"Hey, girl, you shouldn’t be eating that. You’re gonna get fat!”
Of all the things you want to hear while walking to the subway at 11 p.m. on a Friday night, a man screaming at you for eating frozen yogurt on the sidewalk is not one of them.
It took me a moment to register that the “girl” the man was yelling at was me, a 26-year-old medium-sized woman leisurely strolling across town after a late-night stop at 16 Handles, armed only with a healthy serving of froyo and an assortment of toppings. Once I realized I was being spoken to, I stopped in my tracks, too shocked to do anything but turn and look at the man who had interrupted my I’m so happy I’m eating these delicious ice cream-like processed chemicals internal monologue. He responded with a leering look and a nod. I walked away, my cheeks flushed with shame, instantly reverting to the most insecure version of myself.
It was a humiliating and startling experience. So startling that I walked halfway down the block, threw the remainder of my frozen yogurt -- I couldn’t stomach even one more bite -- into the nearest trash can and got on the subway in a daze, a thread of mixed messages running through my mind: That guy was an asshole. Why didn’t I turn around and tell him to f**k off? Am I fat? I’m fat. Whether or not I’m fat, it doesn’t matter. Why am I letting some random dude make me feel like crap? It was goddamn froyo! I’m disgusting. I'm probably going to die alone. I’m not fat. I’m so fat.
Despite being a generally upbeat, well-informed, body-positive person, I left the interaction feeling terrible about myself. My figure had officially become a casualty of the body wars.
People should be able to walk down the street eating without worrying about comment or harassment from strangers. That seems like common sense. But the sad reality is that for women, eating in public can be fraught with unwanted commentary, sexual innuendo and judgment. Doing so can turn a pleasant evening into an exercise in maintaining a semblance of self-esteem.
And it’s startling how common stories like mine are. When we asked our Facebook community whether anyone had experienced public food-shaming, the thread got over 200 comments and we received emails from dozens of women all over the U.S., Canada and the U.K. wanting to share stories.
One was Vicki*, now 30, from Cardiff, Wales. When she got up to go to the restroom during her 21st birthday celebration -- which, naturally, included cake -- she didn’t expect to leave the party in tears. “Some 50-year-old jock who was standing at the bar smacked me on the side of my hip and said, ‘Looks like someone's had too much cake already,’” she told me. “I went into the bathroom and cried. [It] ruined my entire birthday.”
Why Strangers Give A Damn What Women Eat In Public
According to certified health coach Isabel Foxen Duke, there is a reason why a woman licking an ice cream cone or chowing down on a piece of pizza on the sidewalk often elicits a reaction from strangers.
“As a way of performing their gender role, women are supposed to be trying to lose weight or maintain their figures at all times,” Duke said in an interview. “So if you’re [eating in public], you’re basically saying, ‘Hey, I have a right not to diet,’ and you’re going to get backlash. At the end of the day, not trying to lose weight is counter-cultural for women.”
The vitriol directed at women’s bodies, especially women who fall outside of the sometimes impossible standards of conventional attractiveness, has consequences. We live in a country where 40 percent of 9 and 10-year-old girls have dieted, and where 78 percent of young women feel bad about their bodies by the time they hit 17. Clearly, something is affecting the mental health of American girls.
The thin and fit ideal for women is reinforced in magazines and movies, on television and billboards, on weight-loss reality shows and even, at times, in public health campaigns.
“As the war on obesity increases in visibility and as the funding [for it] increases, I’ve been finding people’s entitlement to talk about my body increasing,” Virgie Tovar, a body image and fat discrimination expert, told HuffPost. “Women are already constantly being observed and judged, so women become disproportionate victims of this government mandate against obesity. It makes everyone a f**king vigilante.”
It’s not just larger women who experience these sort of stranger-delivered PSAs on their eating habits. Five years ago, when Maeghan*, a 28-year-old woman from Nashville, weighed just 115 pounds, she went into a McDonald’s to buy a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone.
“As I was leaving with my ice cream, a random guy sitting in the dining area looked me up and down and commented, ‘You know you gotta be careful eating stuff like that or you'll lose that figure,’” she said. “What he didn't know was how I already felt guilty about the ice cream because it was not my weekly ‘eat anything day.’ He didn't know I worked out two hours a day, six days a week, plus walks on Sunday, or that my dining habits at that time certainly fell into the category of ‘borderline eating disorder.’ To this day, I blame myself for his remarks.”
Tovar maintained that fatphobia is at the root of most food-shaming commentary, regardless of whether the woman on the receiving end is size 2 or size 22. “What’s so interesting about fatphobia is that it impacts anyone who could become fat at some time,” Tovar said, “which is everyone.”
When Food-Shaming Becomes Street Harassment
Amy Schumer’s “I’m So Bad” sketch hilariously skewers women’s tendencies to police their own eating habits and those of their friends. In the sketch, four women out for lunch at a restaurant try to console and one-up each other’s “bad” food-related behaviors. “I was cyberbullying my niece on Instagram the other day and I literally ate 15 mini-muffins," Schumer laments. “I’m so bad.”
