Stop policing my daughter's appetite

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'You're not going to eat all of that, are you?' said a stranger in a café to my four year old daughter Violet. 

Violet was tucking into a slab of chocolate cake with ice cream on the side. The woman meant her comment to be friendly, but it was the only thing she commented on to Violet.

Violet is in kindergarten and already people — even complete strangers — are judging her food choices, intimating that she should distrust these choices and that her appetite should be ignored.  

What’s worse, Violet is learning that women policing other women’s appetites is a great conversation starter, or even a bonding ritual.

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This early policing becomes so ingrained in our way of thinking that later in life women come to believe they need it. For example a friend on Facebook recently asked her friends to snort like a pig if they saw her eating anything unhealthy.

Others rely on the ritual humiliation of weekly Weight Watches public weigh-ins to deny their appetites.

Women are bombarded with unsolicited diet advice on a daily basis about what's okay to eat, when it's okay to eat it, what macro-nutrient we should be avoiding this month, and how many calories we should or shouldn't be consuming.

All of this reinforces the belief that we can’t trust our bodies. We approach our bodies as if they are unruly and deceitful enemies that need to be battled with and contained. And that we need to enlist a small army of soldiers to assist in conquering it. 

We don’t start out this way. Babies are born understanding their own appetites. They know when they’re full and when they’re hungry. Everyone around babies trusts them to regulate their own appetites.

But as they grow, rather than teaching them to honour and listen to their bodies, we teach girls in so many ways that not only is their appetite not to be trusted but something to be ashamed of. 

Before long, all the off-hand comments or well-meaning advice creates the girl who only eats a salad on her first date and then binges in private when she gets home because she doesn’t what to appear a glutton to her prospective boyfriend.

It’s no different from Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in Gone With The Wind who insisted she ate before a party so she would not be tempted to display her appetitein public.

This isn’t just the stuff of American Civil War novels. The unacceptability of women’sappetites is even reinforced by modern-day official policies and institutions. I know of an elite private girls’ school that doesn’t permit students to eat in public. Apparently being seen to eating in school uniform would be damaging to the school’s reputation.

It would seem that these private school girls subsist on badges for achievement, pep talks from successful alumni and photosynthesis.

Eating – or that lack of it – becomes a performance. Satisfying our body’s wants and needs is secondary to satisfying the expectations of the people around us.

I once went out on a girl’s night where it was agreed we would make a pact that none of us wouldn’t eat anything all night. I presume I wasn’t the only one who went through the McDonald’s drive through on the way home.

Prohibiting eating forces many women to do it in secret – and in shame. They gobble the chocolate bar in the car on the way home from the grocery store and dispose of the wrapper before they are ‘caught’.

Or we try to satisfy our appetitesby infusing non-foods with food-like qualities and smells, like all those cosmetics, soaps and other beauty products that have food-like names: ‘fudge', 'fruit essences’ and ‘cocoa butter’.

Back in the café Violet stopped for a moment, smiled at the woman and continued eating her cake. She didn’t eat all her cake. In fact, she probably didn’t even eat a quarter of it. At four years old, she stopped eating because she was full and didn’t want any more.

But I wonder how long it will be until she no longer hears or trusts her body and stops eating because she’s afraid that somebody is watching. And judging.

 

Kasey Edwards is a best-selling author and writer.www.kaseyedwards.com

 

 

19 comments

  • Great article Kasey. I find myself having to watch what I eat sometimes, because I'm pretty skinny and like to eat. People constantly say things like "where do you put all that food" and "I wish I could do that". It makes me feel bad for eating in front of them and I have to hide it. And it's weird - why are you watching what I'm eating?!

    I also couldn't help but notice that on the DL page there is an article written by a man about what not to eat on a date - who's decision was that, guys? Not sending a great message to readers and not really in keeping with what DL Is about. Poor form.

    Commenter
    nemo
    Date and time
    April 24, 2014, 7:34AM
    • Your realize the article you've is directed at both men and women, if not more so directed at men.

