Women: Stop apologizing for eating

It's time we put an end to the performative ritual of self-loathing and shame at the table

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 6, 2016 7:53PM (EDT)

 (<a href='https://www.shutterstock.com/g/esolla'>esolla</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(esolla via Shutterstock)

I was sitting at a chic restaurant favored by busy media power brokers for their power lunches, across from a successful female executive. "Usually I just get salad but I think I'm going to get the entrée," she declared as she perused the menu, adding, "I didn't have breakfast today." Then she looked at me expectantly, as if it was now my turn to make a similarly explanatory remark. I suddenly had second thoughts about the sandwich I'd had my eye on. And ever since that day, there's been something I've been wanting to say.

Women, please, just order the entrée. You don't need to explain it. You don't need to apologize for it.

I wanted to say this when I recently met up for drinks and a bite with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and the first thing she said was that she really shouldn't order anything because she'd "gained so much weight" since the last time we'd been together. It broke my heart because I had just been happy to see my friend and because gaining a few pounds does not mean a woman is no longer entitled to consume food and beverages in public.

I wanted to say it to the family member who spent an entire summer weekend prefacing every single meal with a caloric assessment of its relation to the ones that had preceded and would follow it, who scoldingly remarked that we'd "all" have to lose weight after our time together. The "all" by the way, clearly included my daughters.

I wanted to say it to the woman who condescendingly remarked, "Not diet? Good for you!" when I popped open a regular Coke at a birthday party. And I want to say it to the fellow mom who I've yet to hear speak of a dessert or an appetizer without conspiratorially suggesting we be "bad" together. It's like Amy Schumer is writing our lives, ladies.

I get that women have been expected to apologize for their food choices ever since Eve got busted for that ill-chosen apple. (Did God not understand that fresh fruit has zero Weight Watchers points?) But lately — no doubt in no small part because I am trying to raise two adolescent daughters to not be neurotic — I've reached my limit of listening to fellow women subject everybody within earshot to their magical-thinking rituals about everything they put in their mouths. I'm tired of feeling roped into other people's dysfunctional relationships with food, tired of the default conversation around the joyful experiences of cooking and eating being so fraught with anxiety.

I don't remember when it first occurred to me that my mother didn't eat like a normal person — or talk about eating like a normal person — probably because abnormality is such deeply engrained, standard-grade contemporary American female behavior. Her strict diets, her skipped meals, her binge eating and her near constant discussion of the same — they were all just part of being a woman, I thought. It was only when I was a young adult myself, dating a handsome man who talked about food in much the same obsessive, angsty way that my girlfriends and I had discussed it for years, that it crossed my mind that this was an incredibly boring — and ultimately profoundly messed-up — topic of conversation. So I began the slow, ongoing process of trying to untether from the habit.

I often fail at this endeavor. It's challenging because I love to talk about food in general but also because I've been conditioned to believe that self-loathing is a female social-bonding exercise. So I still sometimes feel the confessional need to comment on whether all those nachos were a cry for help; I say, "I shouldn't" before I damn well do. But I swear to God you will never hear me provide a litany of everything I've already eaten today as a prelude to what I'm eating now. Nor will I regale you with my reasoning for putting a lot of butter on my roll. And yeah, I'm eating the roll. Deal with it!

I aspire to be more — in attitude anyway — like national treasure Chrissy Teigen, who's honest about how hard she works to maintain her supermodel physique while remaining authentically enthusiastic about ranch dressing. And I'm so grateful for those friends and relations who can share a meal without turning it into a shame circle.

We're all working through our lifetimes of baggage, as well as the incessant barrage of messages that a female has failed if she "doesn't look like this anymore" — i.e., a 20-year-old photograph. Our bodies are scrutinized and judged from toddlerhood until we die. Last year I went to a beautiful restaurant in Palm Beach and watched an entire table full of elderly socialites panic over how to proceed when the waiter brought over a slice of birthday cake for one of the "girls." They all split it — and didn't finish it. This is what we're up against.

But I want to work toward normalizing the simple act of eating and enjoying food. I want my kids to make smart choices without assigning a moral value to the things they consume. I want them to avoid the twisted path of orthorexic thinking, in which  the "cleanest" thing is the constant goal, where nobly suffering through a juice cleanse is to be congratulated and noshing on tater tots is grounds for a walk of shame.

And I want to say that when women are weird in public around food, they put other women in an awkward position. So I'm not playing. I'm not here to give you permission to order fries and I'm not going to co-sign on how fat we're all going to get after eating this cheesecake. When you exclaim dramatically that you couldn't possibly eat that whole entrée, I am not going to applaud your restraint. I. Don't. Care. I am grown-up lady who can make decisions about what to cook and what to order and I'd like to assume you are, too. And being at a table together with other women shouldn't ever be anything to say you're sorry about.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Body Wars Eating Disorders Feminism Food