It’s the wedding season in town and I’ve been busy attending related functions and receptions. My attendance at these events depends on three factors
1) WHO is getting hitched and my relationship with them.
2) WHO among my friends or family will be in attendance?
3) FOOD! There’s always something interesting about shaadi ka khaana and if the venue is known for good food, the foodie in me is always willing to go shake a few hands and send out a few smiles.
And I was all geared up to have a splendid time with good food and company this wedding season.
Only, at an event in the past week, a rather unsavoury comment left me baffled and upset, destroying my pleasure and setting me on the course of writing this post.
What happened? As is a ritual for me, I had done a recce of the spread and chosen the few things I would eat. And as I was trying to take a call between the cake, ice-cream and mithai, a ‘friend’ popped over my shoulder and prompted: “Why are you bothering to choose? Eat it all! We all know how MUCH you can eat!” her eyes doing a quick scan of my ‘healthiness’. Now I would not have bothered with a random statement had it been made in jest. But the sarcasm and the obvious judgement of the ‘lack of food’ (in her words) vis-à-vis my ‘figure’ left me stumped and stammering out an explanation about how I had eaten only one roti with a curry so that I could enjoy the desserts.
The mithai had lost its sheen and been replaced by a re-realisation that has made me restless – how and why did the individual think it was okay to food shame me and why did I feel the need to justify? And have I, unconsciously, done it to others? Over the last few days, these thoughts have compelled me to introspect, talk with other friends and speak about “food shaming”.
A shaming without boundaries
Food shaming is a phenomenon that knows no boundaries. Almost every individual has either been the perpetrator or receiver of criticism about the food on their plate, the amount, the kind, etc.
Food shaming can be defined as the “The act of judging, criticising, or forcing feelings of guilt based on choices of food you are eating, be it by yourself or with others.” (adapted from the Urban Dictionary) The basic premise is that the food is partaken by another individual – that in no way is affecting our choices – is a ground to criticise, judge and comment on. ‘Food shaming’ is a cousin of ‘body shaming’.
Food shaming is happening all the time
How many times have you been told to ‘eat more because you are thin’ and ‘eat less because you are fat’ or been sneered at for being vegan, non-vegetarian, lactose intolerant or following a certain diet? Do you remember that time when as a plump child or a not-thin teenager, you were told to “not to eat much or you’ll be fat likes so-and-so aunty or uncle”? Or the time when an office colleague or a friend has taken to mentioning your food habits a bit too regularly, making you conscious?
- Vishwa*, a college mate who is now 35 and a successful entrepreneur, is still uncomfortable when eating meals with certain family members. “I was around 12 when an aunt invited me over to her place for masala dosa, a favourite. There I was having dosa with enthusiasm, having lost count (who counts when you eat your favourite!) when suddenly the aunt said ‘you’ve eaten five already! Even my share!’ and everyone laughed’,” he shared, adding that while then he was baffled, he later realised that his aunt’s passing comment came for him being a plump child.
- “Ten days after marriage, I accompanied my husband to the railway station. We had gone to drop off an aunt of his. Since a lot of walking and tackling stairs were involved, I carried two of her overloaded bags on me, allowing her to walk freely. Even as I plopped down her bag at the station platform where she was to board her train, instead of blessing or thanking me, she remarked “now I know where all that food you eat goes!’ I was embarrassed to the core,” said Akankhya*, a mother and home baker with a verve for life and a ready smile.
- “I got sick and tired of being targeted by co-workers who would invite me to join them during dinner time and share their food with me, only to then ‘joke’ that I eat up all their food. Why bother calling me and then act like such hypocrites,” narrates Priyansh*, a media professional who is now a butt of jokes because he does NOT eat with the said co-workers.
- Shyama*, a media professional in her mid-30s who has an erratic work schedule but still manages to stay healthy remembers a time when she was targeted by a senior individual in a room full of people for eating! “I was concentrating on food – having missed my breakfast, put in a chunky day of work and heading to another meeting. Of course, I’m going to eat! Plus the fact that I was going through a tough phase in my personal life that made my food patterns a little irregular. What was the need to berate me for eating? The food was to eat, I assumed, not for decoration!” she said.
Toxic effect on enjoyment of food
To many of you, these instances will sound familiar – having been at the receiving end or as someone who has knowingly or unknowingly done it. I, for one, have never been able to understand the need to food shame anyone and continue to feel guilty for not having spoken in defence of a classmate who was reed thin and picked on by a teacher. What no one realises is that scattered incidents as these have become a part of our lives as we allow people to dictate our actions and our food habits, rather than listening to what our body demands and making peace with these needs. When someone food shames me, they are unaware of
- my relationship with food and the reason I take decisions about food
- the context in which I am choosing to eat or not eat something
- that some food which is good for them may not necessarily good for me
- they are unaware of my health goals
- they are clueless about any or all health issues that may make me look the way I am
- food may just be a way for me to occasional cope with emotional or mental distress
As someone who has been food shamed for a larger part of life, it has taken me a lot of time and energy to realise that the body issues that I’ve struggled with since my teenage years are interconnected. There are days when I feel rotten and guilty to the core for indulging in a scoop of ice-cream or some halva. And while part of these emotions stems from my own insecurities, there is an urgency to learn ways to deal with food shaming, create awareness, and stop being a victim or a perpetrator. Fat shaming is a cousin of body shaming and it is toxic.
Be aware and make a change
As I continue my battle with food shaming, there are certain concepts and thoughts that have help me speak up and stop myself from losing my confidence. Here’s what you might want to consider keeping in mind.
- Another’s plate is NOT your business unless you are their nutritionist, doctor, dietician, cook, parent or the like.
- Remember that the choice of food is your own and it should be something that satisfies you, not others.
- Stop justifying what you eat. It’s okay to eat that extra doughnut even if you didn’t go to yoga class today!
- What you eat does not need to be the way another person eats so ease up on the advice.
- Do not judge people’s appetite on the basis of their ‘size’.
- Stop telling people you are jealous of them ‘being able to eat anything!’ I’ve done that and I can’t tell you how ashamed I am about it.
- Can’t support them? Don’t. But being critical of anyone on a special diet like gluten free, keto or vegan, is a big no-no.
- If you are following a diet, don’t try to force it on another person. Respect their choice as they respect yours.
- Speak up. Make people aware if they are hurting you. Very often, they are unaware of the statement they have made.
At the end of the day, all I want to say is that IT’S FOOD! Enjoy it! Let others enjoy it! Revel in the togetherness and bonding that food inspires! I’ve decided that food shaming around me, ends with me.
What have your experiences with food shaming been? Would you be willing to participate in an exercise to create more awareness about food shaming? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below. You can reach out to me with your story on firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook (click here) and Instagram (click here).