By Tanya Vasundharan
“I have this friend, she’s a fat chick. She eats so much…” He caught my look and backtracked rapidly, “No it’s her, she’s the one that feels bad, she knows she’s becoming even more unattractive – thunder thighs you know – it’s a vicious cycle.” Two weeks ago, a guy I barely knew said this to me across a table, while picking up his fourth slice of pizza. He went on to eat the entire pizza alone.
Earlier this month, researchers from the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University surveyed students who participated in a chicken wing eating competition. They revealed that men ate four times as much because being cheered on by a crowd made them feel more masculine. This isn’t the first time that the industrious researchers at Cornell have scrutinised men’s tendencies to overeat in public, and last year, they concluded that men who ate pizza with a woman were 93 percent more likely to eat excessively to show off. There’s nothing especially surreal about that. I have seen men do the same, eating ravenously or reciting instances of the time they ate 19 parathas to make other people gasp. Their defence – at age 19, 23 and 29 – is that they are still growing boys. Growing boys gotta eat.
What is interesting about the new research though, is that the women participants in the study ate less when there was an audience, holding off after a point because they felt self-conscious or “a little bit embarrassed”. Again, their reactions really don’t require too much deep analysis. It’s pretty apparent that they were responding to a life-time of conditioning, because when it comes to quantity and eating, the disgust and fear directed towards women who eat large amounts is reasonably palpable. You only need to look at The Times of India article that was published earlier this month. It could have been a simple informative piece about the alarming levels of obesity amongst women in Hyderabad. It ended up being an unnecessarily fierce attack on obese women, beginning with the headline ‘Belly buttons explode: Hyderabad India’s obesity capital for women’, and the generous helping of irrelevant speculation about Hyderabadi women’s apparent or imaginary obsession with biriyani.
As the author Naomi Wolf explains in her book The Beauty Myth, there is a reason that anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are primarily experienced by women: she connects it to the fact that ‘female fat is the subject of public passion’, despite the fact that more men suffer from weight-related health issues (40 percent of men are overweight in America compared to 32 percent of women, claims Wolf). More recently, author Gillian Flynn talked in her book Gone Girl about another trend which suggests that sometimes you can’t win if you are a woman eating. It’s the construct of the ‘Cool Girl’, whose insatiable appetite and love for food are vital to her sexuality – the only caveat being that she is attractive enough for men to adore her: “Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”
When Priyanka Chopra went on Jimmy Fallon’s show and inhaled chicken wings, everyone cheered, and the YouTube comments pronounce her as beautiful, ‘ripped’, or ‘She’s so perfect I can’t omg’. And when Padma Lakshmi looked like she was eating chicken wings in bed, it broke the internet. Unsurprisingly, journalists cottoned on to this craze, and a few years ago, there was a lot of talk about how the appeal of a celebrity stuffing her face had led to the rise of the ‘Demonstrated Instance of Public Eating’ trend. Celebrities like Cate Blanchett or Jennifer Lawrence, and others who have been slammed for having eating disorders, made it a point to show off their compulsive indulgence of burgers, fries and greasy food. Even popular culture, I’ve noticed, usually acknowledges the eating disorders of thin or seemingly fit women by glorifying their beauty. Blair’s bulimia and pumpkin pie addiction in Gossip Girl is immaterial because she is stick-thin and conventionally beautiful, and a harrowing British film called Miss Monday about the life of an anorexic woman who binge eats on chocolate cake had to cast a slim woman in the protagonist’s role.
Is the disgust, alarm, and righteous indignation over the lack of self-control amongst women who overeat, then, just confined to women who are overweight? In my experience, it is. I’ve always had an incorrigible sweet tooth. In my last year at school, I joined a women’s gym just to get toned. The older women there were initially madly disparaging about me frequenting the facility – “Tumhe toh weight loss program ki koi zaroorat nahi” –, but found it very amusing and warmed to me when they discovered that I would occasionally eat a chocobar after working out. But then three months later, I put on 19 kilos because a miserable bout of depression that I did not know how to handle had set in, and I was doing lots of big-time comfort-eating. I went back to the same gym and the smiles about my chocolate weakness turned into smirks.
While obesity and eating disorders are genuine problems that deserve serious conversations, couching concern about these issues in fat-bashing language, or fetishising skinny women who eat fanatically to prove a point, are both equally despicable. One time, a mechanic had come to fix the central heating in my room at my British college, said I looked a little blue, and looked at my dustbin and remarked “Well, at least you’ve found the best cake shop in town, love.” It’s funny in retrospect, but at the time, I really appreciated this friendly old man for not giving me flack about my compulsive eating, because everyone around me was doing that enough already. It really does appear as if we can indulge fanatic overeating when men do it, with reality TV shows like Man vs. Food making apparent the cultural appreciation for men with massive appetites. The journal Frontiers in Nutrition carried out research recently and reached similar conclusions to Cornell’s food study: men are more likely to be competitive eaters, even when an official contest is not involved. But we can’t stop policing what women eat, because either they eat too much for our liking or threaten us by eating too little.
A mere coincidence that Bruce Bogtrotter (the fat kid who is cheered on by the school in Roald Dahl’s Matilda as he devours an entire chocolate cake) is a boy and Matilda, the protagonist, is pictured as a stick thin girl? Somehow, I doubt it.