Editor’s Note: This month, that is July 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Body Image, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences which we often confront, with respect to our bodies in private or public spaces, or both. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Have you seen a girl eat chicken in KFC? Ever notice how it is different from how a boy eats it?’—asked my teacher to a room full of young women studying Sociology as an undergraduate subject. All of us were perplexed, even impressed, with how our teacher thought about the deeper meanings behind something as mundane as eating chicken in KFC. She continued, ‘Girls eat very differently from boys. They are conscious, it is like people are watching them.’ She was talking to us about ideas of socialization and the construction of gendered bodies.
What she meant was that food and eating habits are integral parts of one’s socialization and help in forming ideas of male and female bodies. Although eating is a biological process, it has various social meanings. Men and women eat differently. It is gendered and the practices of eating and not eating, play an important role in constructing the female body. Women play a significant role in cooking and cleaning. But when it comes to eating, she is not expected to prioritize herself. Ideas of womanhood and femininity are linked to the non-desire or non-greed for food. Even when they are eating, women are not supposed to ‘gorge’ on food. They are expected to be genteel and be restrained while eating.
In many households, women eat only after they have served everyone else. Women also fast more than men and have special fasting days (Karva Chauth, Somvar vrat, etc.) in which they pray for the prosperity of their husbands and families. That women should think of others before thinking of themselves is part of the training of most young girls. It is a common practice for the women of the house to settle for smaller pieces of fish or the bony pieces of meat. Both ideas of womanhood and femininity are constructed through this practice of sacrificing or giving up of food.
Many of the factors responsible for differences in the quantity of food that a family gives to its male and female children are intertwined. They can be traced to the values and ideas generated in the kinship system, family structure and ideology which are linked to them. Men are valued more than women and hence the former’s nutrition is considered more important. For instance, the National Health Family Survey (NHFS-4) says that women consume less fruits and milk than men. The higher rates of mortality and sickness for girls (anaemia, low haemoglobin, malnutrition) than boys can be explained in part by discrimination in nutrition and health care. There is differential access to food determined by one’s gender which is only altered during special times like illness and pregnancy.
In fact, even when women eat, the ideas of restraint and gentility are so deeply ingrained in their minds that they are very conscious of it. I had come across a very interesting piece of news a few years back. A Japanese burger chain had found out that its sales were going down because women had stopped eating its burgers. This is because their faces would get messy and they were very sensitive about it. Therefore, the burger chain made special face wrappers that would cover a woman’s mouth while she is eating a burger. Thus, restraint and refinement while eating are seen as feminine traits that define a woman’s body.
This holds true even in the Indian context. Many women find it difficult to eat burgers, especially bigger ones in public because it is messy. Rashmi (name changed), a friend of mine, loves the Chicken Maharaja Mac burger that McDonald’s offers. But she only orders it when she is eating it at home. ‘It is my favourite, but it is so big. It messes up my face during eating and looks bad. So I order it when I am at home and nobody is watching me eat.’
I could relate to her as I find eating certain things like spaghetti and pizza very difficult because of the mess that they create. I am what many would consider a ‘clumsy eater’ as I often drop food on my clothes while eating. Therefore, I had jokingly told my sister that I will not eat anything in college in front of my students as it is so embarrassing. I also joke that I am a person who does not deserve to wear white because of this habit. In a way, I was policing my food habits to maintain decorum in public.
Thus, most women are very conscious of their eating habits and how their bodies would be perceived in public while eating. It is perhaps because of this that they are curious to find out which brand of lipstick stays on even after eating as a particular thread on Quora indicates. They are socialized to constantly maintain their feminine traits and be conscious of their eating habits.
There are two kinds of forces at play here. While on the one hand, the non-desire for food is seen as an appropriate trait associated with the female body; on the other hand, even while eating, women are supposed to be performing their gender roles. They are expected to be genteel, restrained, and graceful. The biological process of eating becomes socially constructed and gendered, creating a desirable female body that is controlled. Women are expected to adhere to certain desirable bodily practices and eating with restraint is one of them.
Rituparna Patgiri is a doctoral student at the Centre for the Studies in Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She is interested in issues of culture and gender and has earlier written for The Assam Tribune, The Sentinel, Youth ki Awaaz, Women’s Web, Caleidoscope, India Development Review, Indian Cultural Forum and Feminism in India. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India