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Dude Food

A couple of weeks ago Tamar Adler, former chef and editor of Harper’s Magazine, wrote an article for the New Yorker in which she politely and neatly eviscerates Anthony Bourdain for leaving ‘a crude hickey’ on America’s ‘food culture’. Although he is probably now better known – at least in the US – for his food-and-travel television series, Bourdain rose to fame, or notoriety, for his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

It is a deeply entertaining, amusing, and often instructive guide to the strange world of restaurants and professional cooking. It explores the ‘personal and institutional perversity that runs fast through the veins of restaurants’. Bourdain details the astonishingly crude language and behaviour of badly paid, sleep deprived chefs in the hot, tiny restaurant kitchens he worked in and, later, oversaw. But it is also an excellent introduction to the mechanics and the politics of how kitchens function.

Although Bourdain and his crew do some pretty repellent things, all this is balanced by the fact that, as Adler notes, Bourdain does ‘not prescribe that life, or condone it.’ Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to kitchens which don’t run the risk of collapsing into anarchy and violence if the chef for one moment ceases swearing at the staff. He admits:

It is no coincidence that all my kitchens over time come to resemble one another and are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone – an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfunctional one, at that. I coddle my hooligans when I’m not bullying them. I’m visibly charmed by their extra-curricular excesses and their anti-social tendencies. My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colours the behaviour of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct.

He adds:

Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to. There are islands of reason and calm, where the pace is steady, where quality always takes precedence over the demands of volume, and where it’s not always about dick dick dick.

And that is the issue with Bourdain’s description of the food world: it is overwhelmingly, completely male. The women chefs whom he respects are those who are ‘tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking’ – the ones who go out of their way to fit in to ‘the testosterone-heavy’ world of restaurant kitchens. But, at least in Kitchen Confidential, he acknowledges that there are kitchens where women aren’t expected to put up with being groped, or with their colleagues festooning their stations with pornography. Visiting Scott Bryan’s restaurant Veritas he notices

A tiny young woman working at a corner station, and I made the immediate Neanderthal assumption as I first took in the crew: ‘Extern, maybe from Peter Krump or French Culinary, having a learning experience dishing out veggies.’ I passed right over her as I swept my eyes down the line looking for the heavy hitters. In time I began, peripherally, to become aware of her movements. I looked again, closer this time, and saw that she was plating fish, cooking risotto, emulsifying sauces, taking on three, then four, then five orders at a time – all the whole never changing expression or showing any visible signs of frustration or exasperation (as I would have under similar circumstances).

She was, in other words, ‘generally holding down her end like an ass-kicking, name-taking mercenary of the old school, only cleaner and better.’ It turned out that she’d been trained by Alain Ducasse.

The problem is that Bourdain loses much of this self-reflection in his later books and series. As he became better known ‘he confused what he’d written about once with the world itself.’ Adler explains:

What Anthony Bourdain does is to bathe everything, even if it’s naturally quiet and normal, in brutishness. It is the difference between not pulling punches and indiscriminately punching. Bourdain now travels round the world, with a camera crew trailing, to eat food in other countries. On his stops at noodle shops, he turns his anxious libido on his bowl of food: ‘Take me to that place where everything is beautiful.’ ‘This is fucking driving me out of my mind. I’m fucking quivering with desire here.’ ‘I would jerk a rusty butter knife over my best friend’s throat just for this,’ he says to the camera while waiting for soup. ‘Come to papa,’ he wheedles.

His relationship with – and views on – food have become centred around his masculinity:

He has managed to insert, through performance of the great feat of eating Vietnamese or Tunisian or Parisian food, the neurotic notion that eating is best understood as a competition or conquest – man versus food. Why choose to merely ingest, he asks, when you can vanquish?