      Commenter
      Aaron
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 24, 2014, 1:26PM
  • I detest when people comment on my meals or what I'm eating. As soon as I became engaged, if ever I was seen eating a chocolate biscuit, or god forbid a packet of chips, I was always thrown comments such as 'should you really be eating that? Don't you have a wedding to get ready for?'
    It was horrible, and I have never understood why people feel that someone else's choices, even something as simple as what they're eating, are open forum to everyone else.
    I especially hated the comments on my food or weight leading up the wedding, and the implication that I should be dieting when I am already a healthy weight and size. If I lost weight, I would be nothing but a skeletal frame.
    People don't understand how mean these comments actually are.

    Commenter
    Brianna
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 24, 2014, 9:15AM
    • Maybe the comment was reflecting that servings of cake at cafes are too large - for adults and even more so for children. While I understand that the comment raised issues related to YOUR experience of eating issues as a female, as a mother of two little boys with adult-sized appetites, I receive these comments constantly while eating out and eating at home. And I do police their appetites, as children rarely know when to stop when it comes to eating the empty calories of cakes and sweet treats. They need to learn the difference between eating for taste and eating for appetite, as most people now have forgotten the difference. And babies appetites are overridden early as well, as the constant procession of snacks at any gathering of children will attest. Not all women have hang-ups around food and little girls who learn these messages invariably learn them from the woman they watch at home every day.

      Commenter
      Mum to Boys
      Date and time
      April 24, 2014, 9:44AM
      • My four year old handed back a half-eaten Easter egg on Sunday. I'd argue that children, left to their own devices, can regulate their appetites. Maybe demand breastfeeding helps -- no pressure to finish bottles or wait for feeds.

        Commenter
        Sigh
        Date and time
        April 24, 2014, 1:54PM
    • Kasey - you should name and shame the elite private girls' school you mention. I'm sure boys' schools don't have similar stupid rules.
      And why did you make a pact with your girlfriends not to eat all night if you feel the way you've written in this article?

      Commenter
      Fatty Boombah
      Date and time
      April 24, 2014, 10:10AM
      • My school, which was co-ed, had the same rule about not eating in uniform off school grounds. It was not gender-based but it was silly as many of us had a 60-90 minute bus trip home each way, meaning we weren't supposed to eat from the end of lunchtime at 1:15 to when we got home at 5pm. So everyone just ignored it. I hope the girls at that private school do too.

        Commenter
        LS
        Date and time
        April 24, 2014, 12:05PM
      • My private girls school, which is not in the "elite" category by a long shot, had the same rule. No eating in school uniform outside of school grounds. The exception was if it was a family meal or similar and you had gone straight from school to get there. It wasn't about the eating part at all, it was designed to make us look neat and tidy and not covered in breadcrumbs and tomato sauce drippings while straggling up the footpath slurping milkshakes. School rules also said we couldn't wear our school jumper outside school unless we had the blazer over the top, as silly as the rules seem, they gave students of the school the same "look" and supposedly made us proud of our appearance. Not everything in a girls life is related to shaming us into skinniness.

        Commenter
        Cathy
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 24, 2014, 1:18PM
    • Raising a daughter in this country certainly brings challenges that I had not anticipated, coming from an emancipated northern European country where women are assumed to be productive members of society perfectly capable of autonomous decision-making, and having every right to do so without interference. The cult of the female body as an object to be displayed and possessively admired comes to the fore in so many aspects of daily life here: advertising, women's clothing ("Polish-working-girl fashion", as my husband likes to call it), women's shoes (most of which are not made for marching towards your life achievements but for pleasing the observer, which by implication becomes the promoted life achievement for women), the list is endless. The acceptability of publicly admonishing women for having a hearty appetite again suggests that women's role in life, rather than transforming matter or processing information (which requires energy), is to simply be, and to cause as little as possible, with the exception of superficial delight. At the same time I am heartened by the fact that I see so many strong, smart, contrary, irreverent women in this country (or perhaps they just stand out more here because they are in such stark contrast to the pervasive cultural narrative). I fully intend to spend a lot of time with my daughter in the presence of such women, and to fiercely remain one myself, so that she may gain the tools to critically question the signals that will be coming at her from all directions while growing up in this country.

      Commenter
      artefact
      Date and time
      April 24, 2014, 11:20AM
      • I love this. Great observations, well said!

        Commenter
        Hols
        Date and time
        April 24, 2014, 12:53PM

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