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.