Although I agree with Adler’s point that it’s a pity that he feels the need to dress up his opinions on food in a kind of gung-ho machismo because much of what he says is worth listening to, it was time that someone called out Bourdain for his casual sexism. Bourdain seems to insist that good cooking can only be produced by kitchens overseen by obsessive, potentially murderous alpha males caught up in a kind of adolescent, On the Road-like existential struggle with the meaning of existence. Women – unless they behave like men – are to be viewed with suspicion, as is the food which he associates with them:

Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbour deep suspicions of their precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact measurements – and made the same way every single time – is diametically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want.

It’s no coincidence that most pastry chefs are women. Bourdain implies that pastry, like women, is difficult, too sweet, boring, and unimaginative: real chefs are men – wild, creative genuises – who cook ‘Flintsone-sized lengths of veal shank,’ understand the value of bones, and who carry long, sharp knives.

For an industry with a reputation for not dealing adequately with charges of ingrained discrimination against women, Bourdain’s attitudes towards food and cooking certainly don’t help. But it’s worth noting that for all the excitement that surrounded the publication of Kitchen Confidential – when it was hailed as a fresh and unconventional take on America’s restaurant world, which it was, to some extent – Bourdain’s views on the relationship between masculinity and food are neither particularly new, nor limited to himself.

There has long been an association between meat-eating and manliness. Until the late eighteenth century, when eating in moderation and a slim physique were connected, increasingly, with the ideal Enlightenment male, a healthy appetite for wine and meat indicated strength and vitality. In England, a taste for roast beef was, as Roy Porter notes, linked to a patriotism which associated roast meat with English vigour and virility. Even a century later, Victorians argued that men’s strong, machine-like bodies needed meaty fuel in order to function efficiently.

Men, in other words, needed to eat ‘man food’ – spicy, strong-flavoured, and rich in protein. This was taken to a logical – or an illogical, depending on your point of view – extreme by the Italian Futurists and Mussolini-enthusiasts FT Marinetti and Luigi Colombo in their 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking. Of course, the document is completely mad – like just about everything Marinetti did – but it’s a useful window on to the ways in which fascists of the 1930s understood gender. As the Italian state recast women as mothers – and only mothers – of the nation, so men were urged to become its warrior-protectors.

Marinetti and Colombo write:

We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density. … Let us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminium trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Italians should do this, they argue, by giving up pasta:

A highly intelligent Neapolitan Professor, Signorelli, writes: ‘In contrast to bread and rice, pasta is a food which is swallowed, not masticated. Such starchy food should mainly be digested in the mouth by the saliva but in this case the task of transformation is carried out by the pancreas and the liver. This leads to an interrupted equilibrium in these organs. From such disturbances derive lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism.’

They suggest that rice take the place of pasta. But this is only the first of several ideas for the remaking of food for a faster, more efficient future. Their most significant point was that science should ‘take on the task of providing the body with its necessary calories through equivalent nutrients provided free by the State, in powder or pills, albumoid compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins.’ Not only would this make Italians better-fuelled and more efficient workers, but it would reduce the amount of food they ate.

Those few meals which they would then eat would be, as they write, ‘perfect’. Given the role of Italian women in feeding their families, what Marinetti and Colombo advocate is a kind of man-made food: the dishes they describe for their ‘perfect meals’ – like the Woodcock Mount Rose with Venus sauce – are invented by chefs.

Although their remaining ideas are increasingly ludicrous – ‘The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination’ and ‘The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavours to be tasted in a few seconds’ – their association of ‘perfect’ cooking with men, and homely, everyday cooking with women, was – and is – hardly unusual.

A great deal has been written about the irony that while most of the world’s ‘top chefs’ – whatever we may mean by that – are male, the overwhelming majority of people who cook to feed their families are female. I think that this distinction is something of an oversimplification: while it is certainly true that the most Michelin-starry chefs are still male, this is changing, albeit slowly. More importantly, the chefs and cooks who have had the greatest impact on the way we all cook in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have, arguably, been women: Constance Spry, Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith, and Madhur Jaffrey in Britain; Julia Child and Martha Stewart in the US; Nitza Villapol in Cuba; Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer in Australia; and Ina Paarman, Ina de Villiers, and Lynn Bedford Hall in South Africa.

