When the Dinner Table Becomes a Stage

Guilt Free EatingI wrote yesterday about people’s bad behavior around fat friends and family at the holidays.  I got a bunch of e-mails telling me that discomfort around food is the worst, so I thought I would re-post this piece examining the ways that our culture screws us up around food, and some things we can do about it.

I think that our current society seriously messes a lot of us up around food and eating, and that goes for people of all sizes.  One of the places where I often notice the results of that mess is the way that we talk about food.  I’m not talking about the way that we talk about liking or not liking food, or letting someone know what food allergies/sensitivities/needs one has, I’m talking about the way that we perform around food when we eat with others.

Sit at a restaurant (or holiday) table for 20 minutes and I can almost guarantee that you’ll hear some version of each of these (possibly triggering) phrases:

  • This is SO MUCH FOOD, there’s no way that I could eat it all!
  • I’m going to have to do two hours on the treadmill to make up for this cookie.
  • I skipped lunch so that I could eat here tonight.
  • I’ve been so good, so it’s ok for me to cheat and eat this.
  • I exercise because I like to eat!
  • I did an extra mile on the treadmill this morning, I deserve this!
  • This fits into [my weight loss diet] for [these reasons].

All of these things might be true and I’m not trying to tell people what they should/should not feel or do around their food.  The ideas of “earning” food through exercise, or why we make food a moral issue (sinful, guilt free etc.) is the topic for another post.  My question today is more about why we feel the need to talk about this out loud.

We make lots of personal decisions every day without talking about them out loud.  Many people who would think nothing of saying or hearing any of the above phrases at a business meeting with a catered lunch would never be comfortable in the same meeting hearing or saying “I kind of have to pee but I don’t have to go that badly so maybe I’ll finish this TPS report and then head to the bathroom.” or “I really have to poo but I’m hoping the bathroom will be empty so I’m going to wait until the meeting breaks up and people get off this floor.” (Some people might be very comfortable with these things and of course that’s totally ok, I’m speaking from a a cultural perspective.)

I think that a lot of it is the way that our society places value, even morality, on food – “sinful” dessert, “guilt free” baked chips, eating “clean” – leads to us treating decisions around food as a public performance that justifies our choices often at the expense of (purposefully or inadvertently) shaming or triggering others others.

If I get a plate of food and I decide that it’s more than I want for whatever reason, that’s fine.  If I decide to vocalize that, I may inadvertently shame the person next to me who ordered that same plate of food and does intend to eat it all for whatever reason, and I add to a world where food decisions need to be justified and rationalized out loud and I’d rather not be a part of that.  Just like I don’t want to engage in negative body talk, I also don’t want to engage in negative food talk.  I want people to be free to make their own decisions about food for their own reasons without feeling like they need to justify those choices to anyone.

At the end of the day I think that since I never know what’s going on with the people around me  (lots of people are dealing with disordered eating and eating disorders, food sensitivities and allergies, health issues etc.), I would rather be safe than accidentally triggering or shaming.  So while it’s happy to talk about food – what we like, what we don’t, allergies and sensitivities, recipes and preparations etc.,  It’s ok for us to  eat what we eat for our own reasons and not feel the need to talk about those reasons at the meal. Besides, there are lots of other (more interesting, I think) things to talk about!

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18 thoughts on “When the Dinner Table Becomes a Stage

  1. “I exercise because I like to eat!”

    “Really? I exercise because I like to exercise. I EAT because I like to eat.”

  2. I write a food blog.

    I write about food that I consider healthy, because that’s what I eat… and I specifically write about the way I, personally, need to eat for my personal body. (Which is not the way everyone else needs to eat… all bodies are not the same!)

    But while I will identify certain recipes specifically by what is used or omitted, so that people looking for that can find them, I flatly refuse to call *anything* on my blog Healthy, Clean, Real, (G-d forbid Skinny…) Even though it is clear that if I carefully identified every carrot recipe as a Healthy Carrot Recipe with Antioxidants! I would get more readers.

