Eating In Public While Fat

Concern Troll Venn DiagramBlog reader Linda wrote me the following question:

When I am with people who eat less than I do, I feel really uncomfortable. Sometimes I eat about what they do and have a snack later. Sometimes I eat what I want and just feel insecure.

This is NOT about anyone saying anything or looking at me funny or anything. I know it is an internal issue, but if you have any helpful thoughts, I would appreciate it. Just knowing that everyone has different needs at different times doesn’t make me feel less insecure.

Or maybe I just need to deal with being insecure.

One of the side effects of the OMGDEATHFATZ epi-panic is that people who have drafted themselves into the anti-fat-person army feel comfortable and justified in judging fat people’s food choices. Whether they are shaming us for eating something that they don’t think we should be eating, or congratulating us for eating something of which they approve, fat people can find ourselves dealing with all kinds of inappropriate interactions involving food.

It’s also not just fat people – our culture seems to have become confused, thinking that public health means making the individuals health and food choices the public’s business.  This was on my mind tonight when I overheard a conversation at the grocery store.  A guy asked a woman “Do you ever judge people by what’s in their cart?” and she responded “All the time!” Then there was a awkward silence followed by each of them rushing to make excuses for the “bad food” that they had in their carts, with an edge of defensiveness. It seemed so ridiculous to me that had been so instantly and obviously caught in their own trap.

This shouldn’t be a thing. If I were the underpants overlord  people would eat what they wanted for their own reasons and there would be no judgment. Unfortunately that’s not the situation.  I think our culture around food can best be described as “Will Perform for Food” with people expected to moralize, explain, and justify our food choices.  This can lead to people, especially fat people, being uncomfortable in situations where food is involved whether or not people are actually judging us.

This, in turn, can lead to us making choices not based on our sense of hunger or what we would like to eat, but based on what we think/hope people will think about us and/or trying to avoid judgment. Sometimes it’s about not wanting to be judged poorly in a work setting, or in a social setting, sometimes it’s because you’re trying to eat with a group of people who have a history of inappropriately judging your food choices (*cough* family *cough*) and sometimes it’s about people who are trying to get “good fatty” points.

It’s important to know that however you choose to handle this is a completely valid choice, and you may choose to handle it differently on different days depending on the situation, your dining companions, your mood etc.

Enjoy exactly what you want to eat, and talk about it as a way to do some proactive activism?  Cool.

Quietly eat way less than what you want and hit the drive through on the way home?  Cool.

When people start talking about why they are eating what they are eating you say something like “There must be more interesting things to talk about than this…how about that local and/or college sportsballing team?”  Cool.

Exit a conversation chock full o’ diet talk and food moralizing with “Guilt about food upsets my stomach so I’ve given it up, I’m going to go check out the desserts” Cool.

You decide to model for people what it looks like for you to have a healthy, happy relationship with food? Cool.

You decide to work on your feelings/insecurity/discomfort around eating in public?  Cool.

I think it can be helpful to look at the messages that we’ve received about food and eating, look at which of those messages we’ve decided are true, and decide if those beliefs are serving us. To me it can also help to decide what it is we want, even if we’re not sure how to get there yet.

For me it helped a lot to think about how much (and why) we care about what other people think of our food choices.  You can also seek out professional support from a HAES-based practitioner (there is a list here.)

Whatever you do, remember that we live in a society that is truly fucked up around food, even more when it comes to food and fat people, and even if that becomes our problem, it’s not our fault. So whether we decide to take the easiest path through the situation, to do some activism around it, or something in between, the choice is always ours.

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7 thoughts on “Eating In Public While Fat

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post! I actually use judging other people for what they buy at the grocery store to help motivate myself to buy healthier food. I call it “comparison” instead of judgment, but obviously, that does not make it any better. I only realized how hypocritical that is after reading your post, because in general, I don’t comment on other people’s food in social eating situations, and I hate it when people do, and think it should be one of the first rules of politeness to just STFU about what others are eating. And the second rule maybe to not talk about your diet, since food is food and not religion.

  2. You know, unless someone’s buying frozen dead babies, I really don’t care what’s in their cart. If they ARE buying frozen dead babies, I may consider visiting the store’s competitor.

  3. It has taken years of reminding myself *I don’t give a shit what people think about my food choices* to stop feeling weird about eating what I want around other people. Years.

    And even then, I still get semi-defensive when I order a salad, because that seems to be the one food that always garners commentary from at least one person. Even if it’s all positive praise at how good I’m being, I don’t want to hear it! I’m not eating it to be “good,” I’m eating it because I love salad. See, there I go again…

    1. Yeah, compliments can be really problematic when they are complimenting the wrong thing.

      If I took hours doing my hair, then by all means, compliment my hairstyle. But if I was born blonde, don’t compliment my hair color, please. I didn’t earn that. Now, if I dyed my hair aquamarine, and pull it off, feel free to compliment THAT, because it’s hard even to find a good dye in that shade, and the coloring doesn’t always work for everyone, and even if you have the right complexion, you need a certain brand of chutzpah to wear it in public, so compliment away!

      Don’t compliment my taste in food, because it’s just my own personal preference, not some big achievement. But if I made that salad, and it is delicious, please feel free to compliment my culinary skills. Or my table manners! Or my sparkling dinner conversation. But not my choice of food, please.

      Back when I was trying to be a “good fatty,” I accepted the “Oh, you’re being a good fatty” compliments, but for some reason I just could not understand, it really rankled. Now I get it. They’re complimenting the wrong thing!

  4. I don’t think of it as judging, more curiosity. For instance, “That guy has flowers and a bottle of wine. I wonder if the size of the bouquet reflects the magnitude of the anniversary he forgot.” Also, now I wish I could pull off aquamarine hair.

    1. I generally don’t judge what people are buying when they come through my line at the grocery I work at (in my experience most folks who work behind a registe for any length of time don’t pay a lot of attention to what people are buying), but once I noticed a man buying three bottles of cheap red wine and a box of condoms. For years that was my favorite purchase.

      Until a man came through one day who bought one bottle of of VERY EXPENSIVE red wine…and three boxes of condoms.

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