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November 17, 2009 / Katie

Are you really going to eat that?

Despite multiple studies that show that there is no difference between how fat people eat and how thin people eat, society still continues to vastly overestimate what fat people eat, and underestimate what thin people eat. Fat people are assumed to all be over-eaters, and thin people are assumed to be “healthy eaters.” (Unless they’re considered too thin, in which they’re assumed to be anorexic). And of course, this scrutiny is far more pronounced for women, but men experience it too.

When I was meeting a boyfriend’s parents for the first time, they took us out for Chinese food and we chose several dishes that we all shared family style. Later this boyfriend told me that his mother had asked him about my weight, saying that she was surprised to see that I hadn’t eaten “too much” at dinner, and wondered if I had another health problem causing me to be fat. It felt like quite a violation to me, because the relationship was still relatively new, and it was the first time I had met his parents. Why were my habits being scrutinized? Why was my body being discussed without me present? What business of hers was my medical history, only months after meeting him and hours after meeting her?

I’m used to people noticing what I eat. In some cases, it’s because I have some strange eating habits. I spent three years in a graduate theological program and eating during class or breaks was very common with the three-hour classes. Once I was in a classroom with 3 or 4 other students waiting for class to start, finishing up my lunch. I took out half a cucumber and began eating it, and almost like an SNL skit, everyone stopped talking and looked right at me, transfixed on me chomping into a cucumber like an apple. I admitted to having some quirky eating habits, and we all laughed about it. Another time, the Methodist students were having an advising session with our liturgical coordinator, and I bit into a whole kiwi in the same way, and the professor was so surprised to see me do it that she sputtered a bit and lost her train of thought. And it’s not just the food I eat (and the way I eat it) that people notice—I have a set of these cool wrap-n-mat sandwich wraps that people often notice for how convenient (as soon as you open it it turns into a lunch mat!) and environmentally friendly they are.

It’s these kind of instances of people noticing what I eat that don’t bother me. I realize my penchant for eating kiwi and cucumber this way is strange. And I like it when people say, “hey where did you get those things?” because if they decide to buy a couple wrap-n-mats, that’s less zip-lock bags in the landfill.

But there were other times I didn’t appreciate being noticed for what I was eating. The example of my boyfriend’s mother making judgments about my food intake just because of my body size was by no means an isolated instance, though often it’s not so blatant. I took an evening class one quarter that went from 5:45-8:35, and my normal dinner time is between 6:30-7. So I would usually bring some substantial food—a cold cut or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some yogurt, some carrots or celery, maybe an apple or a baggie of whole wheat goldfish crackers (why do the whole wheat ones taste SO much better??). On the last day of class, I had been rushing to finish my final paper, so on the way to class I stopped and bought a bean and rice wrap and a chocolate muffin at the bookstore. I was eating the food in the hallway outside the classroom when the professor walked by. I had finished the wrap so all I was eating was the muffin, and he gave it—and me—a “look.” He didn’t say anything, but trust me, I’ve lived 28 years, and in 22 of which I realized I was fat, and I know that look.

Another professor, who would list “overweight” as a “symptom” when we were practicing diagnosis of mental illnesses in case studies (it was a counseling course) would always notice when I bought a brownie from the cafe as a mid-morning snack. There were times I bought yogurt and granola, or tea and banana bread, but whenever I bought a brownie, he would give it a “look.” The same one the other professor gave me when I was eating a chocolate muffin.

This irritates the hell out of me. Not only does it irritate the hell out of me to have my food choices scrutinized and judged simply because I’m fat, I also hate being treated as the “stereotypical fat person” rather than as “Katie.” It is dehumanizing and extremely frustrating, because it feels like a wall that has to be torn down for people to get to know the real me. This doesn’t matter so much with strangers, but it does matter with professors responsible for grading my assignments and potential in-laws who may be family someday.

This morning I’ve been wondering: When we judge food choices of others, what are the theological implications of that? Usually when thinking about food and theology, the first thing that comes to my mind is how Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life; he used bread to symbolize his body in the last supper. Food here is used as an example of something that is nourishing, life-sustaining. Jesus compares himself to food, making himself the spiritual equivalent—while we eat actual food to nourish and sustain our bodies, God becomes our spiritually nourishing and life-sustaining “food.”

