The sound of the food police

12 Sep

I’ve been thinking a lot about food consumption and body image recently, which is obviously not a new topic in feminist discourse and has been written about extensively, from Fat is a Feminist Issue (it still is) onwards. In this post I have found that the issue of food consumption as a feminist issue is intertwined with issues relating to class and race, and that the modern food industry is at the heart of a political and cultural conflict in which the human body, and specifically the female human body, is the emblem of a war on obesity that has been wholly invented and perpetuated by the patriarchy.

A woman who openly enjoys food is regarded with suspicion and disapproval. My partner and I recently overheard two teenage girls on the bus, fat-shaming an absent friend who always ordered pudding because, she just ‘really likes food’; apparently this makes her a freak. It got me thinking about the restraint I impose on myself, and have done for decades, when I am eating with a group of women. No one wants to be the one being spoken on the bus like that and I believe this comes from a fear, not so much of being seen as greedy, but of standing out, of not conforming to expected behaviours and restricting food intake, as women are expected to, in order to maintain an acceptable body size and shape. The woman who shows that this is not at the forefront of her mind when consuming a meal is seen as strange or weak. This is the reason a woman will often go for a salad or ‘healthy option’ if the other women at the table are shunning chips (which are what she would really order if she was alone).

This kind of self-restraint can become endemic throughout a woman’s life, as explored by Lily Myers in her poem Shrinking Women, in which she compares her mother’s shrinking form (who, she says, drinks wine from a measuring glass) with her father’s (whose ‘stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry, a new girlfriend…’). It’s not just food the that the mother is denying herself, the implication is that she is missing out on life experiences, the enjoyment of rich food, of staying up late drinking with a lover. Her shrinking body is a symbol of her fading existence without a man to make her ‘real’, while her father’s corpulent form is evidence of his rootedness in existence, his lack of fear to carry on after the decline of his marriage.

The image of a woman enjoying food is sometimes seen as evidence of urban decay. The Facebook group, Women Who Eat on Tubes (WWEOT), which came to the media’s attention a few months back, drew a lot of attention and accusations of misogyny. I would argue that the fact the project was carried out on public transport and seems to focus particularly on women eating fast food, that there is a class issue here as well. Considering the type of food being consumed, where it is being consumed and who by (women, who in the patriarchal view should act as keepers and ambassadors of a society’s moral values to draw a veil over the behaviour of its men), the author seems to be suggesting that these images encapsulate societal decline.

If we consider food and consumption to be a site of intersection between class and gender equality issues, it is appropriate to mention the subject of the obesogenic view of society (the idea that a person’s environment is to blame for making them obese). Berlant said: ‘Obesogenic accounts open the door for interventionist, paternalistic policies targeted at curbing consumption, always with an eye toward poor communities and communities of color, and often yoked to nationalist discourses of security and progress.’1 We can see this kind of attitude at play in WWEOT. By attempting to shame women who eat in public, the author is playing a paternalistic role, attempting to put a halt to the constant consumption that is the sign of a society that is never satisfied.

‘Fat represents modernity gone awry’, Yancey wrote.2 Modernity has gone awry, this means, insofar as we have moved away from having our diets shaped by nature, from living off the land and eating seasonally. We no longer fear starving to death in the West. Instead we are at risk of eating ourselves to death. We now have cheap ways of producing a constant supply of processed food full of sugar and synthetic ingredients, with no nutritional value. It seems we have opened a Pandora’s box of exponential cheap food production, with our self-destruction through overeating being the consequence. But the individual risk is not equal across society. While a proportion of us live in so-called ‘obesogenic environments’, and are actually exposed to, and seduced by, cheap food to attain temporary fulfillment, others actively fight against this environment (i.e. the middle-classes, who eat and shop healthily to distinguish themselves from poorer consumers). At the top are those (the state, the media) who see it as their responsibility to police the obesogenic environment, issuing health advice while allowing the food industry as much leeway to maintain the fine balance between ensuring that profit is made, and ameliorating the consequences of consumption to ensure they do not put a burden on the public purse by overwhelming the health service. (To digress slightly – I speak only in the context of an as-yet not completely privatised health service as it is in the UK. Once it is fully privatised I can only assume that the rhetoric of the ‘food police’ will disappear and consumers be left to fund their own treatment for obesity-related disease, or die if they cannot afford it. Look to the USA as an example of what is likely to happen. High obesity; privatised healthcare. Coincidence?)

Why it is specifically the issue of women being fat that ‘seems to magnetize fears around living and dying, life and death, liveliness and … deathliness’?2

References

  1. Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry 33 (2007): 754.
  2. Yancey et al, “Obesity at the Crossroads: Feminist and Public Health Perspectives,” Signs 31.2 (2006): 426.

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