The Future Of Food And Feminism
Lucia Powell asks whether the language around food is damaging to feminism and what an age of body-shaming is doing to our diets.
‘…the history of women’s eating has been about trying to ensure that women take up less place in the world’
On a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Nigella Lawson made a comment that got me thinking. She remarked that ‘the history of women’s eating has been about trying to ensure that women take up less place in the world’.
Women have always been told they should eat less than men. When we were Neanderthals, this was simply practical: men needed to eat more food because they were the ones going out to hunt the food. Fast forward a few millennia, and women were being told to eat less for aesthetic reasons. What Nigella is getting at is that the culture surrounding women’s eating has generally reduced them to their bodies; their place in society is to be beautiful, which we generally equate with having a svelte physique.
Thankfully, we seem to have moved past the days when women were encouraged to live off grapefruit in order to lose weight. Today, it’s all about being #nourished and #strongnotskinny.
Fast forward a few millennia, and women were being told to eat less for aesthetic reasons.
In the male-dominated food industry, women are certainly taking up more space on the bookshelves. A quick scan of the Amazon bestseller list in Food and Drink reveals that nine out of the seventeen most popular authors are women.
The question is, what are they doing with this space? Six of the women featured on this list are the healthy-living gurus leading the current ‘clean eating’ movement that’s taking our dinner tables and Instagram feeds by storm. Promoting predominantly plant-based diets full of nutrient-dense foods, these women promise us that hot, healthy and happy bodies are only a hop, skip and a spiralizer away. We’re definitely in the midst of a foodie revolution, but what impact will it have on our often skewed attitudes towards women’s eating?
It’s worth pointing out here that the craze for clean eating is a heavily feminised movement – search the hashtag on Instagram and you’ll be presented with an alarming number of fruit platters (complete with heart-shaped strawberries and mangos carved into intricate floral designs) posted by teenage girls. These authors have curated a loyal following of young women whose lifestyle choices are heavily influenced by the content they see on social media.
I was totally taken in by the healthy-eating craze…
On the one hand, it’s great to see young girls prioritising their health and taking the time to prepare nutritious, tasty meals, as opposed to heading to their local fast-food chain, or not eating at all. The social media communities formed in the wake of this new generation of foodies often provide valuable support networks for those recovering from an eating disorder who are seeking to build a healthier relationship with food.
The problem for me, however, is that these diets are founded on extremist principles, requiring their followers to eat a limited selection of foods, which can lead to a certain level of obsessiveness when you’re constantly having to watch what you’re eating.
I was totally taken in by the healthy-eating craze, and admit to my own Instagram account being a collage of painstakingly decorated smoothie bowls and variations of avocado on toast. Health and fitness are important to me; I respect my body, and so think I it deserves the best-quality, most nutritious food I can give it. I find strengthening and pushing my body through regular exercise empowering. However, I also love pasta. And bread. And cake. And, most importantly, sharing these things with the people I love. There was a period in my life where I was forbidding myself from eating these things, and, while I felt great physically, I started to experience a lot of anxiety surrounding food. I didn’t have any sense of flexibility with regard to my diet, so ordering at restaurants and family meals became a bit of an ordeal. I’d either pick at a salad and jealously watch everyone else devour their pizzas, or eat something that ‘wasn’t allowed’ and feel guilty about it afterwards.
Will eating ‘superfoods’ make us superwomen?
So why did I put myself through this – and why do so many young women continue to do so? Because we live in a society that encourages us to strive for perfection. Here is where my misgivings towards the likes of Deliciously Ella, Madeleine Shaw, the Hemsley sisters, Amelia Freer and countless others come in. We live in a world that is becoming increasingly narcissistic, where we spend so much time focusing on ourselves and living in our own heads, and our approach to eating is starting to reflect this.
I am particularly concerned by the language with which these writers communicate to their – often young and impressionable – fans. As Nigella Lawson wisely pointed out on Woman’s Hour, when we use the term ‘clean’ in relation to food, it implies that some food is ‘dirty’. If we don’t ‘detox’ with a green juice every morning, are our bodies toxic? Will eating ‘superfoods’ make us superwomen? Such vocabulary implies we should seek to transform ourselves into pure, virtuous creatures with a superhuman resolve in the face of temptation, unfortunately recalling the oppressive gender stereotypes we have been fighting against for centuries.
It’s about culture, history, politics, the environment, family and friends, and pleasure.
What these women fail to recognise is that food is about so much more than having a flat stomach and ‘getting the glow’. It’s about culture, history, politics, the environment, family and friends, and pleasure. Now women are starting to gain more recognition in the food industry, I’d like to see these women represent their sex in a more intelligent, realistic and honest way. I don’t want my daughters to grow up thinking that the nutritional value of a bowl of pasta vs. a bowl of raw vegetables is more important than sharing a meal with friends.
I’d like to see more women like comedian Bella Younger, whose Instagram account, DeliciouslyStella, is a hilarious send-up of her namesake that forces us to wake up and smell the roses (sometimes quite literally) when it comes to the time we spend worrying about healthy eating – and women like Nigella Lawson, who will forever be my hero for that time she piled a ten-inch tower of squirty cream on a cupcake during one of her legendary televised midnight feasts.
I think it’s time that we looked to these women to show us the meaning of a ‘balanced’ diet – and perhaps then we can work towards a more balanced society.