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Women and food


Throughout this essay, I will be discussing widespread issues concerning and related to food. Specifically covering topics such as, women’s relationship to food, compulsive eating, anorexia, bulimia women and sex and women and food in relation to religion.


Primarily, to understand the issues to be raised in this essay, I have to establish, and note that food is a vital and essential part of our human and social existence. It is the means to which keeps us alive and without it we cannot survive. This is the simplistic view when studying food but in reality it is much more complex.


The offering of food begins as soon as the mother gives birth to her baby, through breastfeeding. Through this the mother is, “literally offering herself as food, and the women has a satisfying feeling of knowing she can give that to the baby”. (Kitzinger, ed; Cline, p. 115) This from an early stage in the child’s life unconsciously installs the idea, that by the mother offering food, in the form of natural milk by breastfeeding, she is also sharing her love and affection. This long lasting relationship women have had with food, has installed through norms and values of our society, the notion of the kitchen and cooking being the women’s domain. Men are traditionally the providers while the women take care of all the domestic duties, one of which, and in my opinion one of the most important, preparing the food to feed the family. This is not only true of our contemporary world, but also in tribal regions, where the woman not only prepares the food but also has to gather the food through agricultural methods. Whereas in our society the women is usually the one who shops at the local supermarket for the family’s food. The tradition of women preparing the food may have derived from the theory of the woman through pregnancy, sharing her food with the baby and also after birth continues the sharing of food through breastfeeding. This unconscious duty extends, as throughout family life the women feels it is her responsibility to prepare the food for her family. Sally Cline agrees with the statement that women are socialised into believing their place is in the kitchen, “many women believe that their place in society was intricately tied to food and the issue is women should be in the kitchen”. (Sally Cline, p.16, 10) This illusion, which patriarchal society has enforced onto women, results in various problems. Women begin to feel oppressed by the isolation and confinement of family life and specifically the kitchen. Women then begin to believe that if their food is accepted they are being accepted as a person. The notion, “reject-the-meal-I-serve-you, reject the woman I am,” (Sally Cline, p., 10) is one, which is ingrained, in every woman’s unconscious mind. By giving food women are subtlety-seeking approval. The woman becomes vulnerable to rejection by people refusing to eat the food offered by her. For the woman this is a symbol of abandonment and means the husband and children no longer need her. The woman may then have feelings of guilt that her cooking is not good enough, which is a huge insult to the woman. This may be especially true of a domestic housewife, as she may feel a failure as she is confined to the home and not allowed or is unable to function in the social world, such as, the economic system or the work force.


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On the other hand, some women may accept and like the traditional duty of women’s domain being the kitchen, as it may give them a sense of importance, empowerment and control within the home. For example, they would be the ones to dictate what the family eats, when they eat, how it is cooked and who gets the most, etc. However this can be critisised as many would state that as the man makes and owns the money to buy the food and he also dictates how much money to spend on the food, it is in reality him who controls the woman’s supposed domain. The woman, from this perspective loses the insignificant bit of power she thought she had and can then be considered, at its extreme, to be an unpaid worker. This theory is supported by the statement, “dad didn’t just choose our food. He chose everything”. (Sally Cline, p.161, 10)


Women’s relationship towards food is understandable when we examine the context it is put into. For example, there is a vivid and significant gender inequality when concerning food. Throughout childhood, in my experience and by talking to friends I discovered, girls are often confused, as at one time they are being told eat up and then it is suddenly contradicted by being told to, watch out, don’t get too fat. When a young boy has a healthy appetite, people often say, its alright, he is a growing lad, it will help him grow up into a strong man. While hypocritically, when a young girl has a healthy appetite, she is told not to be too greedy.


Through social construction and the patriarchal society, the female and feminine qualities have been carefully defined. For example, “it is feminine to pout, whine, nag, sulk, placate, manipulate, to be generally childlike, and it is unfeminine to be angry, confronting, direct, powerful and adult”. (Epstein, ed; Lawrence, p.8, 187) Therefore it is believed that because women are not expected and it is not accepted for them to vent their feelings of anger, they are forced to find other means to express their anger. Through this women are being ignored, isolated and oppressed as they are forbidden to express true feelings as it is seen by society to be unfeminine. In reality it is yet another notion installed into women by the patriarchal, in order to oppress them and keep them under control.


