In Defense of Feminine Eating
It's shouldn't be unladylike to have an appetite
I am a woman, it’s time for breakfast, and I am starving. And I am weary of keeping this tidbit to myself. We are living in a wonderfully expansive time when it comes to gender discussions. Many of us are embracing the duality of both aspects of ourselves in how we dress, how we build workplaces, and even how we parent. But certain myths persist, particularly around gender and food. One of the most pernicious and persistent is that it is unladylike to be hungry.
Hunger still seems to be a male cultural possession. It’s that “men order steak or burgers with bacon, and women go for a salad” thing. Our online feeds are filled with women smiling and sipping chia smoothies while men camp and make chili or at least Instagram their charred meat on a grill in the backyard. It’s common to read of women skipping lunch or being too busy and “forgetting,” but hell, there’s a brand of frozen entrees called “Hungryman.” And it’s the reason why those Carl Jr. commercials with beautiful women eating burgers with abandon work—because they are different. Those mini-scenes suggest a woman with appetites.
This gender stereotyping extends to breakfast. Just look at the female-centric marketing of creamers, which read more like scented candles than food (take the bitter edge off black coffee with Italian Sweet Creme or Limited Edition Frosted Sugar Cookie). Or the yogurt commercials where women are rolling their eyes back in bliss while taking a bite of whipped yogurt. I don’t know about you, but most of my yogurt eating through the years did not constitute bliss. There was never a time that I ate yogurt for breakfast and thought, “Whew, I’m stuffed!”
Hunger and appetite, and the way it is perceived, is not just about foods, but the kind of eating. In popular culture, it generally seems that American women should not have much of an appetite at all, and especially not at the beginning of the day. Traverse the depths of Pinterest and you’ll notice plenty of pins for how “normal” it is for women to not feel hungry in the morning, while many articles out there promote eating breakfast as essential. In one poll of 2,000 people, the top priorities for women first thing in the morning were doing their hair, followed by a shower and then choosing clothes for the day. For men, breakfast was much higher on their agenda, coming second in their list of morning priorities. Appearance over self-care, ladies, despite the essential nature of morning nutrition?
This bears out in my family. My grandmothers, opposites of each other but both iconic Southern women archetypes, seemed ambivalent about breakfast by the time I started noticing. It was an afterthought. Country granny often had a cigarette and some toast, or a cold biscuit and Folger’s black coffee. City grandmother didn’t really let me spend the night, but once I did notice that she ate half a grapefruit for breakfast. I was very confused.
Growing up, I ate breakfast with my father most mornings. He’d have oatmeal and toast and I’d have a big ol’ bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios or Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Apple Jacks. We liked tall glasses of chocolate milk in Bugs Bunny glasses and lots of butter on our waffles. My mother would stand by the stove after she got dressed and have a piece of toast so she could take her vitamins. My sister pretty much followed in her footsteps, and thus a divide in breakfast habits was established.
There are physical reasons why some people want more breakfast than others, from hormone levels to sleep cycles. But the idea that women shouldn’t be hungry—shouldn’t want to eat food in the morning—belongs in the same dustpile of assumptions as “women only want to split dessert, not get their own.” And it’s a tired, outdated touchpoint.
I am not splitting my cake nor my plate of breakfast burritos. Eating breakfast (and in my case, drinking black coffee with it) is about saying yes to the day, yes to fueling up for it, and yes to the idea that it is ok to want something. As a woman. I’m going to be doing a lot today, dammit, and I don’t need to be thinking about a gnawing stomach. It runs deeper into the ideas of femininity, that women shouldn't have appetites of any kind, but be something that is to be desired. We are the blank slate, the entity to be hungered for, not the person to be hungry, and especially not at so indelicate a time of “as soon as you hit the floor.”
Each time I pour a third of a box of Quaker Oatmeal Squares into my bowl as the sun rises, I declare "I am here and I am hungry." I hope you know that I don’t mind if you’re not a breakfast eater, but I am, so let’s get this day started and started as a human, not as a gender. Eat whatever you want whenever you want. I will be, and probably way before you even hit that snooze button.
Stephanie Burt is the host of The Southern Fork podcast and lives in Charleston, SC.