    I just want to eat carrots… and give my readers my cool recipe for carrots. Why do I eat carrots? Well, they taste good, they’re cheap, they’re good, they’re readily available, I like them… and, oh, yeah, since you asked, eating vegetables is generally a good thing, but you can find that information elsewhere. I’m a cook. Have some carrots?

    And of course this all draws what I long ago dubbed Health Food Junk Food. A lot of recipes out there are for food I don’t think is particularly healthy, but are identified loudly as such. Healthy, Good For You, Guilt Free Chocolate Cake! Now, I can think of plenty of perfectly valid reasons to eat chocolate cake (starting with the first one I listed for carrots – it tastes good) but I’m not eating it for my health… and I *don’t need to.*

    What is *wrong* with us that we need to convince ourselves that chocolate cake, or Fettuccine Alfredo, or anything else must be carefully Healthy before we can eat it? I mean, I’m all for eating a healthy balanced diet in moderation and all, however I understand that (and don’t get me started on the War Between Foodways) but if someone wants a piece of cake, that choice is up to her, not to me. I don’t know her body, I don’t know what she does or doesn’t eat, and even if I did, it’s her business, not mine…

    Just give me a recipe for a good chocolate cake. (Again, I’m fine with modifications for specific needs, but that doesn’t make them healthier for *everyone* just for the people who need that modification.) And I’m still not eating it for my health, I eat cake because cake tastes good.

    1. One of the most delicious cakes I ever ate was chocolate cinnamon zucchini mushroom cake. The mushrooms were supposed to be chopped for the spaghetti, but on accident, they were minced, and put in the cake batter. It was so tasty!

      Also, what, please, is “clean” food? Shouldn’t all food be clean and free of contaminants? I mean, don’t cooks routinely wash their hands, use clean utensils and prep-areas for cooking? I don’t get it.

      “Real” food, to me, means no artificial sweeteners, fake fats, or other such foods. Not necessarily no refined food. White refined sugar is real, too. My body doesn’t react to it the way it reacts to Splenda or aspartame, or olestra or what-have-you food ingredient replacements.

      1. If I understand it, “clean eating” is what used to be called “whole foods” before that got trademarked, plus some new stuff. Eat minimally processed foods, eat the three satisfying things (protein, fat, carbs) at each meal, eat small meals throughout the day, minimize consumption of the things that are put into processed foods to make them more attractive (fat, salt, sugar), drink no-calorie drinks, and exercise. So, a diet.

        Also an assumption that everybody is at a certain economic level and of course we can all find time to eat five or six meals a day or cook from scratch. Again, like pretty much any diet.

        1. Also, I hate the free time and money assumption. It goes hand-in-hand with the healthism/ableism “There is no excuse” attitude that people who push these ideas tend to exude, like waves of arrogant hatred.

          And the thing is, they may have “perfect” bodies, but how many true friends do they have? How many loving relationships are they able to maintain?

          If I have a choice between spending my limited time/energy/money on diet and exercise or on family and friends, I’ll choose family/friends every time. I want people to actually miss me when I’m gone.

    2. Wow, Anne, well put, I love to cook and to talk about food, but just the way you seem to do it – how can I find your food blog?

      And, Ragen, on point, like always, perhaps I should start to talk about my digestion or my need to pee when people aroung me do food talk like that? 😉

      1. My sister discusses her bowel movements with anyone who will listen. She used to talk about her period, too, before she had the ablation. She’s one of those people who, when asked, “How are you doing,” will tell you in all its gory details, because she assumes you asked because you care.

        It drives my other sister right up the wall, because she is so private about bodily functions.

        On the other hand, people who know her know not to ask questions they don’t want answered.

        Hehehe. On that note – eating fruits and vegetables tends to make me poop – soon and rather messily. Next time a busy-body recommends I stick to salad, I may just tell them all about it. Or tell them about that time I pooped so much in one sitting that my formerly-fitting pants became saggy bags. I’d swear I lost three inches, at least, around the hips, and another four around the waist. Or about the time I became violently ill from broccoli. I got great distance, but my aim needs more work. I’m not ready for the vomit Olympics, yet.

