I think this tied into a larger theme common to many women: Food guilt.
At my college, I have worked for the past two years at a small convenience store on campus. The store is frequented by a large number of students and is an employer of many more. One of my main tasks as a student employee is to check people out at the register, which means that I get to know, or at least recognize the faces of, the people who shop at the store.
I quickly noticed a trend in which female customers would come in, bring what they deemed “unhealthy” foods (ranging from a bag of Cheetos to a bottle of Coke) to the register and make excuses, either to me or whoever they were with, about why they were purchasing such items, despite knowing how “bad” they supposedly were. Other female customers would bring a basket filled with food to the register and quickly go on about how they hadn’t eaten all day, how it was for their friends, or something similar, as if they needed to provide a reason for buying so much to eat. And there were others who I saw more often and who obviously recognized me, who would some in and say things like, “I’m sorry that I come in here all the time. You must think I’m fat for buying so much food.”
The strange part about all this is that when I was working and I encountered women saying such things, I thought it was really odd. But whenever I went to buy food at the same place, I always secretly wondered what the student cashiers thought of me and the food I was buying.
The other strange thing was that no matter how much, or what kinds of things, the male customers I saw purchased, they made excuses and apologized drastically less frequently than their female counterparts.
As I recall these experiences, all I can think about is how, for women and girls, relentless socialization has turned eating into a pathology.
From a young age, girls are taught that appearances are important to their identity. They are socialized into this in many ways, ranging from the types of compliments they receive (“You look so pretty!”) to the kinds of play things meant for people of their gender (Barbies, princess dress up clothes). This appearance-centered world that girls are socialized into is made more problematic when it’s coupled with the narrow ideal of female beauty: being flawlessly thin.
For women, eating is not merely about nutrition. It is seen as a disorder, a pathology. Women are taught to control their bodies through controlling their eating habits with the help of diet plans, low-fat food, diet soda, and other such products. If a woman eats, she is often made to feel as if she has “let herself go,” as if she does not care about her body the way she should, as if there is something wrong with her.
And so women who come to buy food at the convenience store at my college campus make excuses for their purchases have clearly internalized the messages from the greater society that say that eating is a poor reflection on them – that it is a disorder.
As a young woman who deals with this problem every day of my life, who feels extreme guilt for eating anything and who feel hyper-aware of how other perceive my eating habits, I have not been able to fully explore all the reasons and meanings behind this issue. But I do hope to write about this more in the future.
NOTE: The main idea for this post came to me after reading Reading Ads Socially by Robert Goldman. In chapter 5 of this book, Goldman writes about how advertisements contribute to the notion that if women don’t add up to the idealized image of female beauty, that they have a flaw. I thought this point fit particularly well with my experiences and the common problem of women’s messed up ideas about eating.