Moreover, there has been a recent and relatively widespread decrease in tolerance for the antics of bullying, super-macho male chefs. Gordon Ramsay’s spectacular fall from grace – the collapse of his business empire, the decline in quality of his restaurants – is a particularly good example of this. Adler’s take-down of Bourdain is part of this trend – and it’s particularly telling that Bourdain devotes his highest praise to Ramsay (‘England’s greatest chef’) in A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), excusing and celebrating Ramsay’s reputation as a bully on the grounds of gender:

He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. … You better have balls the size of jack-fruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavour and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.

This kind of macho chest-beating now feels distinctly passe. The male celebrity chefs of the late 2000s and early 2010s are an altogther nicer, kinder group of chaps: from earth-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and home-cooking dad Jamie Oliver, to shambling Valentine Warner and lovely Nigel Slater. We have cerebral, thoughtful Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal.

I’m not absolutely sure what this shift in public taste suggests – and it’s certainly part of a wider, cultural change, which has seen Ryan Gosling and James Franco replace Sylvester Stallone and Steven Segal as male icons. It’s also occurred at the same time as the emergence of a food trend which can only really be described as ‘dude food’ – food made to appeal to men. Craft beer, the wild enthusiasm for bacon, even the recent rediscovery of the burger, are, I think, driven partly by a belief – held by magazine editors, television producers, and some food writers – that food needs to be made ‘manly’ to appeal to men. Tellingly, most of this is pretty meaty food.

What I find so interesting about dude food is that it’s directed at a generation of young men – my contemporaries and younger – for whom cooking is not necessarily seen as being, as Bourdain noted earlier, something that only women do. Unless I have the good fortune only to have dated, and to be friends with, peculiarly enlightened men, it seems to me that Generation Y men don’t seem to feel that cooking and baking undermine their masculinity. After all, not only were all three finalists on the last series of Great British Bake Off men, but two of them were fairly young. So is dude food a kind of ironic embrace of the manly, meaty food associated with being male since, at least, the seventeenth century – much in the same way that contemporary feminists have reclaimed baking and, crucially, the cupcake – or is it something else altogether? Either way, I can’t imagine that Marinetti would be all that pleased.

Sources

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury 2000).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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On 10 March 1914, Mary Richardson, a militant member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, attacked the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. She slashed it with an axe in protest of the British establishment’s hypocrisy for prosecuting – or ‘destroying’, in her words – Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes for demanding the right to vote, while admiring nudes and other idealised women in art galleries.

Although not my favourite feminist heroine, given her future role as the head of the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists, Richardson was the first of a long line of feminists to destroy or vandalise symbols of discrimination against women. The famous (non)burning of bras, curlers, and tights by the New York Radical Women at their anti-Miss America protest in 1968 signalled their refusal to buy into the stultifying middle-class feminine ideal – the ‘feminine mystique’ identified five years previously by Betty Friedan.

So what would women burn or chop today?

In a pleasing coincidence, I began teaching second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s on International Women’s Day on Thursday. What struck – and depressed – me as I wrote these lectures is the extent to which the contemporary feminist movement is still fighting for the same things – equal pay, maternity leave, childcare – as women were during the 1960s and 1970s.

Even if sexism and gender inequality are now widely accepted as measures of injustice, the fact that the collection of nitwits running for the Republican candidateship feel that free access to contraception is an issue even worth debating, demonstrates that feminism still has some pretty basic battles to fight.

So when I suggest that many women would probably choose to burn women’s magazines, I do realise that women all over the world have to contend with considerably worse threats to their freedom. When Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown accused women’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s of promoting an old-fashioned, limiting definition of femininity – one which confined women to the domestic space and which judged those women who chose alternative ways of living, as sluttish and improper – they did so in the belief that publications like Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest contributed to the maintenance of patriarchy.

