LIFE HONESTLY

Being a woman means being bad-greedy or good-greedy

Photo: Getty Images

Female life is full of baffling, binary conflicts – and the act of eating is loaded for Lauren Bravo

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By Lauren Bravo on

Summer always makes me hungry.

You meet those people who say they can’t eat in the heat, who only crave the lightest of salads and perhaps a grilled sardine. I am not one of those people. Warm temperatures wake my stomach up to myriad seasonal ways to be greedy. And by “seasonal”, I mean houmous and picnic dips by the half-tub, using focaccia like a decorator’s trowel. I mean fish and chips, tacos and burritos, barbecues that spill over lunch and dinner. And most of all I mean ice cream.

“Should I have an ice cream?” is my Prufrock’s “do I dare to eat a peach?” – just as messy, but less poetic. And I know what you’re going to say. Yes, I should obviously have an ice cream.

Next question: which type of greedy should I be?

In my head, you see, there live two types of greediness. Good and bad. Female life is full of baffling, binary conflicts and this is one of mine. “Good” greedy is luxurious and sensual. Pretty, performative greediness. Greediness that looks great on Instagram. To be good greedy is to be Sophia Loren, shovelling spaghetti in a strapless dress in a rustic taverna, or at a table under a fairy-light lit tree. It’s la dolce vita, or at least my clunky translation.

“Bad” greedy, meanwhile, is secret, squalid, thick with butter and laced with shame. Bad greedy is when I find a bit of cake in my bra and eat it. Bad greedy is wanting the dessert menu when everyone else is groaningly full.

Good greedy is a gelato cone as big as my head, held aloft in front of a tiled wall. Bad greedy is chain-eating three Magnums, thinking about the cool crack and slurp of the next one before I've even finished the last. Good greedy is to be a foodie, a cheerful bon vivant. Bad greedy is a binge eater. I am both, worst luck.

It isn’t really about wellness, or nutrition. Good greedy, contrarily, can be the “dirty” food. The sloppy, sexy, trashy food. It’s a loaded double cheeseburger, but not the IBS that comes with it. A £3 croissant for breakfast is good greedy; a packet of crisps for breakfast is bad. Sometimes, the distinction is as arbitrary as “Monday” vs “Friday”. I know, it's confusing. I didn't make the rules.

Sometimes, good and bad can be near-identical versions of the same food. The soft cookies I buy from artisan bakeries = good greedy, but the ones I buy in bags of four for £1 (and once walked all the way back from my front door to Sainsbury’s to return, because I was thunderingly premenstrual and they weren’t squidgy enough) = bad greedy.

It’s a class thing, certainly. Heavy with snobbery and affluent privilege. But it’s more than that, too. Because if I had a friend with me, if we were drunk or sad or celebrating or any of the other traditional qualifiers for a round of female “fuck it” eating, the £1 cookies might be the right kind of greedy again.

And, of course, the simplest distinction of all is body size. The thinner you are in our world, the more glamorous your gluttony is permitted to be. It’s Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl speech, the idea that we’re supposed to have a “grilled fish and vegetables” body on a “hot dog and onion rings” lifestyle. It’s maddening.

But, however much we scoff at the hypocrisy of it all, it’s also hard to shake the idea that eating as a woman is always a statement – whether that statement is “I’m perfect!!” or “I’m not!”

If you’ve ever worked in one of those offices where every single lunch is discussed in forensic, strategic detail, then you’ll know what I mean. A sandwich is rarely just a sandwich

We’ve seen her over and over again, in TV and film, the outwardly “hot” woman who (relatable, lol!) pigs out in private, her only flaw being an apartment littered with takeaway cartons. Miranda on Sex And The City ate chocolate cake out of the bin; I once ate a slice of cheesecake a stranger had abandoned on a ferry. The Gilmore Girls lived on junk food and candy because it was the quickest way to signal that these are likeable women. Look, they’re greedy, too! These women are just like you! Only with turbo-charged metabolisms and no apparent acid reflux.

In Insatiable, Netflix’s new, widely trashed show about a fat girl who gets her jaw wired shut and has all her skinny dreams come true, binge-eating is used as a tragic punchline. It’s a tired trope, the woman eating her feelings. But the thing is, I’ve never understood how we’re supposed to not eat our feelings. Because we’re also told that food is emotion. It’s how we mark life’s big moments, seek comfort and show love. Eating with feeling is meant to be a good thing, a celebrated thing. Researchers in 2013 found that food even tastes better when we ritualise it, while a 2016 Italian study says the same is true when we eat in groups.

Only the flipside is that, when food is so tied up in other things – aspiration, associations, atmosphere, memory-making, the shoulds and the shouldn’ts and the element of public performance – it’s easy to lose a handle on our own satisfaction. I might imagine a spirulina smoothie bowl will taste better than it does because it’s supposedly virtuous, but I also hype up the idea of ooey, gooey, Man vs Food-style meals because I’ve been told they’re the ultimate treat. Do I actually find them delicious? Hard to say. Sometimes I have a huge doughnut and realise too late that what I really wanted was something more humdrum, like beans on a baked potato. Often, I realise only after I’m queasily licking the sugar out of my hair that I was hungry for a meal, not a photo opp.

I suspect I’m not the only person who feels like this, living on a gastronomic seesaw that rarely pauses in the middle. Yet that ostentatious “good” greed is still the cornerstone of my social life.

And in the same way that very few friends will ever say “don’t buy the dress!”, virtually none would ever say anything except “have the ice cream!!” It’s what we do. “Have the ice cream!” is shorthand for solidarity, YOLO, self-love by proxy. “Have the ice cream!” is a way to fight back. After decades of confusing fuckery surrounding the way women eat, gluttony has become both our crime and our weapon. Hunger isn’t just a reflex to get us fed; it’s a choice between compliance and rebellion. If fatphobic Western beauty standards tell me I shouldn't have a Magnum, well then I should have the whole box! Screw YOU, world!

Only when I'm nauseous for a whole evening afterwards, it feels like an odd kind of victory.

“Mindful eating”, of course, is the promised antidote to my messy ideas of good and bad greed. I’d love to eat mindfully. Peacefully. Stopping when I’m full and content. But to master the knack of listening to your body, it means shutting out the voices around you.

If you’ve ever worked in one of those offices where every single lunch is discussed in forensic, strategic detail, then you’ll know what I mean. A sandwich is rarely just a sandwich. It’s a parcel of our insecurities and conformities and fluctuating self-esteem, bundled between two slices of bread. My boyfriend, meanwhile, will sometimes eat a KFC chicken burrito for his lunch. At work. On a Tuesday. Without justifying it to everyone with a hangover, a bad day or a monologue about “treating himself”. The skinny male-privileged nerve of it.

A few weeks ago, at a pizza place, one of my friends apologised profusely for ordering a salad. "I'm not being smug or anything, I swear,” she insisted, as though our breadsticks might turn out to be pitchforks in disguise. “It's just that I had a big lunch and I kind of fancy some vegetables and I'm going to have a tiramisu afterwards I promise, oh, God, I'm so sorry."

The many layers of pressure and failure and self-flagellation contained in that little speech were translucent as onion, and just as bitter. And it sounds daft. She didn’t need to apologise for ordering the dinner she wanted to eat! Except that somehow she did, because as women we’re so routinely shamed for our choices that we end up filling in the gaps to save time. You worry that if you say, “I want a salad”, what people will hear is “I win, you lose”. Society says we shouldn't be greedy, ergo we SHOULD be greedy, and so virtually every meal time we're letting somebody down. It's enough to kill anyone’s appetite.

@laurenbravo

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LIFE HONESTLY
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