Much has been written seriously about our unhealthy tendency to put foods into “bad” and “good” categories, to obsess over calories and weight gain, and to subject ourselves to regimented food rules and diets, all in the name of faux “health” -- and looking good (read: thin). But unsolicited, food-related comments that come from (primarily male) strangers are less widely discussed. And yet, the experience of being targeted by a random man on the street is fundamentally different from having your mother or a female colleague give you the side-eye for taking two croissants from the bread basket at lunch.
Kelly*, 59, still vividly remembers one hectic morning when she was 38 and decided to grab breakfast on her way to work. She was eating a scone and coffee while walking to her job in Seattle when two young men passed by in a car and started making pig noises. “I didn't realize they were making the noises at me, until they came back,” she told me. “They'd driven around the block so they could catch me as I crossed the street in order to make sure I heard them this time. My throat closed up and I started to cry. I couldn't keep eating, even though I was super hungry. I felt so vulnerable and ashamed. It still makes me want to cry just remembering it.”
After speaking to experts and hearing the stories of women with experiences similar to mine, one thing became clear: When a stranger comments on what you are eating in a public setting, it is a form of street harassment, something that 70 percent to 99 percent of women internationally report experiencing.
Street harassment "is about ownership of public spaces,” Debjani Roy, deputy director of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment, explained. “It is also an opportunity to do this thing that everyone does to women -- which is objectify them. It’s the idea that it’s okay to police what is acceptable in terms of what it means to be a woman, be feminine, be attractive.”
Knowing that you are vulnerable to judgment -- and possibly a verbal attack -- every time you step outside may severely limit the way you act away from your home. There’s a reason number 19 on BuzzFeed’s July list of “29 Things Women Avoid Doing Because We Fear For Our Safety” is “eat food in public -- like ice cream cones -- that might attract unwanted male attention.”
Tovar told me that as a fat woman, she constantly anticipates someone commenting negatively on her body, and therefore “tends to avoid” eating in public.
I sure as hell take pause before heading out of a froyo shop alone these days.
Public food-shaming also extends beyond the streets, onto computer screens and smartphones. In April 2014, a public Facebook page called Women Who Eat On Tubes, which featured photos of women eating on the London tube -- posted without the permission of the women featured -- gained significant mainstream media attention. The growing “fan base” of Women Who Eat On Tubes, which, though the page is now private, clocks in at over 32,000, set off a conversation about the potentially harmful nature of posting photos that may sexualize and/or shame women simply for putting food into their bodies.
“I hugely dislike the fact that women eating on the tube is even seen as noteworthy,” wrote The Guardian’s Nell Frizzell about the Facebook page. “Women need to eat. They do important jobs, they make useful things, they have interesting things to say, they have people relying on them and they cannot cope with all that on an empty stomach.”
An Instagram account You Did Not Eat That, started at the end of April, specifically targets thin women (and the lifestyle brands that use them to promote sales) for posting photos of fattening foods. The message of the account is that a thin woman could not possibly eat a donut or an ice cream cone or bacon and keep her lithe figure. It is an inherently problematic perspective, given that some women are naturally thin, regardless of whether they eat pink frosted donuts.
“People need to acknowledge the existence of body diversity outside of the context of eating specific foods,” said Duke. “A person can eat ice cream and still be thin, and a person can not eat ice cream and still be fat. Just because you see a person eating something on the street, doesn’t mean you know anything about their health status.”
Your Body? No One Else's Business
Changing the way an entire culture thinks about body image, food consumption and health means fighting a long and uphill battle. And a lot of that fight comes down to individual women saying f**k it, and eating what they want, when they want, where they want.
“It really just boils down to: ‘My body is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship,’” said Duke. “You don’t get to tell me what I can or can’t do with my body, and what I put in my body is not your decision.”
She also suggests looking at your afternoon stroll near your work while eating a burrito as a political act -- a way of mobilizing women around the fight for body positivity and safer public spaces.
Geneen Roth, author of Women Food and God, agreed that women need to learn to divorce themselves from what she calls the "insanity" of the larger culture -- and recognizes that it's easier said than done.
"I think that one thing is to realize that when someone comments on something you’re eating, it’s not about you," Roth said in an interview. "It’s about them and their craziness and their judgments -- and usually [how they feel about] themselves."
And the more secure you feel in your own skin, the less a shaming comment is likely to derail your self-esteem.
"If a woman feels that she has a right to eat what she wants to eat, that she’s really fine in herself, that it’s nobody else’s business what she looks like and eats -- which it isn’t -- then how that woman would react is to not have a reaction," Roth said. "Or [she would] say 'Oh, poor guy. There's something wrong with you.'"
Here at HuffPost Women, we once published a collection of photos of women eating. Those diverse pictures are a reminder that not only is food nourishing and necessary, but a source of real joy.
“When I eat a cupcake in public, I give all women everywhere permission to do the same,” said Duke.
Because we should be able to have our goddamn froyo -- and eat it on the sidewalk, too.
*Last names have been omitted to protect the identities of those featured.