They bought into the view – told to Friedan by an advertising executive – that ‘properly manipulated…American housewives can be given that sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realisation, even the sexual joy they lack – by the buying of things.’

I gave up reading women’s magazines when I moved to the UK for my PhD. I had to think more carefully about how to spend my money and decided on Waitrose Food Illustrated and Private Eye (I like to think of myself as well-rounded). I felt all the better for not having my various ‘imperfections’ pointed out to me monthly by the eternally chipper editorial staff of Marie Claire.

And that’s the invidious thing about women’s magazines: for all their guff about being aimed at ‘spirited‘ and ‘fearless’ women, these magazines peddle a deeply conservative vision of femininity: in their articles about balancing relationships with work, embracing physical ‘imperfections’ and ‘flaws’, eating ‘healthily’ (or not at all), and conforming to whatever’s fashionable that season, their implication is that the majority of their readers are not actually succeeding as women – that having a well-paying job is abnormal, that being fat (or even just not stick thin) is wrong, that women shouldn’t really enjoy sex, and not wearing or owning what’s fashionable is reprehensible. This is why women need to read Elle, Glamour, and, Lord help us, Cosmopolitan in order to become ‘normal’.

Doing research for this post this morning – thank you Melissa’s in Kloof Street for having such an excellent selection of magazines – I choked on my muesli as I read an article in Glamour advising its readers how to be ‘good at sex’, complete with a ‘confession’ from a reader who was, apparently, ‘bad’ as sex. How? How is it possible to be ‘bad’ at sex? Did the wrong bit end up in the wrong hole? Or what?

But what gets to me the most about these magazines is the nonsense they write about food and nutrition under the guise of promoting ‘healthy’ lifestyles. As the writer Hillary Rosner recounts of her experiences of writing for women’s magazines in the US, factual accuracy seems to be the last thing which interests magazine editors:

I was told multiple times by editors at another women’s mag to feed a source a quote—as in, ‘Can you call this source back and see if they’ll make this specific point in these exact words?’ These were stories about health, in a magazine women turn to for actual, truthful, information. (I refused.)

The Glamour website for South Africa lists a range of tips for healthy eating, most of which are not based on any firm, scientific evidence. For instance, a section on ‘detox’ perpetuates the myth that it’s necessary – and possible – to ‘detoxify’ one’s body after a particularly bad bout of unhealthy eating and drinking. This is not true. There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that going on ‘detox’ diets do our bodies any good. We don’t carry around in us ‘toxins’ and ‘impurities’ which need, somehow, to be flushed out of our systems.

So what do they suggest for detox – particularly when hung over? They begin with water and fruit juice, which are fine. But their suggestions of tuna, brown rice, and quinoa, while good to eat, won’t end a hangover. And, no, peppermint tea isn’t ‘known to speed up the detoxification process’, nor will eating gherkins. They suggest that there’s something wrong about eating carbohydrates (there isn’t) and that drinking milk will in some way ‘prevent alcoholic damage’ to your body (it won’t).

An even more preposterous post lists the ‘junk foods’ which are supposed to make readers lose weight. They suggest, wrongly, that the calcium in ice cream, milkshakes, and cheese will curb appetites and help to ‘break down fat’. And since when were popcorn and potatoes ‘junk food’? The long list of foods which, apparently, fight cellulite – from apples and celery to oats and popcorn (wait, wasn’t that supposed to be junk food?) – are all part of a healthy diet, but won’t specifically reduce one’s cellulite. There is no miracle cure for cellulite.

For a magazine which seeks, apparently, to promote healthy body images, it has a strange obsession with weight loss – and with foods which, apparently, limit one’s appetite. In a single post about ‘Post-Holiday Body Blues’ (no, me neither), yogurt, eggs, and beef are all credited for making one feel ‘fuller for longer’ and for combating ‘food cravings’.