Additionally, throughout the Bible we see folks eating in community with each other, with the focus on relationship with one another. It’s the same thing when we get together for church potlucks or family dinners or make a lunch date with a friend—the act of eating together is a vehicle for the strengthening of relationships, not to police the details of what and how much our meal companions are eating.

There is something so fundamental, so primal, about the act of eating. When it is violated on a regular basis, sometimes daily or even hourly, by people with whom we are trying to build relationships, it really tears at the fabric of those relationships themselves. How can I have any trust in a person who can’t get over the fact that I’m a fat woman eating a brownie in public (oh the horror!)? How can I have any trust in a person who passive-aggressively whispers about my eating habits to others? This may seem like it’s not a big deal, because eating is such a mundane, everyday occurrence. But I think it’s the opposite; it’s an even bigger deal because eating is such a fundamental part of our life. It serves so many functions, not least of which is survival, and in a close second, nurturing and sustaining relationships with one another.

There’s no easy answer here, especially because it is so hard to respond to passive-aggressive behavior (the “looks” or when people talk about us rather than to us). But while we may not be able to confront the passive-aggressive behavior, we can confront more blatant food-based shaming, and we can also take refuge in the fact that we have the truth on our side. Nothing about being fat itself should limit our food choices, and all of us as sentient persons ultimately do have the right to make choices about something as fundamental and necessary as eating without being judged and violated by those we should be able to trust.

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13 Comments

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  1. Jackie / Nov 17 2009 1:17 pm

    Thanks for this Katie! I loved how you expressed your experiences and how they’ve effected you. It’s very powerful.

  2. Catgal / Nov 17 2009 2:35 pm

    I really like the theological spin that you put on this. I remember my WW days when they would tell you or give you literature that stated going to a party, or a dinner is about the people NOT the food. But it IS about the food. Take the holiday’s for example. We will all be gathering and eating with friends and family. These people or maybe even we will be preparing special meals and desserts that are reserved for this time of year. We should be able to enjoy thest things. They do build our relationships. People will say things like my favorite thing about the holiday’s is my grandma’s cookies. Why deny your self the cookie? Your grandma made them with LOVE! Also, trying to tell someone that Thanksgiving is not about the food is just assinine!

  3. Coley / Nov 17 2009 3:43 pm

    Where I work there always seems to be some sort of contest to see who can eat the least, especially between women. It’s not really noteworthy if a man takes another pass around the pot-luck table, but if a woman does she always gets a “wow, you must be hungry!” or “you’re brave, I couldn’t stand another bite.”

    I am sort of an in-betweenie…I live in a realm between thin and chubby. So people are more amused by how much I eat than disgusted by it. I can out eat ALL of my fat friends and then some. But I’m also one of those people that diets actually work for, I guess. When I eat like my fat friend (small meals, lots of veggies, etc) I lose weight like crazy while she remains the same size. But I can’t stand to eat that way, honestly. I like a bunch of junk and I don’t see any reason not to eat what I want, especially since I am always considered healthy when I see the doctor.

    So when people make remarks about how much I eat, I try to make THEM feel badly in return by talking about how little they eat. So there.

  4. Lillian / Nov 17 2009 4:55 pm

    I’m an in-between myself and there are times that I can eat a lot and other times that I eat rather little. Anyway, I noticed that often people watch me eat especially if I’m eating snack type food like cake or other sweets.

    I used to think that they were watching a fat girl eat, but they do it more when I’m on the thinner side of my weight range. Maybe, they are saying to themselves, “Wow, that woman can eat and she doesn’t get fat.” I can’t read their minds. I don’t know if they are judging me because I’m eating and I’m ‘thin’ or if I’m eating and I’m “fat.” The joy of being an ‘in-between”. My weight varies from the edge of normal on BMI to well into the overweight range.

    I often feel fat since I have a bit of a belly, but I don’t know how other people see me. People say that I’m not fat, but who knows what they are thinking.

