Women for Independence tweeted recently that they wanted to hear thoughts about food. It makes sense. ‘The domestic is the political’, as the saying goes and it’s a saying that needs to become overused and clichéd because it’s so damn true. The more I think about it, the more I believe that everything that goes on in our homes and heads is politically linked. The more we connect the ideas of home and Holyrood or the House of Commons the more we increase the understanding that political engagement is something we can exercise to influence things for the better, particularly in a relatively small country like Scotland.
So here it is from me, you can provide the Food Glorious Food soundtrack from Oliver yourself. Or, you can (please) take it from my head where it’s played on loop every time I’ve thought about writing this post in the last fortnight.
I’ve been mulling over what my relationship with food is. I came up with a few things; allergies, and hormonal conditions that need balanced with nutrients sprung to mind for starters. How my family does the food shop came into my thoughts too. But the main thing I kept coming back to? The thing I kept trying to avoid thinking about so I could concentrate on easily quantifiable schizzle? Well, that was an encounter that threw an axe head between my experiences of food and had a huge impact on how I feel about and discuss food and self image today. It was an encounter that was emotional and I was hesitant about going there. Yet… since it kept coming back to me I knew it was valid. Then, the more I thought about it without kicking it away, the more I realised the emotions that are side dishes to food are a narrative we need to reconstruct to challenge ideology that limits woman in how they view themselves and are viewed by others in terms of their political (and domestic) impact.
Quite a few years ago I had a friendship group that I thought was pretty much perfect. Three interesting women with different lives and outlooks crossed my path. Thanks to some synchronicity in our weekly routines we soon found ourselves meeting once a week. It felt positively Sex and The City and, fresh from being at home with pre-schoolers, I was happy for a sassy new highlight in my weeks.
Then came food – goddammit – and the good times and diverse chat took a turn I wasn’t expecting when we agreed to make time to meet weekly for lunch. The problems arose from the fact that I was not on a diet and they all were – permanently. At first there was a jovial, bantery acceptance of the fact that I would always eat more than any of them at a lunch. Then there was the triangle consensus between them to support each other in a plan to exercise more and eat less – I wasn’t there that day but was told of it much later. In fact, in preparing for a big night out the plans extended to eating nothing but salad leaves and simply drinking water. For days. I was shocked and said as much, repeatedly, saying firmly but as non-confrontationally as I could, ‘count me out. Completely.’
Then there was the fact that we (they) seemed to have simply stopped talking about anything other than weight, food, exercise, ‘perfect’ bodies and diet cheats. I had nothing to say on the matters. In all my other friendships we talked about politics, ideas, the world, stories from our pasts, kids, our hopes, our dreams, work, relationships, learning, music, the universe, cake, clothes, art, spirituality…. and now here I was in conversational territory that was alien in its focus on just one area of self flagellation. I was genuinely confused about how the same point could be made again and again and capture interest and emotion. The conversations were leaving me blank and hollowing me out. There was a vast irony in this that I didn’t see at the time; I was overweight and feeling good. Everyone else at the table was a size 10 and feeling not good enough. The confident women I’d met had, it turned out, been bluffing all along. Worse, they’d assumed I had been too. I was the odd one out. Or, had they all just brought this out in one another and magnified it? I couldn’t figure it out.
Things got acutely strained the last time we met for lunch when, despite my consistent stance in the months before, my lunch was taken away from me halfway through the meal because, ‘let’s face it, you’ve had enough’.
The quick round up from there is that save some awkward exchanges we haven’t had lunch (or coffee, or drinks, or basically anything much) ever since. It’s been a lot of years now. They could never see what they did wrong and what they believe apparently works for them. I could never get past having been overruled about my food, my body, my self-esteem and my need to talk about a gazillion things. Those things are red line for me. Nobody gets to tell me what I should change about myself unless I ask for their opinion – not overtly, not subtlely, not through words, not through behaviour or side glances. We can discuss concerns, sure, but not if they’re based on vanity and someone else’s ideas of how I could appeal to them more. That stuff is ridiculously less than helpful. It’s something I feel even more strongly about since my son was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Regardless of what the covers of magazines and billboards tell us all, there simply is not just one body type, shape or form that is beautiful. There are limitless variations on beauty. It’s a label that absolutely everyone is entitled to give themself.
For all the flag waving, self-loving feminism in what I declared at the time and in that last sentence, the whole thing deflated my self esteem like a stealthy puncture. The sight of that plate being removed from beneath my face, my fork and knife still in my hands and the sound of those words hitting my ears has replayed in mental slow-mo more times that I want to admit. I felt embarrassed, for a while, that I’d found myself beautiful and happily excluded from dieting and body-hating only to be almost bludgeoned into it by how society supports the heinous notion that every woman is a deep down self-hater who wants more than anything else to be skinny, even if it means she’s hungry, tired, stressed, neglecting her bones, internal organs, muscles or the neurons she needs to stay strong.
I’d thought at some point the conversation would switch back to other stuff. I’d thought I could keep the concepts of ‘my relationship with my friends’ in one part of my brain and ‘my friends’ shocking self-hatred’ in another. I’d had no idea whatsoever that at some point those two filing cabinets were going to collide all over the space between them and contaminate me with horrible thought-worms that would root around whispering, ‘you probably are really ugly and unattractive because people you trust certainly think so’. But the thing is I was also always going to fight for the thought that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, by my standards, when I looked in the mirror I didn’t see something repugnant smiling back. I saw a person who valued so many other things so much more than she valued any thoughts about any size, age or conformity. Dare I say it (society loves to hate women who value themselves so I’m out on a limb here), I also saw beauty. I was raised that way by a mum who knew herself to be beautiful and yet was never on the cover of Vogue. I fought my way back to that woman and have had to chalk up the bad experience to, well, experience. Different strokes for different folks. I need food for fuel and food for enjoyment and relaxing with people I adore and who adore me. Sometimes I need food as a bonding prop at a meeting or a get together. Breaking bread together is a good thing for connecting. I will not be coerced into seeing it as something that makes me ‘naughty’ or ‘really good’. Because I’m a self-determining adult. Because I am a good person, regardless of my dress size. A stick of celery, sixty five doughnuts, a gazillion runs and all the scales in the world have fuck all to do with that.
So there’s some of my relationship with food – the bit with the massive learning curve blip where I realised that context and echo chambers really affect self-esteem and self-actualisation. I’m not sure what I could’ve done to have made things work out more happily with those friends. I live and I learn, hopefully. And I still love lunch.
From food notes to footnotes….
I’ve been trying to find out who first came up with the phrase, ‘the domestic is the political’. I think it might have been Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote (the frankly amazing); A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792). Do you have any insight on this quote? I’d love to know more about its origin.