The Weight Of The Dinner Table

I think it’s fair to say that people like to eat. We socialise around a meal, we share recipes, and we watch TV shows based around baking and home cooking. The Great British Bake Off scored on average 13.56 million viewers per episode on its most recent season. Almost every ad break on an average TV day will have some sort of food ad in it. Yet more and more, food ads seem to be subverting from big booming American voices telling you to plus size your meal for just 50p, to now having McDonalds try and despairingly grasp at what in their food is healthy (I’m not being funny but if I was a kid at McDonalds and the fries in my happy meal were replaced with carrot sticks I would be morbidly unhappy). Since so many people are dieting these days, big companies like McDonalds are slowly attempting to market to that demographic.

I used to think that maybe it’s a good thing that big time chefs like Jamie Oliver are calling for a sugar tax since obesity is a health cost problem, yet I can’t help but think that there is a darker, less caring, less innocent side. Whilst a sugar tax is kind of understandable, sugary foods and drinks like coca cola and foods from the orange aisle tend to be the cheapest. It seems to me that most anti-cheap sugary food spokespeople, such as Deliciously Ella, seem to offer extremely expensive alternatives to these sugary foods. Sure, most fruits and vegetables are fairly cheap, but in a food subculture that literally demonises sugar, it’s hard to look at a recipe and think ‘oh I’ll just swap the agave syrup for golden syrup’ without being made to feel like you’re a bad person. This in turn demonises and disenfranchises people who are poor with wanting to be healthy, even though these kind of things aren’t even about health – just weight loss.

But aside from class issues invading at the dinner table, it’s interesting to take a look at general food culture these days because it has changed so much. Etiquette at the dinner table has changed from ‘use cutlery properly’ and ‘don’t rush your dinner’, to ‘maybe just don’t eat at all’. The weight loss market in the USA totalled at $64 billion in 2014 and is said to have exponentially grown since then, and according to ABC News, 85% of weight loss product and service customers are female. Cosmopolitan recommend that a woman who wants to be healthy should eat around 1,500 calories per day, which will put your body into ketosis – a famine state where your body uses ketone bodies as a source of energy, rather than using glucose (its preferred source). Big time magazines with huge followings are literally recommending people starve themselves for the sake of that beach bod. The diet industry capitalises off socially enforced insecurities, in a bid to police bodies and make a few quid.

An advert I saw recently on TV shows a woman sitting up to the table for dinner with her husband and son, and pulling out a rather austere looking microwave meal after placing two other meals – presumably that she’d prepared – in front of her husband and son. Funnily enough, it didn’t surprise me that the woman in the advert was so obviously the one dieting. It’s almost expected now that women are either dieting or have done in the past – according to up to 90% of teenagers diet regularly, and 50% of women at any given time are dieting.

The main problem with these kinds of diet meal plans is that they can kind of consume your life. Before you know it everything you do is revolving around your meal plan and you can never go back to eating ‘normal food’ because you’re paying to have your meals planned out by a computer that’s trying to starve you into a size 2. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but it seems to just be one huge scamming service; trapping customers in a web of meal plans and promised weight loss rhetoric to keep them interested, whilst hundreds of pounds leave their bank account. And we all know they don’t work. As soon as someone tries to wean themselves off diet chef meals, slimming world, weight watchers or whatever, they pile the pounds back on because they haven’t actually learned anything about feeding yourself properly and how to get the right nutrients from the right foods. They’ve simply learned to buy this product with this logo, and do the odd calorie counting when you don’t have a microwave in sight. And I don’t blame people for falling into this trap – how could you not? The adverts are appealing, and all it takes is a little peer pressure for someone to bow into the conditioning that tells us all we’re not good enough, and this conditioning has been hiding in the back of our psyches since the moment we are born.

Unsurprisingly, this has to have an effect on family life. There have been recent studies that show how a parent’s relationship with their dinner plate can impact their child’s relationship with theirs; thin inheritance, or ‘thinheritance’, is a concept that generally states that as a result of both genetic and environmental factors, a child might inherit disordered behaviours and body image problems from their mothers. It seems fairly reasonable that a person may inherit their beliefs and attitudes towards various different subjects (in this case food) from their parents, but it also seems like a twisted way of blaming mothers for the actions of their children. But this is where things get twisted – who do we blame? It seems entirely unfair to blame a mother for her child’s insecurities yet simultaneously seems completely unfair to blame the child for its own insecurities. So, there has to be another cause. It is true that a lot of our behaviours are learned – especially when it comes to self doubt and scarcity culture, but we do not learn everything from our parents otherwise we’d all be the same as them. For example there is only so much a parent can do in raising their child to be respectful of other people before it starts to learn from other sources how to treat themselves and each other.

