A healthy body image is not just about healthy eating
‘Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one’
Betty Friedan: ‘It is, perhaps, beside the point to remark that bowling alleys and supermarkets have nursery facilities, while schools and colleges and scientific laboratories and government offices do not, ’ she wrote in The Feminine Mystique. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
From sultry pop stars advertising luxury yogurt with “chocolatey balls” (Nicole Scherzinger, j’accuse), to women in Tallaght having to drag buggies, babies and bags for miles to buy broccoli, food is as much about gender as it is about gut feelings.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was “food”. Remember the original foodie story? The one where Eve takes a bite out of that forbidden apple, starting a chain reaction that ends with distasteful consequences? That’s hungry women for you.
“It is, perhaps, beside the point to remark that bowling alleys and supermarkets have nursery facilities, while schools and colleges and scientific laboratories and government offices do not,” Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique.
She was right – or at least she was until my local supermarket closed its drop-your-children-off-while-you-shop creche because it was rumoured that too many customers were abusing the retailer’s largesse and taking an extra hour to visit the local hostelry. There is still no creche in Dáil Éireann, although there is a well-patronised bar.
Food is a minefield for women.
Louise Riordan, co-ordinator of The Y Factor, the youth initiative of the National Women’s Council, says that food is “such a controlling issue for women because food is the issue that most people link to body shape and body confidence. So many women use food to control their emotions. There’s just something about food – it can be social, but it can also be controlling, with all these fads we are constantly bombarded with. Faddy eating is about control, and it’s a female thing because so much emphasis is put on food.
“We know that every woman wants to be thin. Our images of womanhood are almost synonymous with thinness.”
Susie Orbach has sold more copies of Fat Is a Feminist Issue than many of us have eaten hot dinners. She thinks we are still obsessed with female thinness – and it’s getting worse. “Everything’s a trigger,” she says. “There are huge, huge industries riding on this. It’s one of the most successful assaults there is and because we all want to feel comfortable, we don’t even know that we’re doing bad things to ourselves. We think we’re being good to ourselves when we decide not to eat.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” Orbach adds. “We don’t want women to have a full-time job managing their appetites.”
Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, editor of the Opinion Line on Cork 96FM, doesn’t “know a woman who hasn’t got a complicated relationship with food”. She doesn’t know a single person who “has been able to steer the women in their lives [daughters, sisters, etc] towards having a healthy attitude to food but not getting a complex about it”.
Putting food on the table, but not actually eating it, is a struggle for many women. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience,” Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth. “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
According to Riordan, we’re passing on our obsession with our bottom lines. “I think it’s worse for young women because it’s amplified,” she says. “When teenagers are in groups, everything is amplified and there’s a lot of influence exerted – particularly around body image.
“I would be more conscious of the issue of food around girls than boys. With the young women we are working with, there’s a huge navigation that girls face to figure it all out,” she adds. “The media tell them they deserve the big chocolate bar, yet they are told at the same time, by other media and peers, that they shouldn’t eat after a certain time of the day.”
Body image issues and issues around food start “very young”, says Riordan, who works with young women in Ireland all the time. “They could be 11 to 13 when they notice food. I don’t think it is recognised enough that food controls young women. They do enjoy and appreciate food and they know about good food and the fuel their bodies need to be healthy. But this is overshadowed by negative images that food is evil and will make you fat.”
So another generation bites the dust.
“This food obsession is passed down in families. We all got it from our mothers,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Certainly if our mothers worked in advertising, we did.
“We do a lot about media literacy and we could do a whole chapter on women and food,” O’Riordan said.
“Take Galaxy, for example,” (and I challenge you not to) “with its dark, chocolatey tone, its dark velvet feel. The whole package oozes sensuality.”
She is well aware that women in advertising are “one-dimensional”, mostly young, white and able-bodied.
Food and fat remain top of the list of feminist issues, but times are moving the goalposts and social class is kicking them into touch.
“I do a phone-in show, so you get to talk to everyone, and the level of disdain people have towards fat people is incredible,” O’Shaughnessy said.
And it is so hard “particularly for a lot of poor women, who are struggling financially, who are struggling with kids and not much money. For all those women, it’s not that easy.”
“Sometimes, it’s just easier to say yes to that extra snack or dessert, because frankly, it is exhausting to keep saying no. It’s exhausting to plead with our kids to eat just one more bite of vegetables.”
And that’s from the mouth of Michelle Obama.
“Fat = poverty and ignorance.” That’s how things are stacking up in the west, O’Shaughnessy said.
The global north and the global south can literally be miles apart when it comes to food.
“On a global north level, food is seen as a negative. It’s seen as the battleground for every woman who wants an ideal body shape,” O’Riordan said.
“In the global south, food means something different. In the global south, women produce the food and that gives them life economically too. Women produce the majority of the food, but they don’t own the majority of the land or recoup the fruits of their production.”
Food is still a feminist issue, even where the issues are different, it seems.
“The interesting thing that binds North and South is how women share food,” O’Riordan points out. “They always leave themselves till last.”
Heading back up North, the majority of food adverts are directed at the fairer sex.
Food is “advertised to women because they are the ones buying it,” O’Riordan said.
“Take the Lidl ads, where it’s all women saying where they spent their money. So, women are the gatekeepers - to themselves first of all - to their body shape - and then they become the gatekeepers for their families.”
Given that the supermarkets are directing their wares at women shoppers, the concentration of men around the upper eschelons of the food pyramid may be hard to fathom.
A recent episode of Saturday Kitchen on BBC1 was wall-to-wall men.
It usually is. The honourable exception was token woman Sam Bailey.
Known for her musical above her culinary skills, the X-Factor winner has three children.
No doubt she knows how to cook.
If there is a “C” word to be attached to women in the kitchen, it is most likely “Cook”.
“I am not a chef; I am not even a trained cook,” Nigella Lawson said recently.
Yes. Nigella Lawson said that.
So why are all the top chefs men?
“They’re creative geniuses and we’re just functional. Television idolises the male chef and sexualises the female chef,” O’Shaughnessy said.
She makes honourable mention of Nigella and Rachel Allen, but added that “some of the comments Allen gets on her show are not about food - let’s just say that”.
“I have a theory that men are allowed to be more single-minded about things. They don’t have the double burden that women have - they don’t have to care about other things like their apprearance or the kids.”
Anita Thoma, head chef and manager at Il Primo restaurant in Dublin, said the issue runs deep.
“I think it’s interesting that women are generally not represented in the positions of power in kitchens, but not surprising as the workplace can often just be a microcosm of society.
“Women are often the primary carers for children and other family members or at least are expected to be. As a women, who is the boss, one can often be described as tough or hard in a negative way. I don’t hear male chefs being described with such negativity,” Thoma said.
“When I started my training as a chef my father told me (he too was a chef) that, as a woman, I would have to be better than the men I worked with. How right he was.”