For despite the best efforts of the feminist movement, feeding other people is still seen as women’s work. Men are, of course, to be found in the kitchen too, but more as recreational cooks. It is still women who see to it that the meals get on the table day after day, week after week, year in, year out.
The food industry knows this only too well, When they talk about ‘the consumer’, it’s definitely a she they’re referring to, And their view of her is not very flattering: she is still depicted as a sweet, empty-headed individual whose ultimate satisfaction comes from contentedly watching the family drool over their Shake and Bake chicken.
Feeding others we do readily, because we’re expected to. But feeding ourselves is another matter entirely. In many traditional cultures women have been expected to eat last and be satisfied with left-overs, Kim Chernin, author of The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, tells of a turn-of-the-century Russian immigrant woman who dies. As the neighbours come to mourn they pay her the highest compliment a woman could receive: ‘Never did she allow herself a bit to eat but left-overs’. And this prohibition against eating continues down to the present day in even more insidious forms. Women are given a double message about food. ‘We are to purchase and prepare food,’ says Jane Kaplan, but we are not to eat it. We are expected to make food as delicious and appealing as possible, yet we are expected to maintain the slim, firm figures that are pictured in magazines, on TV and in the movies’.
What this double message has led to is the love-hate relationship with food that so many women have, On the one hand we have an almost universal female obsession with dieting. We are told all the time that we must be thin, we must lose pounds, pounds and more pounds, that our bodies are never satisfactory as they are. The very same women’s magazines that give us nourishing, mouth-watering recipes are full of diets, articles about dieting, tips about how to get in shape and photographs of slim, lithe models.
And then there are the weight-loss programmes and clubs like Weight Watchers, which profit from the collective thinness mania. Even women who are of normal weight feel that they should be thinner, and are on perpetual diets. And at the extreme end of the spectrum we have the phenomenon of anorexia nervosa, a psychological disorder of compulsive dieting and self-starvation: the extreme but perfectly logical response to the cultural mess age women constantly receive: ‘don’t eat’.
On the other hand, we have the apparently contradictory phenomenon of compulsive overeating that has ‘come out of the closet’ as a women s issue in recent years. Feminist counsellors report an increase in the number of inquiries about therapy and support groups for compulsive eaters, most of which are inspired by the work of feminist therapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. Orbach and others have identified a peculiarly female relationship with food in which we try to get, from eating, things like comfort and support which may be lacking in our personal lives. This inappropriate relationship can lead to a pattern of dependence that is like a food addiction - and can be just as hard to break.
Compulsive eating and compulsive dieting are really two sides of the same coin. Both are bound up with the social, emotional and mythic associations we attach to food. Psychiatrist Hilde Bruch - pioneer in the treatment of eating disorders - commented: ‘from birth on, food is always closely intermingled with emotional experience. One of the most important symbolic associations of food is with nurturance, with caring and being cared for, with love. And this connection is at the heart of women’s dilemma with food. We are socialised to be nurturers, to put our own needs and interests last. As children this is what we see our mothers and other women doing: this is what makes a good woman.
Consequently we have a great deal of trouble giving nourishment to ourselves - we, who don’t count, who are expected to live for and through others. So we deny ourselves permission to eat or put strict controls on what we will allow ourselves. At the extreme we even starve ourselves into anorexia and beyond. But while all this dieting and denial is going on, our basic hunger to be nurtured remains unfulfilled. Like a bad toothache, it won’t go away.
And so we develop an obsessive relationship with the food that we feel we should be denying ourselves but can’t. We binge, we eat junk food, we eat when we aren’t hungry. Our natural body messages and rhythms become hopelessly confused. In some women the two poles of the conflict are perfectly manifested in a binge-and-purge pattern. When the denial and staving off of hunger becomes too much to bear, these women go on food binges, after which they force themselves to vomit. They are, in a sense, having their cake and eating it too, but at a terrible physical and emotional price.
What can women do to get themselves out of the food bind? The feminist movement has already made a good start in its rejection of the idea that taking care of others is exclusively women’s work. This includes everything from breaking down sex roles in the household to teaching male children that they can give, as well as get, emotional support.
But we also need to go deeper and give ourselves permission to eat, to feed ourselves, to be nurtured. This means rejecting the diet-go-round and the tyranny of slenderness that goes with it. If we’re going to diet, if we’re going to be thin, let’s do it because we want to, not because we feel we have to.
As Jane Kaplan says: ‘It’s time to do with food and body image - the traditional hand-maidens and albatrosses of women - what we are doing with so many other aspects of her selfhood: it is time to re-evaluate them in terms of deeper needs’. Perhaps, in coming to terms with food and our own need for nurturance, we will allow ourselves finally to be what men have always had permission to be: simply human.
Kathleen McDonnell is a Canadian feminist, playwright and journalist.