  3. This was very interesting…I live in an eating-style-crazy city, where people often vocalize food rationalizations. It’s always struck me as curious, though occasionally in the case of food allergies, it’s done to avoid offending someone who may have provided something that the person in question can’t eat. I’ve always been troubled by “moralizing” language around food, and this is an excellent examination of why it’s problematic.

    The only other thing I hear people do this with is money…and far less frequently than it’s done with food.

  4. I am fortunate that most of my friends don’t engage in that kind of ‘good/bad’ diet talk. I always feel free to eat what I want.

    If I am around people that do that, I am way more anxious about food.

  5. Y’all know that I’m a chatterbox, so it probably won’t surprise you to hear that frequently, I get very involved in the conversation.

    Often, when I’m involved in a mealtime conversation, I will flat-out forget to actually eat. Then, I have to deal with the left-overs, and almost always wind up with a to go box and a restaurant, because I don’t want to make people wait, while I shovel the food in quickly, if I’m still hungry. I just eat later.

    Fortunately, saying, “Whoops! I forgot to eat!” is a whole lot less triggering for certain people than saying, “My eyes were bigger than my stomach,” or “I guess I wasn’t as hungry as I thought,” or the other usual statements for why one still has food on one’s plate, if I say anything at all. I’m so used to it, though, that not finishing my meal at a restaurant is simply unremarkable to me.

    This also happens when I’m alone, and just get caught up in a daydream or book or something. And eating lunch at my desk could take me three or four hours, back when I was working.

    There are advantages and disadvantages for being an eccentric.

  6. One thing nice about being at a vacation resort – even perpetual dieters will toss out the guilt on vacation. If they mention it at all, it’s “I’m on vacation, and I DON’T CARE!”

    If only we could live (and eat) like that, all the time, right?

  7. I agree with what you said here. I remember one time I was at a restaurant with a couple of my friends, and there was a table nearby which had several people – strangers – eating as well. When my food came, the guy next to me fell in love with what I ordered, so he asked me about it and I explained it to him. Therefore, he decided to order it for himself. When his food came, his friend (i.e. Person sitting with him, don’t know If they’re really friends) loudly said, “Oh my god! Oink oink, Tom! How many calories is that?!” Tom seemed embarrassed, seeing as he’d gotten the idea to order the food from me. But Tom appeared more irritated at his friend, not the fact he gotten the idea for me. Point is, like Ragen was saying, because Tom’s friend decided to vocalize his opinion regarding the “wrongness” of the food, he wound up embarrassing Tom and me.

    1. I would say they’re not really friends. Possibly relatives or co-workers. Or just bad friends.

      Oink? Seriously? Gaaah! And poor Tom was hurt and embarrassed by the jerk. Not a good friend, at all.

      This reminds me of something I saw recently, that might have been triggering, except I just adored the reaction of the would-be-shamed person.

      I recently got stuck watching an ad for something (I’m think it was for a smart-phone), and these two guys were comparing notes on some sort of food and exercise tracking app. The first guy bragged that he just ran so far, and the second guy said that he ran so much further. The first guy bragged that he just ate a low-calorie food, and the second guy bragged that he ate a delicious YYYYYYY-calorie dessert. First guy reacted badly (something like, “Did you need that?), and second guy just said smugly “Oh, yeah. It was delicious.”

      I LOVE that second guy’s reaction. NO guilt, whatsoever. It was almost as if he were exercising because he likes exercising, competing with the exercising because he’s competitive, and eating because he simply likes it. Yet he knew precisely how many calories were in it (presumably it was at one of those places that give you the calorie count), and he didn’t give a hoot, because it was delicious! AND, he didn’t waste time justifying it because he ran farther than the other guy. Maybe it was a special treat, or maybe he just isn’t concerned about weight, or maybe he has a high daily caloric need and knows his own body well enough to know what that is. Who knows? Doesn’t matter. That dessert was delicious, and that’s all that matters. And his smugness really shut up the other guy.

      Telling jerks off can be very satisfying, but just “smugging” them off is probably even more satisfying.

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