Yesterday, there was an article on HuffPost about strangers who make comments or rude noises to women who eat in public and how it’s “the insidious type of street harassment no one is talking about.
The piece reminded me of a day, 32 years ago, when I worked as a waitress at a restaurant called Pastrami and Things, located in 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City. Usually I’d get to work early enough to have coffee and a bite to eat before the breakfast crowd arrived. However I arrived a few minutes late that day and my tables were busy until after lunch. Needless to say I was very hungry. While doing the clean-up work and waiting for my tables to clear before the shift ended, I took a few bites of buttered rye toast (whiskey down in waitress vernacular). A family sat nearby and the father loudly asked me “Should you be eating that? Bread is not good for you.” I was so flabbergasted that I mumbled something about not having eaten anything all day and fled downstairs to the locker room after dumping the remains of my toast. Did I mention that I was about 4 months pregnant with my first child?
That encounter is indelible in my mind because it was the first time a stranger publicly questioned what I was eating and made me feel embarrassed about it. Sure, I’d endured countless times my mother asked the same question. No, actually, my mother never posed it as a question… it was more of a command as in “you shouldn’t eat that. It’s not good for you”. I was used to that command coming from the woman who put me on diets, fed me pills designed to curb my appetite and dragged me to gyms in order to reshape my stocky body into something that resembled her own shape. The fact that I was her adopted child and my body was shaped like my birth mother’s was something she never considered but that’s for another blog.
Since the rye toast incident I avoided eating in front of strangers as much as possible except for the two periods of time when I was obviously pregnant during which I could blame cravings or “eating for 2” and receive sympathy or commiserations from other women who remembered their own cravings.
When eating out with my family (a weekly treat) I became more aware of the furtive glances, sniggers and fingers briefly pointed in our direction. No one made a remark within earshot because my ex husband was a big man who looked imposing enough to take down anyone who dared comment about the fat couple at the table with their chubby kids. The remarks came when I was alone, commuting to/from work or running errands… like moos and oinks from passers-by or jokes by cab drivers about how much groceries I was paying them to lug home. With no body love or self-esteem, I’d hang my head in shame or stammer some excuse about growing children when I should have looked them all in the face to say that none of it was their business.
It took a few years after my divorce to gain the confidence and self-acceptance to ignore the stares or boldly reply to the comments when I eat in public. Sometimes I stare back like, a few months ago, when I was in line at Cinnabon behind a slender, young lady. She ordered 3 medium buns and a man standing by the counter took it as his duty to inform her that “all that sugar’s no good for you”. She actually blushed and said that 2 were for friends. I gave the man a look, daring him to say something about my purchase of a dozen large buns. Wisely he didn’t.
On the flip side, there are also the “well-meaning” who praise my food choices like the coworker who’s apparently under the impression that the reason anyone would eat fruits or vegetables is because they’re on a diet to lose weight. Whenever she sees me pull a salad out of the fridge in the company kitchenette, she’ll almost always exclaim “That’s very good!” to which I’ll respond “I love salads”. It’s only because we work together that I don’t add “and I don’t need a reason or your approval”.
The caption on the photo that accompanies HuffPost’s article says “Eating something delicious should be nothing but a delicious experience” and that pretty much sums it up. We should not tolerate the rudeness of people who want to shame us into not eating. When I enjoy the refreshing goodness of a coconut ice on a hot summer day, the sounds coming out of my mouth should be “mmmmmmm”, not “Mind your own business!” or “Fuck off!”.