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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.

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