This essay will talk about ideas of food security and bring gender into the story where it not only focuses on women’s relationship with food but also how ideas of body image often twist and turn this relationship.
Women and their relationship with food have often been dependent on the patriarchal norms that operate in the country. Much like women’s access to education and health care, discrimination based on food has also been a part of their living. It is often by controlling women’s autonomy over food and nutrition that they are controlled by the larger society. (Mehran,2017). This control has often been given fancy names to naturalize it and make it a part of the woman’s being. This process of naturalization has a larger politics to it because it makes the woman responsible for whatever is happening to her body, and it is often here we see issues of body image, bulimia, and anorexia coming into the picture.
Woman and their access to food have mostly been maintained within a family because it is generally men who receive the larger portion of food or they receive food that has more nutritional content. This discrimination has been happening since time immemorial and as a result, has been naturalized. Some cultural codes and setups have been established to justify this whole system. Women’s body has always been a sight of multiple ideologies and values put together. Even in the case of food things have been similar where women and their body images have been used as a trope. In the name of spirituality also there have been ways of keeping women away from food and thereby lacking food security.
Women’s weight has mostly had some major societal impact and has been markers of their worth per se. It is observed that there is an idea of a woman’s body that is particularly very thin and small; almost a childlike body is what is presented as the ideal type. To achieve this ideal body- type, women not only starve themselves but also have a deep-seated psychological impact on the perception of their body. Women have been seen to have developed bulimic and anorexic tendencies along with obsessive eating tendencies to deal with the deep-down psychological impacts. The notion of power is also something that works in this whole body image issue. Women have felt that by losing a few pounds they gain power and control but this also depends on the cultural context one is placed. In an ethnography, a female respondent says, ‘When the rest of my life is going out of control I always say to myself, there’s one thing I can control, what I put in my mouth’ (Millman 1980:161).
The above statement by the respondent is very important not only when one is talking about women and the gendered perspective to food, but also when one is trying to draw a line between food, body, and the idea of gaze that one caters to. Food is one of the ways through which discrimination also takes place not only between gender but also class, caste and multiple other factors that are present. These factors vary depending on specific socio-political scenarios, culture and economic structure of the society. This shows that the notion of power also works through food which can be both economic and political. Personal power is also an aspect of it where the relationship with food contributes to a value and sense of self that one associates with. The equation one has with food, their appetite and their body also reveals if the concept of self one has is validating or detrimental.
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Food in itself has a gendered association to it where we often see certain foods are associated with the gender female while the others as male. For instance, meat-eating often has a masculine attribute to it, while on the other hand vegetarianism is associated with women. (Carol, 1990). Historically speaking, we will observe that this division comes from the fact how women were always associated with gardening while men are connected with hunting. Hence, sexes are identified with discrete forms of labour and from here we see marriage comes as an exchange programme where it satisfies reciprocity with regards to food. Therefore control over food products varies with regards to gender and creates a visible balance.
In general, food plays a huge role when one looks from the aspect of bonding and friendship. It is often through food that relationships are created where one remains indebted to another and a tie is formed. These ties also keep them together because food exchanges once they start generally continue for quite a long time. I believe that this tie formed through the exchange of food can play a vital role if one is looking at it from the perspective of women’s solidarity and movement. Since women are mostly in charge of the kitchen it is through an exchange of food that solidarities can be built which might lead to, if not major movements, at least a little up-gradation of the women’s position within and outside the realm of domesticity. Often in movies, we have seen that how the kitchen becomes the sight where women bring up and share their problems and also from here we get to know the commonalities that exist within the realm of gender-based discrimination.
Since the kitchen is still dominated by women and it is women who generally decide what a family eats and therefore they are often termed as ‘gatekeepers. (Lewin, 1940) This term is used not only from the perspective of everyday life but also from the aspect of culture. It comes from the perspective of culture because it is generally the food a woman is acquainted with since her childhood is what she tends to cook, and thereby also carries a culture forward. Even though there have been debates that women are responsible for the food but often men decide the food they eat.
Now we come to another part where we try to understand that even though women have a presence within the realm of food and the politics of it within domesticity which eventually influences culture, women suffer from certain types of stigmas when it comes to eating because women’s bodies have always been scrutinized and have also acted as a way to understand women. There is a cultural construct that women tend to eat less than men and this is ingrained in such a way that women are shamed if they tend to eat more. Surveys have found out women saying that they are ashamed to eat in front of the men with whom they have romantic relations. This is so much a disturbing statement to even hear because eating as an act is very natural and hunger is something common to all but that also drawing from cultural context has such a deep-seated psychological impact on a person.