Aren’t women supposed to eat? Or, if they are, they are not supposed to show any enjoyment of it. A post on puddings begins:

If we weren’t afraid of looking greedy, we’d admit that we don’t care much for mains, that starters are quite dull and that what makes restaurant trips so toe-tinglingly exciting is the prospect of gooey chocolate and burnt sugar.

There is nothing greedy, sinful, indulgent, or decadent – all favourite women’s mag terms for sweet things – about eating pudding. It is greedy to accept a bonus of a couple of million pounds; sinful to murder someone; indulgent to spoil a child; and decadent to play stringed instruments while Rome burns. These adjectives do not apply to the eating of cake.

We know stunningly little about the science of nutrition. The most common result on the databases I was using to research the relative benefits of gherkins, ice cream, and popcorn as proposed by Glamour, was ‘no items found’. For all that women’s magazines insist that ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ (never defined and never properly referenced) have proven the claims on which their advice is based, we only know that a healthy diet is high in fruit and vegetables, and relatively low in sugar and saturated fat. Everything else is pure speculation.

And this is a boon to women’s magazines. Their agenda is to discourage women from eating at all, and if they can marshal ‘science’ and facts pulled from the air – or, more likely, dodgy nutrition websites – to support this view, then so much the better.

Given the wide readership of these magazines, this is extraordinarily irresponsible journalism. But it also demonstrates the extent to which women’s magazines are complicit in the promotion of a femininity predicated on body shape: being ultra-thin is, in the eyes of these magazines, a signifier of success and, most importantly, of being in control.

I think that this is best exemplified by the conclusion of an article about dieting in this month’s Cosmopolitan:

And if you have friends who eat healthily and exercise regularly, don’t tempt them to have the dressing or the cheesecake they resolutely resist, or to skip gym or a run…. Be supportive or mind your own business – ‘many lie about their true diet simply because others are judgemental, and you may presume them into deception.’

If this is the only control allowed to women, then feminism still has a long way to go.

Further reading

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963).

Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl (New York: B. Geis Associated, 1962).

Mark H. Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era, from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Nora L. Magid, ‘The Heart, the Mind, the Pickled Okra: Women’s Magazines in the Sixties,’ The North American Review, vol. 255, no. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 20-29.

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1978).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Dangerous Bodies

On Saturday I was part of Cape Town’s SlutWalk. A local manifestation of a global movement which emerged in response to a Toronto policeman’s daft comments about rape and women’s ‘slutty’ choice of clothes in January this year, Cape Town’s SlutWalk was a resounding success. It was the most fun, friendly, and good natured march I’ve ever been on. According to the Mail & Guardian and – hurrah! – the Washington Post, about 2,000 people marched from Prestwich Memorial to Green Point stadium. I really was impressed by the numbers of men there, and by the range of ages represented by the marchers. (This is my report for FeministsSA.)

The posters were brilliant, and people came dressed in ball gowns, angel wings, bunny ears, leotards, jeans and t-shirts, fishnets and thigh-high boots, and (almost) nothing at all. In many ways, it was a typically Capetonian event: we gathered outside hip Truth Coffee beforehand, and the march began half an hour late. It was also overwhelmingly middle-class and, really, for an anti-rape protest to make any sense in Cape Town, it should have been in Khayelitsha or Manenberg.

But I don’t want to detract from the success of the event. In particular, I hope that it’ll prove to be the basis for a campaign against street harassment. SlutWalk is, inadvertently, a protest against the constant low-level harassment of women in public spaces. I was, though, deeply unsettled by the vitriol aimed at SlutWalk when it was announced that South African marches were in the offing. Commentators on SlutWalk Cape Town’s Facebook page accused the organisers of being irresponsible, stupid, and of contributing to – rather than solving – the problem of victim blaming.