For compulsive eaters, food becomes a way to suppress anger. It enables women to cut themselves off from the true problem by numbing the feelings. By indulging into food the woman may feel a short span of pleasure and relief from life’s problems, which may be, depression and lack of socialisation. “Compulsive eating is a disillusioned means to a solution of a problem”. (Lawrence, p., 187) When a woman is a compulsive eater, she invests all their time and emotions into concentrating on food, which enables her to lose touch of her feelings, which she greatly fears. Compulsive eating to sooth greater problems leads onto the problem of obesity. The woman is then mad at herself because she continues to eat and she then loathes herself instead of facing up to the real problem. It can become a vicious circle as the more she eats the bigger in body size she becomes, the more depressed she will feel about her weight, therefore the more she will eat to hide the pain of it all. Although the woman may feel as though her life is out of control, Bunny Epstein believes that although the woman is over eating she is, in a way, controlling her feared problem. Some may believe that the compulsive eater feels empowerment through the activity of eating, as they decide when to eat and what to eat, and through this they feel in control. However the compulsive eater is no longer able to distinguish between feelings of physical hunger and physical fullness, therefore how can this be believed to be in control. Mira Dana explains that when a compulsive eater was a child she was dictated what to eat since birth and forbidden certain foods by her mother. Now she has entered adulthood, she indulges in the food that she chooses to eat. This gives her a sense of freedom; power and control within her own life and is unconsciously rebelling against her mother. However in contradiction a woman is never free to eat what she wants as she is always forced, through social ideologies of body image, to abide by diets and calorie counters.


In definition, anorexia is the lack of desire to eat, or refusal to eat and then to deliberately make oneself sick. Anorexia nervosa is characterised by severe self-imposed restrictions of food intake. This results in serious weight loss and in its extreme the anorexic can deteriorate to virtually skin and bone until they eventually die. The article submitted, also supports the view with facts and figures, that anorexia is far more consistent among females. With the ratio with males being 15 to 1. Psychological causes may be responsible for someone resorting to anorexia. For example, the woman, who I am relating anorexia with, may truthfully believe she is over weight and fat. This is caused by societies high standards of what the perfect body size and shape should be. This is highlighted and publicised by the media, through magazines, television and newspapers. Celebrities contribute towards insecurities among women, as they also diet until almost waifer thin, to meet exceptional beauty standards, just to maintain their careers. In turn women of society abuse their bodies through anorexia as they aspire to be the same as their role models.


Mira Dana believes that through anorexia, the rejecting of food, the woman is saying ‘no’. She feels as though she has power over every aspect of her life. The anorexic women feel pride, superiority and pleasures at restraining from the temptation of food. Through this activity, she is sending out the message that is she can endure and overcome the suffering of hunger, this proves she can overcome anything life may throw at her. As said previously, accepting food, which is a part of family and social activity, which brings people together, integrating them with one another, and also helps to form relationships. The fact that the anorexic woman is rejecting food is symbolic as she is also rejecting people and relationships. She believes she is strong and independent. In reality, some believe, anorexic women may be unhealthy not only physically but also mentally, as she wants to be separate and alone in the world. This notion is contradicted as some anorexics may have a family of their own.


The bulimic, consumes a large amount of food, which is also referred to as a binge, then followed by deliberate vomiting and purging. To society, as Mira Dana believes the bulimic woman appears to be successful and well organised. This is reflected in her physical appearance as the majority of the time the bulimic woman’s body size is socially acceptable, as it is not drastically underweight or extremely overweight. This is an illusion created for the benefit of society. However there is a hidden and secret part to the bulimic woman’s life as she physically wants to consume food but then immediately feels a sense of guilt as she feels she will be rejected by society. In comparison to Mira Dana’s theory of the anorexic saying ‘no’ she also believes the bulimic is saying ‘yes…but’. This signifies that the bulimic woman feels hugely insecure in a world with unattainable standards.