  5. Regina T / Nov 17 2009 10:58 pm

    Once, while in adult Sunday school, the lay pastor discussed the role of food in the Bible…which led to a discussion about obesity (aargh!). This man stated that he does not eat any food that is not from God….meaning he only eats things that come from the ground (God’s creation). He actually said “God does not make Snicker’s candy bars”.

    I spent the entire rest of the class thinking of things that he DOES eat that aren’t necessarily “from God”. Bread was the first thing that sprang to mind. There is no unleavened bread tree. Sure, there is wheat and whatnot, but if this man did indeed only eat that which God hath made, then I just have one question….Does He bake the bread in Hell????? lololol

    Seriously….the scrutiny of my meal plate in public and at family functions puts me on the defensive. My average sized husband often has to finish food I just don’t have room for. Almost always, I bring a doggie bag home after eating at a restaurant. At my size, I am supposed to eat 3500-4000 calories a day JUST to sustain my current weight according to all the medical literature. Im lucky if I get in 2000 a day. Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE food. Preparing, tasting, planning, experimenting, cooking, even shopping…..I enjoy all of it. Food represents both nourishment AND family….along with outings, vacations, movies, picnics, and much of the other stuff of life. Too bad it gets such a bad rap.

  6. jackie / Nov 17 2009 11:25 pm

    One thing I don’t understand is why Americans are fatter than other nationalities? If food and lifestyle have nothing to do with weight?

    • Katie / Nov 17 2009 11:30 pm

      Hi Jackie and welcome to the blog :) I may need to know more specifics, such as what studies you are citing, to answer your question to your satisfaction. I was not aware that Americans are fatter than other nationalities but if that is true it may have to do with many things, such as Americans tending to have more access to as much food as they want so those with a tendency to become fat do. Or it may be because many Americans are poor, despite the image we project into the rest of the world, and people whose bodies are used to “starvation mode” tend to pack on more pounds when there is opportunity (this is why dieting actually leads to weight gain in the long term). There are also vast differences between ethnic groups within America in terms of obesity rates (the poor and people of color tend to have higher obesity rates than white middle class people, for example). The issue is quite complex.

    • a foodandbodyplanner / Nov 18 2009 10:30 am

      Hi jackie/ katie,

      I came here from living400lbs’ beautiful blog.

      Jackie, here’s a technical answer to your question.

      First, here’s a daily calorie needs calculator from the May Clinic:

      http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/calorie-calculator/NU00598

      They also have a “Counting calories: Getting back to weight-loss basics” section if that’s what you want. (They also have weight gain/ weight maintenance related information)

      And here is my only food diary tool (it’s a google docs template)

      https://docs.google.com/previewtemplate?id=0Amn0RZEe8C09dElLN3FpNzg2NUU0bHZWUXRvMnUyMGc&mode=public

      I have also put some External links in there. (more technical – also includes micro-nutrient links)

      The US are so advanced IMO, that they are able to produce food for cheap, resulting in Americans having excellent access to nutrition. (this includes macro-nutrients like carbohydrates (4 cal/ g), fat (9 cal/ g) and protein (4 cal/ g), that the body converts to energy (the corresponding energy values are mentioned in brackets))
      Excess energy gets stored by the body as fat.

      As living400lbs’ correctly pointed out, different world cultures have different opinions and tolerances about body shape/ weight. The poorer eastern cultures (and the newly rich ones like Japan/ Korea) tend to favor the skinny body. (Maybe because they are/ were not able to produce enough, and they tend to believe that somebody getting fat will divert resources from their young)

      If you do not believe me, you can see the winners from the I.F.O.C.E (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Federation_of_Competitive_Eating)

      The Asian winners are generally skinnier, IMO because of the negative perception of body fat where they originate from. They may eat the same or more quantity as their western counterparts during competitions, but they can eat real less and exercise off the excess calories in between competitions. This would be understandably, to maintain a body image tuned to their home culture (skinny).

      If you want to see the difference nutrition has based on culture (even look at China- the difference between their urban rural heights)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_height
      The relevant section is: “Average height around the world”

      Now, even though Americans eat a higher amount of fat in their diet, and Asian cultures eat a lower amount, the Americans win nutritionally (except most of them believe that the energy part is too much, and the whole world is jealous of them for that – they want a free piece of the American food pie), because fats are essential to the human body (EFAs– that the human body cannot produce), and fats also helps in digestion of Vitamins.

