I'll Eat All the Food and Like It, Thank You Very Much: On Public Food-Shaming

"You're such a pretty girl, you don't need to be doing that to yourself!" And I imagined the server's head popping like a tick.

Jul 30, 2014 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Udi's gluten free Snickerdoodles. Go eat them now. 

"I've never seen someone so little, eat so much! Be careful or you won't be little for long!"

"You live to eat, I eat to live. That's the difference between your plate and mine."

"Whoa! You eat like a man!" 

Regardless of my size, I feel like my eating has always drawn scrutiny. The above is just a sampling of the "insightful" comments people have felt comfortable telling me about my eating habits. 

Whether I've been fat, thin, or anything inbetween, I've always been a big eater. When I was in elementary school and someone would bring cupcakes or cookies or chili (yeah a kid did that -- I guess that was a thing?) for their birthday, I was always the kid who was hoping for seconds, or even thirds. 

I just liked food, and I was always hungry. That was the long and short of it. I didn't think about other people when I ate, I didn't worry about how much other people were eating, I just ate my food. My parents didn't care that I ate a lot, and my dad even enjoyed having a partner in crime when it came to indulging in one more slice of our summertime treat -- DELIVERY Domino's Pizza. 

And no, it wasn't all cupcakes, pizza, and chili -- my mom would kill me if I let you think she just shoveled sugar and cheese down my throat -- WE ATE A LOT OF FRUIT. But it didn't matter, I was indiscriminate. I viewed food as a pleasure as well as a necessity, and I ate until my stomach told me to stop.

It just so happened that my stomach told me to stop later than when the other kids' stomachs told them to stop. 

I munched along on my merry way until 4th grade, and my friend Mary's birthday party. 

Mary's mom prepared a pretty rockin' spread for a 10 year-old's party. There was cake, soda, chips, hot dogs, and even a cookie station where you could decorate your own animal-shaped cookie with frosting and sprinkles.

I don't remember exactly how I got to this point, but Mary's mom found me standing in the living room holding my crumb-scattered, empty plate. The other kids were strewn about the floor still, munching and playing with the bounty of Mary's new loot. My guess is that I'd finished my second helping before the other kids had finished their first (I was and still am a stupidly fast eater), and I was standing there spacing out, like I do, debating whether I wanted to nauseate myself on the tire swing or check out the movie about to start on the big TV. 

"Oh Louise, did you get enough food? You're SO MUCH BIGGER THAN MARY, I have to remember HOW MUCH YOU EAT. I don't think EVERYONE ELSE IS DONE EATING, but you want more don't you?"

And 10 year-old Louise died for the following reasons:

  1. I was almost at my full adult height by the time I was 11, so even at 10, I towered over all the other kids AND Mary's mom (who was just barely five feet tall). I was very self conscious of my height, and Mary's mom had just announced to the room how much BIGGER I was than normal-sized Mary. 
  2. I had no idea I ate SO MUCH MORE than all the other kids until that. exact. moment. With everyone staring at me, watching Mary's mom inquire about the MASS QUANTITIES OF FOOD I needed, my relationship to food changed in an instant: Holy crap, people pay attention to what, and how much I eat. 
  3. All the other kids stared at me, my plate, and then the food on their plates. 

It was one of those record scratch moments. 

I remember that instant so clearly. All the eyes waiting for me to respond, not knowing how to respond, wanting to vanish in that instant and never have to see Normal Mary and her Normal Mom ever again.

I think Mary's mom had good intentions, expressing concern in an awkward and embarrassing manner, but concern nonetheless. But from that moment on, all the way into college, graduate school and beyond, I would carefully guard the perception of how much food I was eating in one sitting. 

I was the woman in line at the fast food restaurant, talking on my cell phone just a little too loudly, pretending to get a second order from my friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, Jean-Luc Picard, whoever. Just so when I got to the front of the line and ordered tons of food, I could smile at the understanding lady next to me, and say, "Bringing home dinner! YOU know!"

More than once, I'd actually get take-out for me and friends or a boyfriend, and I'd eat the appetizer I'd bought just for myself in the car before getting home. I did this so that it at least appeared that I was satiated by an average amount of food. 

Occasionally I would let my guard down, either when I was alone or with people I thought were "cool." But so many times my ability to "shovel it in" became a joking topic of conversation, that I would always revert back to "normal" eating in public and "normal Louise eating" in private. 

What amazes me is that there is no such thing as immunity. At my heaviest, people would warn me, show "concern" over what I was "doing" to myself. At my lightest, I'd have people "warning" me about what could happen to my "shape" if I wasn't careful.

Once when I thought I was having a quiet, pleasant, solo dinner at my favorite pizza place in LA -- just me, my pizza, and my book -- one of the "friendly" servers came by my table to offer some help. 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa girl! You don't need to eat that whole thing by yourself! I'll get you a box! You're such a pretty girl, you don't need to be doing that to yourself!"

I imagined his head popping like a tick. 

I was mortified, but more than that I was Hulk-smash-furious. I don't know if it was the fact that he supposed he knew what I needed, or that he disguised shaming and judgement behind the "but you're such a pretty girl" routine, but it was a violation. This man had taken it upon himself to assume that he knew what was best for me -- a woman he didn't know, and knew nothing about. He had made my food, my body, his business. With no hesitation, no hint of self consciousness, I genuinely believe he thought he was "helping" me.

And was I supposed to be grateful? See the light? Was this a teachable moment? Was I supposed to put down the pizza and thank him for seeing my inner beauty? (Cue Dove Real Beauty credits)

I think I said, "I DON'T WANT YOUR BOX," and went right back to eating and reading.

Equally appalling is how people feel at times even more free to comment on my food because I am now thin.

"Keep eating like that, and you're not going to stay LOOKING like that."

"Watch out! Can't eat like that forever!"

(While holding a plate of hot food from Whole Foods and a cupcake) "YOU'RE really going to eat all that?"

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Whereas I used to crumble under the weight of my own plates, the embarrassment has long been replaced by an irateness that women's public food choices are open for commentary, and yes, shame

Though I completely let ideas of how I "should or should not" be eating infiltrate my food happiness for a good part of my life, it is something I now consciously choose to buck against against. By having the audacity to eat in public, suddenly everyone and their Uncle Luigi (true story, I had an Uncle Luigi) gets to have a say in what is "best" for me? Screw that. 

I think it's public food-shaming under the guise of care and concern that grosses me out the most. Probably because that is the kind of comment I usually get, or have gotten. The act that "it's not for me, it's for you" is such utter BS. No, you wouldn't be saying something unless it threatened your idea of comfort and rightness. It's about you, and your need to assert your idea of right over someone else.

It's all bullying to me. 

Have you ever been a victim of public food-shaming? Do you ever feel self conscious eating in public? How do you deal with it?