As said in the article, eating disorders, weather it is, compulsive eating, anorexia or bulimia, are social constructions, which prevent women from developing their self-identity.


Although food and sex may seem as though it has nothing in relation with one another, in reality food and sex has been said to be interchangeable. The first similarity they share is they are two pleasures, which are greatly enjoyed.


The media is one source, where food and sex have become explicitly linked. With the notion sex sells always in play, a lot of television adverts of our contemporary society use sexual images to sell a product. For example, an ice cream advert is advertised by a male and female half dressed sharing a bowl of ice cream, which suggests it, can be used during foreplay, to make sexual advances with one another and to flirt. Through research I discovered that this technique used in adverts is very popular in our society. I also observed that in the majority of these adverts, the woman was usually the one portrayed eating, which once again reinforces the notion that women are always eating. But this was only predominant, in the advertising of products, such as, ice cream, yoghurts and alcoholic drinks.


Annie Fursland believes that men and women unconsciously make a connection between eating and sex. She uses the example of, a man buying a woman dinner, and he covertly expects to receive sex from the woman in return. This once again brings us back to the theory of offering food to express feelings. If this is true of men, is it true that when a woman buys dinner for a man, (which is a predominant occurrence in the 1st century) does she expect sex in return? Stereotypically many of us would argue no, she does not expect sex, as women are not suppose to be so open and forward when regarding sex. But this can be said to be yet another false image of femininity created by the patriarchal. In reality women and men share the same desires of sex, but women have been restrained, forbidden and oppressed from exposing their sexual feelings. “Sex and eating are about meeting needs”. (Fursland, p.18, 187) This statement suggests that women’s relationship with food is negative. Women have been denied to meet their needs when regarding sex and food, “women internalised the message that we should prepare food for others but be wary of it ourselves”. (Lawrence, p.4, 187) “Women are need metters,” (Fursland, ed, Lawrence, p. 18) as they are the ones who have to prepare food and give it to men, and they also have to participate in sex when requested. In some cases women, do not have a choice as to if they want to have sex, this is true of societies where the patriarchal system is over powering, such as, some societies within Africa. On the other hand men are encouraged to meet their needs.


Religion can be said to be another institution where women are oppressed in accordance to food. Many religions and cultures are subjected to cultural taboos, which change the meaning of food. Each society and religion defines itself with special foods and food rituals. Each society and religion differ in what they believe is acceptable and enjoyable. Therefore food is culturally defined. For example, the Chinese found it acceptable to eat dog, and monkey brains, whereas in Britain this is unacceptable as these animals, are domesticated and too similar to us. This would almost be seen like eating another human. Some African tribes, find it acceptable to eat anything in the natural environment, which is edible, this includes, things, such as, insects. In western society, this is thought of to be quite disgusting and distasteful.


In the Muslim religion, “fasting is considered spiritually and physically beneficial.” If these religions are compared to western society, it is vivid that western people do not usually fast for lengthily periods of time, but instead, for reasons such as diets. In many religions, such as, Christianity and Judaism, the body is seen as corrupting the soul. Therefore, fasting is a type of purification by denial. This is seen as good, especially for women, as they are seen as the weaker sex and their bodies are seen as unclean. Fasting is then a way to cleanse themselves morally.


Also some religions prohibit different foods, such as, Muslims forbid pork and Hindu’s forbid “beef because the cow has the gentle loving qualities of the good mother”. (Sally Cline, p. 48, 10) Although these prohibitions are not exclusive to women but also men, it does reflect the way in which food suppresses women.


In contrast to all of the theories that view women having a negative relationship towards food, this is not always the case. Some women actually eat for the pure fact that they enjoy eating food. It is a small-minded person who believes every woman has these problems mentioned throughout the essay, relating to food. On the other hand these problems do exist and cannot be ignored. I do feel as though a lot of the gender inequality concerning food is changing, as nowadays, a lot more men shop for food, prepare food, and they also share the same pressures about body size and body shape.





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