Monday, February 8, 2010

Women and Men Eating

Criminy, I hate lazy scientific conclusions. Researchers at McMaster University found that when college students eat together, women eating with men consume fewer calories than they do in the presence of only other women, whereas men's caloric intake remained unaffected.

The Guardian's take on this somewhat unsurprising finding is that women are choosing to eat less in the company of men in order to appear more sexually desirable. The study hints at that too, citing research about how minimal food intake is viewed as feminine, and the correlation between thinness and desirability. I'm not disputing those supportive theories wholesale, but I'm surprised at the lack of discussion and citations for other reasons that women might eat less in front of men.

Even though much of our focus on food is at face value--nutrients, taste--it will hardly surprise you to read that food has potent social value and can easily function as a stand-in for emotions or actions. Food means that you’re taking up space: your body, your plate, your palate, your scent. Food means that you are fulfilling your own needs, which pushes others out of the way for the time being. Food means sex, food means submission and rebellion and lust and awareness. And not all of those things are necessarily encouraged in women.

Women talk less in mixed groups--not because we don’t have anything to say to men, but because we're more self-conscious. While for some women this might lead to eating more (their mouths aren't otherwise occupied), for many, like me, a decreased caloric intake correlates to the same self-consciousness that silences us. Women's caloric intake went down with the number of men they was eating with, just as my voice tends to get smaller and smaller depending on the number of people around me who have rarely gotten the message that what they have to say might not be taken seriously.

When I was being treated for an eating disorder and was forced to examine what food really meant to me beyond calories and carbohydrates and fat grams and fat on my body, what I kept hearing from myself was: I don't have the right to eat. I repeatedly heard this in treatment from other patients too. Somewhere along the line, we had learned that food was something we had to earn--not something our bodies needed in order to function, or a pleasure that was ours to savor whenever we wished. But the thought of having the right to eat what I wanted because I am human had literally never occurred to me until I got help. I remember the first time I bought breakfast cereal (something I'd never managed to "earn") after entering treatment: I felt giddy, dizzy, teary, standing there in the grocery store aisle and realizing I could eat what I wanted. Something shifted--I could literally feel it in my gut, the sense of relief that came with letting go of the idea that every bite I ate was going not into only a caloric exchange, but a moral exchange. When I began to see that food was not punishment or reward for my earthly deeds or thoughts, I took a major step toward recovery.

Now, I had an eating disorder, so my feelings about the right to eat may have been more extreme than the average woman's. But I don't think it's a big leap to think that the women who were being observed were feeling something akin to what I was: That food was something you might not have full rights to, and in the company of people whom, rightly or not, we're told are somehow worth more than we are, you don't exercise your rights to the fullest extent. (The study cited research indicating that women may lift these self-imposed restrictions when they're with intimates, including husbands and partners--presumably, hopefully, the people that women do feel they're on equal footing with.) Also, it's hardly news that eating disorders are rampant; more than that, the overwhelming majority of women I know have some sort of disordered eating pattern going on. That includes imbuing food with values other than physiological need and pleasure…and it includes not eating normally in front of men.

I'm sure there are women who, consciously or not, restrict their intake in front of men in order to either appear or feel more desirable. But I'm guessing that it actually has more to do with feeling desirable (thin, virtuous) than actually appearing desirable: Call it the dietary arm of female chauvinist pigs syndrome. I know I'm not the only one who has eaten conspicuously non-diet food in order to impress a man (and the Times backs me up). Only the most Cathy-comic-strip-minded of women would ever consciously believe than a man would be turned off by her eating a hearty meal; every male-quote roundup about "what men REALLY love about women" inevitably mentions how hot it is when chicks eat steak.

It’s notable that men’s caloric intake was unaffected by either the number or sex of people they were eating with. It’s almost as though they feel they have the right to eat whatever they want. Imagine that.

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