If anything, those remarks demonstrated the extent to which women are still held responsible for rape. One particularly unpleasant contributor insisted that only one per cent of all reported rapes are ‘genuine’ – the rest, he alleged, are simply made up by women. What many of these angry men (and they were mainly men) had in common was a fear of a group of scantily-clad women marching together in public: a belief that the amount of naked flesh on display would have – alas undefined – catastrophic ramifications for the women on the march.

Another commentator explained that she opposed the event because she prefers women to ‘have a little mystery’ about them. Unfortunately, she didn’t specify if this was to be achieved by wearing false moustaches, speaking in strange foreign accents, or investing in trench coats.

Women’s bodies, argue the anti-Slutwalk brigade, need to be covered and contained. Because female nakedness is usually sexualised, it’s seen as excessive, dangerous, and disruptive. Clothing is, then, one way of controlling women in patriarchal societies. We are told to cover ourselves up for our own good – because our bodies exercise too powerful an influence over terminally suggestible, weak-willed men.

Food is another means of exercising control over women. As I’ve written in the past, the current vogue for cupcakes is partly the product of the fact that they are the acceptable face of feminine eating: they’re small, childlike (indeed, they’re children’s party food), and pretty – like the women who are supposed to eat them. (I should like to add, for the record, that after SlutWalk, my friends and I picnicked and feasted on cheesecake, samoosas, egg sandwiches, naartjies, as well as breast-shaped cupcakes.)

This link between women’s diet and the control of their bodies can be traced to the eighteenth century. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the influential Enlightenment physician George Cheyne (1671-1743), whose writing on health and eating was not only extraordinarily popular among the English upper classes, but was also partly responsible for a shift in the understanding of the ideal physical form during the 1750s. Partly as a result of Cheyne’s own obesity, he associated excess flesh with excessive behaviour and a kind of moral laxity. Whereas before, fleshiness had been a sign of good health, increasingly slimness was associated with physical and moral health, strength, and beauty.

Cheyne’s audience and the patients whom he treated at his fashionable practice in even more fashionable Bath, were primarily female. In a society where eating meat had long been associated with masculinity – and this had even deeper roots in the ancient humoral system which associated meat and spicy food with the blood, the most ‘manly’ of the four humors – Cheyne advocated the renunciation of all meat, and the adoption of a dairy-rich, vegetarian diet. Men, in other words, needed to eat like women.

During this period, the female body was slowly being reconceptualised as being more delicate – more easily upset – than the male body, and also ruled by the unpredictable emotions, rather than the rational, sober intellect. Although gendered, this emotions-intellect binary did not necessarily privilege the one over the other: the Romantic cult of sensibility celebrated the emotional and irrational, for example. But male and female bodies – or, more accurately, middle-class male and female bodies – needed to be fed differently.

Cheyne was unusual in his implacable opposition to meat-eating, but he and other physicians were united in the belief that a moderate diet was essential for good health – and this was particularly important for women. Cheyne became interested in the ‘nervous’ complaints which seemed to plague his female patients, and connected their diet to their psychological well-being. Essentially, the less women ate, the better. Anita Guerrini explains:

Cheyne’s audience, the aristocracy and new merchant class that frequented Bath, was also the audience for William Law’s exhortations in his popular devotional work A Serious Call (1728). He provided contrasting models of female character in the ‘maiden sisters’ Flavia and Miranda, who ‘have each of them two hundred pounds a year,’ a comfortable middle-class income. While Flavia spent her income on clothes, luxurious foods, sweetmeats, and entertainment, the ascetic Miranda ate only enough to keep herself alive and spent her income on charity. Miranda, said Law, ‘will never have her eyes swell with fatness, or pant under a heavy load of flesh;’ such excess flesh was not only morally depraved, it was physically disgusting. Cheyne’s patients, like the doctor himself, grew in spirit as they wasted in flesh.

During the 1720s, Catherine, the adolescent daughter of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was referred to Cheyne because of his specialisation in nutrition and nervous diseases. She suffered from loss of appetite, fainting, and chronic pain, and died in 1722 aged eighteen. Cheyne tried his best to treat her, but could not find a way of making her eat more.