We need to change the way we see our bodies and food globally. When I googled the phrase “how many women want to be slimmer as of 2016” in research for this bit of writing, the first article that appeared was one called “Why men find thinner women attractive”, with the fourth being “ do men prefer curves”. The rest of the articles on the first page were merely tutorials on how to lose weight the quickest. Titles laced with rhetoric about “weight wars”, “is sugar the new cocaine?”, and “surviving obesity” are slammed onto magazines and social media without any kind of restraint or restrictions. It’s so transparent now that we are being taught to be terrified of everything on our plate. To quote Michelle, author of The Fat Nutritionist, “every new, increasingly frantic headline about sugar makes it clearer to me that we are witnessing a massive cultural eating disorder”.

It’s very difficult to nourish yourself in this fat-phobic, anti-sugar environment that we’re surrounded and engulfed by. I can hardly imagine how much harder it would be if you’re recovering from an eating disorder. It must be unbearably difficult to avoid the deafening screams that “calories are poison!” when the media corroborates that exact message. With most of these messages being targeted at women, it becomes even worse – another thing on top of all the shit we have to deal with. You are simply a bad wife, mother, daughter if you don’t eat ‘clean’. The idea of being a wellness guru and Yummy Mummy is epitomised to the point that if you aren’t oil pulling, and eating quinoa for lunch, then you are simply lesser. The feeling of never being good enough takes a whole new vessel, as restrictive diets that claim to be able to magically transform your health sweep over the food industry.

Ruby Tandoh so eloquently suggests that “wellness doesn’t cause eating disorders. But when we advocate, and even insist upon, a diet so restrictive, moralising and inflexible, and market that diet to young women, and then dress it up as self-care: just how responsible is that?” Most of these magazines and diet industries will claim that there ulterior motive is to help women across the globe be healthier and ultimately happier, but we all know that’s utter shit. It’s so transparent; t-shirts awash with pithy slogans that cheer “fries before guys” litter the ad pages of magazines, but are only available in small sizes. A fat woman eating a McDonalds is voyeuristically filmed and sold to obesity documentary makers whereas a thin woman eating a pizza is saluted for her apathy and body positive mindset.

We hold women to far higher behavioural standards than we do men. Men are allowed to be mediocre and get applauded, whereas women have to work twice as hard and compete with every other woman to even get a seat at the table. I’ve seen wives far more qualified than their husbands do very nearly all of the cooking and menial tasks, yet when the husband simply does the washing up afterwards, he’s given a sincere thank you. Men are allowed to do jack shit and they get away with it simply because of what they have between their legs, and this has certainly been going on for the longest time. In a world where women are policed for pretty much anything and everything they do, it seems too unfair, too barbaric, to go after a woman’s plate of food, especially in her own home. It’s at best frustrating that it is expected of women to only eat ‘non-messy’ foods in public, never mind low calorie foods. Around January 1st, news feeds are filled with How To’s usually relating to diet plans, or losing weight whilst still enjoying your ‘treat foods’, and I fear it will get to the point where we all have such toxic relationships with food that it becomes an anxiety stricken chore.

Food can be so brilliant, and it’s important to build a positive relationship with it, if only because we eat food three times a day. Yes food is fuel, but it can be so much more than just that. The pleasure of eating good food among good company is vastly underrated, and a luxury I’m getting to appreciate more as I get older. An ice cream and glass of fresh orange juice can be the perfect pick me up after a long day. Again, to quote Ruby Tandoh, “every hair, muscle, wobble is the tactile memory of something great you ate. Why bother building yourself out of food that doesn’t bring you joy?” I couldn’t agree more.

Make your plate however you want to. Solve your weight problems by burning the magazines that tell you you’re not good enough. Food is food is food is food. Your plate isn’t out to get you. Pasta is the best thing ever.

Words: Rochelle Asquith 

Images: Ella de Souza