In our second guest post for The Current Conscience, we present the work of Melanie Klein. In this piece, Klein explores the relationship women have with food, especially the negative perception of a woman eating exactly what she wants to eat (in public). By recounting her own experiences with eating, Klein shows a fiery refusal to fall victim to the practice of eating behind closed doors.
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked with grave concern as chicken grease ran down his fingers and his chin. We’d just finished a rigorous hike and I was starving—famished, ravenous and slightly light-headed.
I mean, really, we’d been cavorting, frolicking and climbing the local mountains in the summer heat for over 6 hours and I hadn’t eaten anything except for an apple. Maybe.
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I replied. He paused mid-bite and questioned me with raised eyebrows.
“I’m good–really,” I said, sounding far too relaxed and nonchalant about something as serious as a meal after physically exerting myself as excessively as I had. But, nope, I wouldn’t change my mind. I was not going to let him see me eat, especially a greasy, messy meal like that. Mind you, this is the same guy I wouldn’t take a pee around. I’d turn the faucet on when I had to go really bad to make sure he didn’t hear me, otherwise I’d hold it until I got home. I know I wasn’t the only 17-year-old girl to pull a stunt like that.
If there was anything I’d learned up to that point, it was that girls and women don’t have bodily functions or odors (unless they’re created in chemical factories and mask your natural female body smells), and they aren’t supposed to be seen eating (unless it’s yogurt, salad or other “girl” food) or sweating (unless they’re sweating like women should—hello, female antiperspirant industry).
Fast forward to 15 years later:
“Are you going to eat that?” the student I had been mentoring asked with nervous excitement.
“Yes,” I said, awaiting the sweet taste of carrot cake as my fork hovered close to my lips.
“In public?” she continued.
“Um, where else should I eat it? In the bathroom or the broom closet?” I laughed as I sank my teeth into the cream cheese frosting knowing perfectly well that those were considered viable options, ones preferred over this scenario—that of a woman eating cake out in public in broad daylight. I’m talking a slice of cake, not a bite of cake and not an entire cake. A slice of cake. On a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon. There was no special occasion. I simply wanted some cake and I felt no shame or remorse about it. Shame and guilt had led me to stuff myself in private after starving myself publicly one too many times in the past.
“Wow. I admire you. I wish I could do that,” she said slowly. I asked her what was stopping her and she went on to tell me about her mother, a woman who kept a scale in the dining room so she could look at it while she ate dinner and remind herself not to eat too much. And when it came to cake? Well, her mother always cut much smaller slices for the girls and reserved the big frosted pieces for the boys at the family party.
We continued to have lunch on campus between classes with a few other students for several weeks, and each time, I’d enjoy something sweet without embarrassment or great fanfare on my end.
One day she sat down and said, “I have to tell you something.”
She giggled like someone about to dish a shameful secret, “I went to my cousin’s birthday party over the weekend and when my mom handed me a thin slice of cake on a paper plate, I told her that I wanted a big one. She looked at me with surprise as I put the plate she handed me back on the table and grabbed one of the large slices. I felt great.”
Melanie Klein is an Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies, speaker and writer. You may follow her on Twitter, join her on Facebook, and read more of her work on her blog Feminist Fatale.