This association of femininity – of physical and moral beauty – and not eating persisted into the nineteenth century and, I would suggest, into the present. Even though we have records which indicate that people, and particularly young women, have purposefully starved themselves to death since the Middle Ages and usually for religious reasons, anorexia nervosa was isolated as a specific ailment by William Withey Gull (1816-1890) in a paper he presented to the Clinical Society of London on 24 October 1873. He argued that this ‘peculiar form of disease occurring mostly in young women, and characterised by extreme emaciation’ was not a symptom of the catch-all feminine disorder ‘hysteria’, but a separate condition with its own symptoms and treatment.

As Joan Jacobs Brumberg notes, this identification of anorexia nervosa occurred within a wider cultural concern about the phenomenon of ‘fasting girls’: young, adolescent women who denied themselves food on religious grounds. Sarah Jacob from Wales claimed that her piety was such that she was able to live without eating.

Some British doctors regarded Sarah Jacob’s claim to total abstinence as a simple fraud and, therefore, an affront to science… Consequently, they called for a watch, with empirical standards, which deprived the girl of all food and, not surprisingly, killed her within 10 days because she was already severely undernourished. Some British doctors attributed Sarah Jacob’s condition to girlhood hysteria, provoked by religious enthusiasm and her celebrity status.

In other words, girls’ decision to starve themselves moved from the realm of religion or mysticism, to science and medicine. It was a disorder which could be described and treated. For example, the French psychiatrist Charles Lasegue (1816-1883) suggested that anorexia should be treated by examining the dynamics of middle-class family class. He

noted the difficult relation between anorectics and their parents but went on to elaborate how the girl obsessively pursued a peculiar and inadequate diet-such as pickled cucumbers in cafe au lait – despite the threats and entreaties of her anxious parents. ‘The family has but two methods at its service which it always exhausts,’ he wrote, ‘entreaties and menaces …. The delicacies of the table are multiplied in the hope of stimulating the appetite, but the more solicitude increases the more the appetite diminishes’.

This shift was due to the increasing medicalisation of the body, and also the secularisation of public life. By the 1870s, doctors exercised the same – or even more – authority as ministers. But what had not changed over the course of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the association of femininity with eating very little.

Anorexia is caused by a range of factors, but the connection of ideal femininities with eating a restricted diet only exacerbates the condition. As rape isn’t really about sex, so anorexia isn’t entirely about food: it’s a manifestation of (mainly, but not exclusively) women’s attempts to exercise control over their circumstances through their bodies. Because of the wider, cultural approval of feminine thinness and not eating, these starving young women receive a kind of affirmation for their self-denial.

It’s easy to talk glibly about encouraging a ‘positive attitude’ towards food and eating. We can only achieve this when we acknowledge that women’s bodies are still perceived as dangerous – as needing to be contained by their clothes, kept pure by a range of hygiene products, and made small through dieting and exercise. This is why we still need feminism. In South Africa – where the ANC Women’s League and Lulu Xingwana‘s Department of Women, Children, and Disabled Persons have shown a singular lack of enthusiasm for leading a feminist movement – I hope that SlutWalk represents the beginnings of a new, stronger feminism.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, ‘“Fasting Girls”: Reflections on Writing the History of Anorexia Nervosa,’ Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, vol. 50, no. 4/5, History and Research in Child Development (1985), pp. 93-104.

Anne Charlton, ‘Catherine Walpole (1703-22), an Eighteenth-Century Teenaged Patient: A Case Study from the Letters of the Physician George Cheyne (1671 or 73-1743),’ Journal of Medical Biography, vol. 18, no. 2 (May 2010), pp. 108-114.

Anita Guerrini, ‘The Hungry Soul: George Cheyne and the Construction of Femininity,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, Constructions of Femininity (Spring, 1999), pp. 279-291.

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