“Eating Our Words” Decoupling Women’s Eating Habits from the Language of Sin: Part 1 by Stefanie Goyette
Any woman who has eaten a big holiday meal with her family or had a weekend brunch with girlfriends has probably heard the following words: “I’m so bad, but I’m going to order…” or “I shouldn’t, but…” or “I’m being good; I skipped dessert.” Foods and the recipes in cookbooks marketed towards women are described as “sinfully delicious,” especially if they are low-carb, or low-fat, or low-sugar. “Sinfully delicious” diet food can be enjoyed “without the guilt.” Further marking the matrix of food, women, and “bad” behavior or sin, is the intimate relationship between food, women, and sex. Recent Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s commercials feature swimsuit model Kate Upton making out with – nearly making love to – a hamburger. This love scene takes place in a convertible, at a drive-in, the classic site of American, teenage, illicit sex. The take-out bag is used as a prop to conceal Upton’s vagina, as she spreads her legs for the camera. Another commercial, for Lay’s potato chips, features a women biting her lip while she slowly peels open the bag, set to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
A seeming contradiction emerges between these two discourses: one that persists within and between women, who are expected to be on a diet and who speak, and are spoken to, about food in terms of morality, “good” and “bad.” At the same time, women eating, especially eating greasy, fatty, comfort food, as long as these women are thin and attractive, has become a quintessential symbol for sex, and is used most particularly to market food to men. Yet marketing is not the only place where women must connect themselves to food, and still establish a divide between the beauty and size of their bodies and the food they enjoy. The actress interview that features said actress (or model, or singer) eating a pile of fatty food should sound familiar: it has become such a trope that The New York Times (notoriously behind the times in terms of popular culture) published an article about the phenomenon last year.
The article features the following quote from chef Jon Shook of L.A’s Animal restaurant, talking about his girlfriend, actress Shiri Appleby: “She’s like 110 pounds, maybe, in wet clothes, and when she’s with me, we eat everything and anything… On our first date, I was like, ‘Hey, why’d you stop being a vegan?’ And she was like, ‘What kind of guy’s going to date a vegan?’ And I was like, ‘You’re awesome.’” Shook reveals a number of things in this quote: he emphasizes the fact that Appleby is thin (so it’s fine for her to eat anything), that she specifically eats “anything” (wink, nudge) when with him, that she stopped being a vegan specifically in order to find a man. And, best of all, these facts add up to “awesome.” Of course, what all of this really adds up to is the coopting of subjective female pleasure and choices by a male perspective, and the rendering of female body as object, and as an object that must behave a certain way.
The two conflicting discourses I have just described attain unholy fusion in the following implications: men do not want women who do not want food, because women who do not want to eat do not want to f**k. And women who want food, especially fatty food, are “bad.” So (heterosexual) women are, in a sense, forced to be “bad.” And if food is “bad,” and food is equated with sex, then sex is “bad” as well. Women are also encouraged to maintain one sort of attitude around other women, and another around men, or at least men in whom they have some sexual interest. Yet both of these attitudes sap female subjecthood. The lie that actresses have to maintain, of course, is that they are sexually interested in every man, every fan, all the time. This is part of the fantasy of celebrity.
For me, what is particularly sad in all of this is that negative discourses around women’s alimentary behavior have changed very little since the Middle Ages. As medievalist, I work primarily on a corpus of stories (the thirteenth-century Old French fabliaux) that focus predominantly on the body and its appetites, and feature many women feasting secretly, inappropriately, and gluttonously, often as a symbol of illicit, adulterous sex. In one story, a peasant catches two partridges, which he is very excited to eat. In medieval culture, partridges are coded as a hot food, as an aristocratic food, and as “man food.” They are also a symbol for lust and for “unnatural” sexual practices. In the story, the peasant’s wife waits until he goes to fetch the parish priest – another man with whom to share his catch – and while he is gone she proceeds to devour both roasted birds in a scene of gustatory abandon and nearly masturbatory delight. However, her feast is tinged with guilt and she knows that she will have to deal with the consequences of her theft. To avoid punishment, she transforms the crime into a sexual one, and places the blame on the priest, convincing him that her husband believes that he (the priest) has seduced her. She convinces her husband that the priest has stolen the partridges. When the husband goes after the priest to get “them, still hot,” the priest flees, convinced that his friend wants to chop off his testicles.
In terms of morality, what is truly different about the Middle Ages is that gluttony was an explicitly religious problem: even when separated from sex, gluttony was a mortal sin, one of the seven cardinal vices. Sexual crimes related to gluttony were a supplement to something that was already “bad.” Medieval sermon stories, destined for preaching to laypeople, repeat again and again the dangers of overeating, particularly with regards to women who eat meat. Medieval medicine and dietetics also related certain foods to increased libido, and even linked indigestion, or simply digestion tout court, to lust, especially in women. The relationship between women’s libido and food was medicalized, or brought under the controlling knowledge of science, through complexional and humoral theories, i.e. the affiliation of foods and human bodies with hot or cold, dry or wet, with bile, spleen, etc.
Scientists and doctors purveying popular medicine today (in women-oriented tabloids, magazines, and television programs such as The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors) continue to bring women’s desire for food and other things into line with medical theory. (“If you want chocolate, you’re probably stressed or hormonal! Cortisol! Serotonin!”) Again, I think that what (pseudo)scientific theories about food and diet often do is to undermine female subjectivity, since what these programs say is that female desires are not self-identical, therefore women do not know what they really want. So they (the “doctors”) are going to tell women what they really want so that they don’t get fat.
In the second part of this series, I will address the positive side of food and dietetics in the Middle Ages, and consider a number of ways that we may fight the ways of speaking about food that hijack women’s subjectivity.
Stefanie Goyette is completing a doctoral thesis on the Old French fabliaux in relation to medieval religious and medical culture. Her thesis is structured around the theme of bodies: bodies living, dead, and resurrected, as well as bodies of and as language. Outside of her thesis, she is interested Latin exempla, and in the relationships between dietetic texts, bestiaries, and vernacular, secular literature. She also works in cinema studies, specifically on twentieth- and twenty-first century French female filmmakers. Both her work on medieval literature and her explorations of film most often center on the body and its relationship to language.