For years, I couldn’t eat in public. The idea of biting into a sandwich in front of another human being would just fill me with dread. It was that sharp, immobilising dread – the kind you feel in the pit of your stomach and the tips of your fingers. The more difficult the food was to eat, the greater the fear. Tacos could make me apoplectic. I used to spend school lunchtimes circling the playground, shredding my food into tiny pieces so that I could slip them into my mouth undetected by other people. Often, it was too much to bear and my food ended up in the bin. It was an inconvenient phobia and it made socialising agony – because where there is camaraderie, there is usually food.
My fear of conspicuous consumption was very much a part of my anorexia at the time. I spent most of my adolescence trying to disappear by way of starvation. I was living with a deadly mental illness, one that taught me to famish. It’s not surprising that ingesting food in front of people should have caused me so much angst. I also used to think that smell might have calories – it was a strange, dizzying time.
In some respects, it was a peculiar, private thing. But it’s also, I believe, another excruciating part of a female existence. We are taught, as young women, to equate thinness with moral superiority. We are taught that we should take up as little space as we possibly can. We are taught that eating is unladylike. I was literally taught that – I went to an all-girls’ school where it was actually against the rules to be seen eating in public wearing a school uniform. You could get a detention for it. It remains staggering, to me, that any institution would explicitly tell teenage girls that eating is a shameful act. Imagine disciplining young women for getting sustenance in a public place – it’s ludicrous and it’s completely in line with society’s expectations of feminine decorum.
It’s oppression by etiquette and it’s part of our social conditioning as women to behave a certain way in public
The idea that eating publicly might be an act of rebellion really affected me. It alarmed me, as a young feminist, and it alarms me now.
Just this week, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, broke her rule of never eating in public. On tour in Canada with her family, she ate a local delicacy called the “geoduck”, which is a “phallic-shaped” clam. There’s footage of the moment, of course: Prince William enthusiastically chowing down on some clam, while Kate daintily accepts a taste. I hadn’t been aware, until it made international headlines, that Kate Middleton had a policy of never eating in public. Apparently, it’s because she doesn’t want to be photographed from an unflattering angle with food in her mouth. It might be a personal choice; it might be something that a royal publicist has insisted upon – for all I know, it’s a direct order from the Queen. I don’t pretend to know Kate Middleton’s prerogatives. I do, however, know Kate Middleton’s anxieties. And I’m not the only one.
It’s actually quite common, the fear of eating in public. For a start, it’s a symptom of social anxiety disorder, with 25 per cent of sufferers reporting that they’re frightened of eating in public. SAD affects twice as many women as it does men. It can be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, which works to replace irrational thoughts with sensible ones. Beyond that, I think this particular fear is a symptom of being female in a world that can still dictate how a woman behaves in even the mundane gestures of her life – like eating. It’s oppression by etiquette and it’s part of our social conditioning as women to behave a certain way in public.
Right now, I’m sitting in a little café with my laptop. I’m about to eat lunch – in public. Catch me in a vulnerable moment and that would still make me anxious, all these years later. Call it leftover fear from so many days spent planning ways to eat in private, or not at all. Call it a girl thing. Just like Kate Middleton’s clam-based snack, the act of eating in public still feels a little bit courageous to me. The difference now is that, as an adult, I give far fewer fucks about being ladylike. My version of being a woman is messy and real. It involves burgers on dates and pizza with friends. It involves eating while female – and phwoar, what a relief that is.