My friend’s grandmother left the room abruptly.
“You see? You upset her,” my mother said. I hung my head in shame.
She was upset because I didn’t want to eat all of the food on my plate. As a visitor in her home, this was seen as incredibly disrespectful. My fork hovered over my plate, which was chock-full of food I didn’t like — avocado in salad, beans, meat — in serving sizes enough to fill most adults. I was seven, a picky eater, and severely upset that I was being forced to eat.
But I had to eat my lunch, and I had to eat it all. In my culture, it’s a mortal sin not to finish your food.
I come from a family deeply influenced by a number of cultures. We live in South Africa. My immediate family members are white English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. My maternal aunt and cousins, with whom I spent most of my childhood with, are Muslim.
Many anthropologists have discussed the cultural function of food and eating, as well as the purpose of food-related rituals. Our attitudes and behavior around food is important because it signifies whether we belong to a culture, or whether we’re an ‘outsider’. Similarly, our table manners and will to eat has cultural importance.
My culture — and many others around the world — is one that holds the idea that people should eat all the food on their plate. For children especially, leaving food on your plate is seen as impolite and wasteful, something which is cause for conflict in a working-class home like my own.
Being forced to eat everything on your plate might not seem like a big deal to most adults, but when you’re an anxious 7-year-old like I was, it’s hugely distressing. For a good decade of my life, dinner was a nightmare for me and my family. I hated the textures of certain foods. I disliked sweetness meddling in otherwise savory dishes, so butternut and pumpkin was a no-go. I’d beg to be given less meat, I’d try to negotiate with my parents, I’d subtly pass my squash to my more-sympathetic grandfather. It was a dance I did every night — one that would impact my relationship with eating forever.
Being polite around food is one thing, but when you internalize those messages in an unhealthy way, as I did, it’s hard to detach your self-worth from the way you eat. While it’s probably normal for someone to be conscious of whether their actions are polite, it’s not normal to have the intrusive thoughts I did. For years, I’d often have anxiety around eating sit-down meals, to the point where all I could think of was how I came across to others.
What if I put too much on my fork? What if I put too little on my fork? Is this polite? If I don’t do this right, adults will stare at me. I have to finish this. I hate it and I’m nauseas, but I have to finish it. If I don’t, I’ll be in trouble. I’ll be a bad person. I shouldn’t have started eating. I shouldn’t have started eating.
The result of this anxiety is that I avoided eating sit-down meals whenever I could. As a teenager, I picked at food while standing up, I took scraps from the fridge without thinking. I had snacks on the go. When I ate at home, I ate in my bed in front of a laptop or book.
This became a noticeable challenge when I went to university and had meals in a dining hall. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was disturbed by the idea of eating in front of people I don’t know. So here, I did a 180 turn: I barely ate at all because I was so nervous about eating in front of others. Nearly every dinner time, I was caught between all my physiological reflexes saying don’t eat and my value system saying don’t waste.
My situation isn’t as bad as other people. A friend recalled to me how, after throwing up a stew that was too rich for her, she was forced to eat it again. She was five years old. A traumatic incident of abuse like that — because, let’s be honest, that is abuse — is bound to have some kind of psychological impact on a child.
I was never quite able to recognize my problem with food until I learned about “moralizing food.” This is the idea that certain kinds of food, or eating in certain ways, makes you a better person. We often represent ‘healthier’ food choices as a virtuous show of self-control. This is evident in how we call some foods ‘guilt-free’, implying we should feel guilty about some of the food we eat. Another example is how we discuss ‘cheat days’ when dieting, which conveys the idea that eating unhealthily is something we should feel bad about.
In a fatphobic society, moralizing food means we also moralize body types. Some body types are seen as good while others are seen as bad. Because we associate thinness with eating ‘good’ food and restricting ourselves, we associate thinness with morality.
For many years, my behavior around food — especially when it came to diet restriction and obsessively recording the food I ate — was a signal for help. Part of the reason why I did this was because I was in a society saturated with images of ‘good bodies’ that looked thinner than my own. But I also moralized food on another level because I’m situated in a culture where your appetite and conduct around food signifies how much you respect those who nurture you.
The cultural beliefs I had about food weren’t the only things to blame for my disordered eating patterns, but a lot of it definitely stemmed from those tear-filled afternoons where I battled to eat all the food on my plate.
When it comes to children, placing excessive pressure on them to eat in a polite way, to please others, instead of to nourish themselves, adds to the issue of moralizing food. We need to rethink how we approach food and eating, and we need to be sensitive to how our customs affect both children and adults. As always, a bit of flexibility and kindness goes a long way.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer based in South Africa. You can read her writing and her tweets.
Photo by Ross Catrow CC BY-SA