It’s time to stop asking women what they eat

A woman is not what she eats.
A woman is not what she eats.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake
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Once upon a time, I had an editor who, when conducting interviews with female actresses and models, would ask them what they ate—even if the story was about a new movie project, a new jewelry collection, or a new memoir. My editor, who has publicly  admitted to having body and food issues, would ignore the on-topic memos I had prepared in order to talk about what she personally wanted to know: how these beautiful, trim women stayed so beautiful and trim.

Later, us junior staffers would salvage the interview by deleting any references to food or exercise. We intuitively understood that folks—most likely young women folks—would read these “diet tips” and inevitably try to emulate them. We didn’t want that.

But what happens when the entire story is about what a woman eats? You don’t have to look too far to find out. There’s New York Magazine’s Grub Street Diet, which regularly features women with interesting careers and lives—and sometimes interesting food diaries. There’s Basbaas Sauce founder Hawa Hassan, taking shots of apple cider vinegar and eating doro wat, the national dish of Ethiopia. Or Daphne Oz making a killer meatloaf glazed by adding ketchup just before baking. And Dita Von Teese, who’s addicted to spinach smoothies. Meanwhile, over on The Cut, the magazine’s fashion vertical, Rebecca Harrington writes a nuanced column poking fun at our obsession with celebrity women’s diets by eating like Hillary Clinton, Gisele Bündchen, and other luminaries.  As these outlets suggest, a good food diary isn’t just a list of meals eaten throughout the course of the week—it lets us peer into the most intimate corners of their subjects’ lives. We not only see how these aspirational people live their lives, but also why they live those lives in that way.

Yet problems arise with this format when a subject has an eating disorder or body issues. True, some of them are more open about it than others—but that doesn’t matter, it’s fundamentally none of our business. In November, for example, Bon Appétit’s healthy eating vertical, Healthyish, published a story about how actress Eliza Coupe is recovering from food and body image issues. The story starts off with good intentions—being vulnerable and honest about struggles—before deviating into a very detailed account of the actress’s disordered eating habits, so much so that a reader could (dangerously) emulate the diet from which Coupe is still recovering.

And that’s the key problem here. For when impressionable young women read food diaries with disordered eating practices, they’re often reading them for the diet tips. Why wouldn’t they? It makes sense. Here is a smart and successful woman, sharing her food diary, who seems to have it all figured it out—including how to maintain a perfect-yet-patriarchal prescription of thinness.

In a world where being 13 pounds overweight means losing $9,000 in salary, being thin is practically another career goalpost. “[I]t is great to be thin,” author Alanna Massey wrote in BuzzFeed about her obsession with weight. “An eating disorder that keeps its host at an attractively low weight is the most socially profitable kind of mental illness.”

It’s not Grub Street’s or Bon Appétit fault—though it is their responsibility. And banning food diaries, in the end, would only result in yet another form of silencing. The truth is such columns are hardly the first forms of diet charting. Indeed, before food blogs existed, women were using anorexia memoirs and anti-eating disorder pamphlets to teach themselves how to actually have an eating disorder.

The key problem with anorexia memoirs, as pointed out by Kelsey Osgood in her memoir, How to Disappear Completely, is that they glamorize the anorexic both in words and imagery. “Almost all the memoirs,” Osgood wrote, “[A]nd even a vast majority of the other eating-disorder-related texts, sport jackets that feature too-slender girls.” That is why, for her own personal anorexia account, she avoided these conventional tropes—which shroud themselves in inspiration, while actually being cautionary.

For instance, she didn’t publish her lowest body weight and she didn’t write a food diary. Doing so, she understood, would be making the disease seem “tangible and solid” instead of truly “messy and disgusting”.

“At least a teeny bit of this is actually about being thin,” Osgood said, adding that “wellness” and “clean eating” have become euphemisms for maintaining thinness. An anorexic who has replaced starving herself with highly-restrictive eating habits is still a sick person, she explains. And ultimately food diary editors have an obligation to not only protect their reader, but also protect their subject.

“These women’s lifestyles are put forth as aspirational in a way that’s balder and also more insidious than the way anorexics’ diet plans were on talk shows or in women’s magazines back in the nineties,” Osgood added. “At least in the latter case, it was acknowledged that the diets were unhealthy,”

Luckily, there are publications that discuss eating without resorting to exploitation. Both Osgood and I enjoy the Grub Street series, Cherry Bombe magazine, and food blogs like The New Potato.  These are series which celebrate women in food and women who love to eat, a necessity in a culinary industry dominated by men.

Ultimately, the very notion of how women eat is held up to both high scrutiny and novelty in all of its over-sharing forms. This is why Cosmopolitan editor in chief Michele Promolayko’s diet of frequent kale salads gets called “depressing” in the comments section, while author Alissa Nutting who eats Doritos for breakfast received “Hall of Fame’” accolades. It’s why famously naked model Emily Ratajkowski slathers herself in pasta while wearing lingerie for a shoot for Love magazine. It’s considered sexy and as she puts it, somehow about feminism. We celebrate thin women who eat, and we use euphemisms for thin women who don’t eat. And that serves neither reader nor subject.