      Now, remember it’s not easy for most cultures to grow foods when they suffer from drought and famine, and they are barely able to grow enough crop to eat in a reliable fashion). Raising animals needs more crop for the animal which means less for the human – and some Asian countries tend to go vegetarian as it’s the easy way out – raising meat is a complex task) Hence they would be lacking Zinc, Iron, protein, B-12 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1125304/)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietary_Reference_Intake

      http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?info_center=4&tax_level=2&tax_subject=256&topic_id=1342

      They turn out to be smaller in frame as they do not get enough nutrition in childhood to grow to their full genetic potential (I mean their skeleton and musculature). They turn out to be smaller in stature and size.
      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-much-of-human-height

      There is hope, however IMO!

      Zero calorie sweetener:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sucralose

      Zero calorie fat: (Z-trim)
      http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=z-trim

      It’s simple: food/ chemical engineers should be able to find zero-calorie alternatives to the 3 energy producing macro-nutrients:
      Carbs, Fat and protein – all foods are composed of these three macro-nutrients!

      Give them 10 years to be developed and 10 more of FDA testing! And humans (innovative Americans!) would have solved the fattening side of food! After that, a person’s weight would be entirely their choice to sculpt (like nobody would ever criticize dear living400lbs (or, whisper, even me) anymore for being fat, for the WRONG reasons – that means, societies implicitly and wrongly accusing you of stealing their food and fat from them!)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_feminism

      I have read that Chinese have idealized fat women in the past … (societal ideal body images change with time and location!)

      Thanks, I hope this helps, and with my love! Somebody get me a job already, I’m saturated with researching on food and nutrition!)
      foodandbodyplannerowner-at-gmail-dot-com

      • Katie / Nov 21 2009 8:23 pm

        Hi there! that is some interesting information and quite a lot to digest.

        I wanted to say that I approved this comment because I found it interesting, but I do want to point out that counting calories and attempting to control our bodies are not exactly “fat positive” goals (and the calorie counting can be triggering for people who have eating disorders). I find your ideas interesting, but I disagree fundamentally with the idea that complete control over our body size would be a healthy (psychologically or physically) thing to do.

        • a foodandbodyplanner / Nov 22 2009 6:29 am

          Hi Katie,

          Thanks for accepting my meandering post, you made my day! I enjoyed going through your website, and ended up here:

          http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8327753.stm

          I couldn’t help but notice, that about 4 out of the 17 comments used the stick of NHS to try and beat the brownie out of fat people’s hands.

          I wonder what the implications would be, if American health care gets nationalized to old-world standards, as Obama and Michael Moore, among others, would wish.

          Frail and precious human individuality, the thing that differentiates us from the animals and allows us to advance our lot, would be browbeaten by the Tocquevillean Tyranny of the majority.

          Nature is a bear, while it has given us the will to live and the power to imagine, it also places a premium on appearance due to the excessive reliance of animals on their eyes to get information about their environment, and the “ideal” human template is stored somewhere deep in the brain and modulated by cultural and environmental factors.

          Nature and cultures would like the people that do not measure up to their evolutionary standards, outcasted and dead (hence the beating of the fat woman!).

          Humans show nature who’s boss already!

          Cheers.

  7. living400lbs / Nov 17 2009 11:51 pm

    Thanks for this post, Katie. You tend to put into words things I know but didn’t know I knew, and it really helps.

  8. tolonda / Nov 18 2009 1:30 pm

    two things that come immediately to mind:

    –the lyric ‘jesus is my portion’ in the song ‘his eye is on the sparrow’
    –it’s interesting to think about the ways in which people can have disordered relationships to jesus, the same way that people can have disordered relationships to food.

  9. That Queer Chick / Nov 22 2009 8:17 pm

    I loved this post. I was thinking just today about how people give “that look,” and I am sorry to say it influenced my food choices.

    About your theological discussion: I don’t know whether you are aware of this, but Jesus’ place of birth, Bethlehem, means “House of Bread” in Hebrew.

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