This perpetual anxiety in women concerning eating comes because women’s body weight is not only an aspect of health but also there is a larger social aspect to which it caters. During the time of adolescence when the body starts changing, there is a consciousness that develops in women. They constantly start aspiring for a slim and small body which is the ideal type projected through social media and other sources. It is a woman’s sexuality that is figured out through her body type which oscillates between fat and thin.
In a survey, one of the respondents said with regards to weight loss that, ‘And the more weight I lose, the flatter I become. It’s wonderful, like crawling back into the body of a child’ (Liu 1979:41). Women who have anorexic tendencies are often seen to have difficulties with regards to their menstrual cycle which affects their body. However, the drive and passion to remain thin are so deep that these difficulties are often ignored. The opposite also happens where women who measure higher in the weighing machine (popularly called obese) tend to hate their body because they are constantly worried about the increase in size and here also there is a link with sexuality where they feel their bodies are not attractive enough. A response from a respondent makes it clear she says, ‘I feel so terrible about the way I look that I cut off connection with my body. I operate from the neck up. I do not look in mirrors’ (Millman 1980:195).
All these statements make me wonder whether these women hate their bodies or this behaviour is a manifestation of a deep-down idea that since my body is not anywhere near the ideal body type hence I create a distance from it. Also, it is this body that one starts hating because there is a particular gaze to which she thinks she is not worthy enough, that is the male gaze. It is constantly trying to become worthy of this male gaze. The dieting that one goes through is terrible because it is a struggle that one goes through with her sensual and physiological needs. According to Chernin, ‘women’s antipathy toward their sensuality reflects Western culture’s repression of appetite, which may be particularly strong within the Puritan tradition. The obese, anorexics, and bulimarexics all display an irrational terror of hunger which is often accompanied by an inability effectively to allow, recognize, or satisfy the physiological stirrings of appetite.’ (Bruch1978,p.42–43; Orbach 1978:108).
The whole body issue doubly jeopardizes women because society does not recognize that body type is part of a spectrum where it is natural for women to be somewhere in between and often there is hardly any relation between body and eating. Even though the idea of slim is celebrated but still a dilemma remains with regards to ‘how much slim is enough slim?’ It has been noted that when women lose a lot of weight they develop an androgynous body type which is again not appreciated.
The above discussion brings us to idea the that women who have historically shared a close relationship with food because of their social positioning within the realm of domesticity also have a very convoluted association within owing to the working of social forces.
First women and their access to food have been restricted by men because even though it was women who mostly had the responsibility of the kitchen, but generally men who decided what the family would eat. Next, we have the point where we do not see that women have an equal amount of access to nutritional food as men. This comes from the fact that since men were the ones who would go hunting-gathering, therefore, they need more food. Even though with time this gap between men working more than women is no more but still access to food remains unequal.
Women’s relationship with food also gets an added dimension to it because of the whole of body image and the notion of sexuality that gets associated with it. There is an ideal type of women body that has been praised and appreciated in general but because it is an ideal type, most women do not fall into that and hence there is a constant struggle that goes on. To deal with this constant struggle and to achieve this specific body women go through phases where they suppress their hunger hence develop complicated psychological and physiological syndromes such as bulimia, anorexia and others as well. Obsessive eating is also something that women go do to just do away with the mental traumas that they have with their body. There is a disconnect between them and their body where they hate it and do not wish to even see it. Hence, food that is there for a person’s survival is not at all a neutral actor, rather there are multifarious aspects which it has and they are political as well as have a deep-seated impact on psychology.
Mehran, Weeda (2017). Gendered food insecurity: The legal and social foundations for women’s food discrimination in Afghanistan in Perspectives: Political Analysis and Commentary. Henrich Boll Stiftung.
Lewin, Kurt (1943). Forces behind Food Habits and Methods of Change. In The Problem of Changing Food Habits, Bulletin no. 108. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, pp. 35–65.
Millman, Marcia (1980). Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America. New York: Norton.
Adams, Carol (1990).The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum.
Bruch, Hilde (1978). The Golden Cage: The Engima of Anorexia Nervosa. New York: Vintage.
Orbach, Susie (1978). Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent WeightLoss. New York: Paddington.
Liu, Aimee (1979). Solitaire. New York: Harper & Row.