I pushed my chair back from the table to survey the damage.
A stack of miniature plates chest-high, a half-empty bowl of soy sauce, rice scattered everywhere, a smattering of spicy sauce adding color to the chaos.
SOMEone had eaten all of this. Someone with little regard for what people thought of her, someone who was hungry and had wanted to try one of each kind of sushi. Plus some of those little puffy cream cakes for dessert.
"Wow," said my dining companion. "You really went to town, didn’t you?"
Suddenly: Shame. Embarrassment.
Wishes: That I was smaller. That I could crawl into a hole. That I had paid more attention. That I had eaten less food.
I looked with envy at her three demure plates neatly arranged in front of her.
"Well... I was hungry."
Eating in public can be a stressful experience. We worry that people are paying attention. That they think we've eaten too much. Or not enough.
Society says we’re supposed to be thin, or at least striving to be thin. But we shouldn’t be too thin, or be trying too hard to be thin. No matter how thin or body-positive you are, a single comment can send even the most comfortable-in-her-skin or beauty2k-compliant woman into a tailspin of self-doubt and guilt.
Women, who are subjected to head-to-toe bodily scrutiny from prepubescence through post-menopause, are often the worst perpetrators of food judgment. We police each other’s eating habits and compete with each other over how much or how little we can eat, much like we compete with each other in other areas of life.
Comments come from both food pushers (people whose personal mission seems to be to get you to eat more food), and food deniers (people whose personal mission is to notice and judge the amount and type of food you eat).
The food pusher:
“Here, have a cookie. What, you don’t like cookies? Well then why don’t you have a cookie? How about you just split this one with me? Are you on a diet? Come on, have a cookie already! Who’s it gonna hurt?”
The food denier:
“Wow, how many cookies have you had today? Is that really what you’re eating for lunch? You must have been really hungry. What do you have, a hollow leg?”
After years of inundation with media messages about the importance of thinness, highly gendered food marketing (fat-free yogurt is for women! hearty hamburgers are for men!), and public fat-shaming and food scrutiny, is it any wonder that eating in front of others is nerve-racking?
From the moment I’m seated at a restaurant, I feel like all eyes are on me. Even strangers are self-appointed arbiters of my eating habits. This anxiety extends even to fast-food drive-through ordering -- what is the window attendant going to think when I chow down on a shake, burger, fries AND onion rings with special sauce?
As a recovering anorexic, I’m aware that food is one of my “issues.” But you don’t need to have an eating disorder to feel anxiety about eating in public. Or anxiety about eating, period.
It’s not all in our heads -- the world is full of people who, intentionally or otherwise, will try to tear you down. While this is true in all areas of life, it’s particularly tragic that society’s unrealistic and often cruel expectations of women extend to what should be one of life’s greatest pleasures -- sharing a meal with friends and family.