Why Women Censor Their Appetites in Public

Social Commentary

Why Women Censor Their Appetites in Public

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

There’s a scene in Ocean’s 8 that even months later, I find hard to get out of my mind. At a renowned diner in Manhattan’s East Village, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) takes her partner Lou (Cate Blanchett) through her very ambitious heist plan while eating lunch. Debbie’s sentences are dotted with generous spoonfuls – she eats from several plates of food while she talks and in some moments, just focuses on her crispy latkes. The scene ends with Debbie feeding Lou. It’s a banal exchange where nothing exciting unfolds and yet feels so invigorating, mostly because it’s one of those rare times where two women are actually eating on screen. Without any fuss or judgement.

You see, over the years, pop-culture has routinely fed us that women only like to be around food but never get hungry. And if they sit with a tubful of ice cream or are surrounded by chocolate wrappers, it’s only because they are going through a heartbreak or a crisis. Our films and books shy away from acknowledging the appetite of women, always implying that their hunger can be satiated with a few modest bites or an Instagrammable salad.

In real life, women’s appetites hardly dictate the amount of food on their plates, especially when we eat out. Instead, our portion sizes are already predetermined by a gamut of external influences, like how much the men end up eating before us and the “acceptable” amount of food women should eat. An essay in The Guardian highlights how difficult it is for women to assert our hunger. “Hunger has always been a fraught topic for women: when we’re so often told to make ourselves smaller, demand less, be pliant and happy and mute, just the act of following your appetite is transgressive, whether that appetite is for sex, success or, indeed, food,” the author writes.

For all our liberal outlook and our fetishisation of meals in the age of “foodie” bios, the food that we heap onto our plates is still coloured by the assumption that we’re meant to eat less.

For instance, I grew up in an environment where gender roles were strictly defined. As is the case in most Indian homes, the women in my family only got to eat once the men had finished their meals. Not only did this ensure that the men chose the best piece of fish or gobbled up the chicken leg and the biryani aloo, but also that they wouldn’t think twice before asking for a third helping of rice. This invariably meant that my mother, aunts, and cousins had to make do with whatever food was left.

Over time, my mother and aunts developed shortcuts to get around their own hunger. I’ve grown up seeing them sheepishly signal each other whenever the male guests would continue eating to their heart’s content at the dinner table during countless family gatherings or Pujo evenings. It’d be their way of preparing themselves for an unsatisfactory meal, where puffed rice and bananas would be incorporated to supplant meagre leftovers. You see, unlike men, Indian women have always been taught to eat for sustenance – never to satiate their hunger.

Indian families and our society thrives on the unspoken understanding that men are entitled to their appetites and by extension, their personalities are defined by their hunger. The women, on the other hand, are made to operate on a whole different assumption – one that requires them to ration their appetites. Naturally, any woman who eats more than her acceptable “womanly” quota is spoken about in hushed whispers, even though a man in her place, is cheered for eating for an army.

It’s the kind of inherent conditioning that has trickled down to the women of my generation. For all our liberal outlook and our fetishisation of meals in the age of “foodie” bios, the food that we heap onto our plates is still coloured by the assumption that we’re meant to eat less. Even though we now eat with the men in our lives, not after them. It’s precisely why a woman taking several helpings in public still elicits shock. And judgements like “You eat a lot for a girl” and “Wow, looks like someone is too hungry today” are casually thrown at us. In fact, I’ve noticed that for most women my age, our portions considerably increase when we are eating out with our girlfriends and lessen when it’s with the men in our lives.

In a HuffPost piece, writer Emma Gray recounted an incident where a stranger yelled “Hey girl, you shouldn’t be eating that. You’re gonna get fat!” at her for eating frozen yoghurt at a subway sidewalk. Every woman who’s faced that good-natured jab about their appetite is aware of what must have transpired next: Gray felt so ashamed that she ended up throwing the rest of her yoghurt. She termed this public food shaming as an “insidious type of street harassment”.

What for, really? It’s not like women are allergic to hunger. In most cases, women live up to this performance in different ways: Some take to being finicky eaters, while some choose to go to bed hungry, or eat only in private. Yet what’s communal is that we’re all still reluctant about making our relationship with our appetites, public. Without feeling the need to censor them.

Perhaps that’s why I was so taken by Debbie and Lou’s lunch date in Ocean’s 8. Because, here were two girls, devouring food until their appetites were absolutely quenched.