Friday, 19 August 2016

Stop Commenting on How Much She Eats

This post was originally written as an article for The Feminist Wire, and can be accessed on their website here. It was also reposted by the newsfeed website MakeMeFeed here, which is basically irrelevant, but such a great pun that I had to mention it. Not sorry in the slightest.

(P.S. Have you seen the film Matilda?)

Still frame of Matilda eating pancakes from the 1996 film, Matilda

If you’re a man, woman, child, or even a bright green extraterrestrial who actually does have eyes the size of its stomach, you have probably heard the following at some stage in your life:

“Wow, you eat so much!”

This insidious little phrase – and all of its equally unsolicited brethren – really frustrates me. There’s something inherently judgmental in any question like “Are you really going to eat all of that?” addressed to someone sitting opposite you at a dining table.

Can I eat it all? WATCH ME.  

[image found here]

I suppose that dining table friend theoretically could have loaded their plate with food just for kicks, but odds are that they are indeed planning on eating “all that.” Food is not merely for Instagram, even in 2016. Let there be munching.

Now, before you dismiss this topic as an example of oversensitivity, here are some of the issues with asking, “Are you really going to eat all that?” There are actually quite a few…

  1. What are you really asking?
When you ask someone if they’re going to actually eat “all that,” you immediately put that person in an awkward situation. Tell me, are you asking them that question because you can’t possibly fathom what they might do with the food sitting in front of them? Or are you simply voicing a thinly veiled judgmental comment about their dietary habits? Unless you are one of the previously mentioned bright green extraterrestrials (for whom I can’t really speak), I’d place my money on the second. So really, you’re just expressing shock (generally mock) at someone else’s personal choices, and asking them to confirm the gluttony you perceive. Nice.

  1. Societal Pressures and Food
Regarding perceived gluttony, it’s worth asking why some people feel the need to draw attention to the nature and quantity of what others eat. Diet can be as mundane as you want it to be, even if our society places a great deal of emphasis on it (more on that later). I suppose that food is one of the great unifying topics of conversation – we all eat it, after all – but that nevertheless also places it on the same level of shared experience as the weather.

WINTER IS – wait, I don’t care.

Anyway, at this point it’s worth noting that the food issue is gendered. Men who can put away three whole pizzas and a few drinks on the side are, in their teen years at least, “manlier” men (or, you know, stereotypical Americans). The old truism of needing to eat in order to grow up “big and strong” can apply to men throughout their entire lives. Women, however, don’t receive that luxury, and generally learn to be insecure about their size and their manner of eating from a young age. That’s not to say that boys don’t also experience a great deal of pressure regarding how they look; however, media coverage and eating disorder statistics do indicate that these pressures are directed more towards women. Girls don’t magically stop eating as much cake at the same time they hit puberty; they’ve simply learnt to vilify certain foods. When did you last see a man nibbling on a salad leaf while his girlfriend hoed into some ribs? No. What we eat is sadly gendered, and that is part of what makes food and eating so often an uncomfortable – or even embarrassing – topic for women.

The policing of what women eat (and don’t even get me started on the policing of women’s bodies) is evident from situations as everyday as asking, “Are you really going to eat all that?” to rather more frightening examples. Celebrities are lambasted by tabloids for eating anything which isn’t green (extra judgment if it’s actual solid food as opposed to an overpriced blended concoction). People with faces like Liv Tyler’s and voices like Mariah Carey’s are called upon to justify their existence after gaining weight while pregnant. Yet even regular women have come under equally vile scrutiny on a large and very public stage: take the now infamous “Women Who Eat On Tubes” Facebook page. The group – which, in a nutshell, was an invasive community based around shaming women who ate food in public – was shut down. The problems and the people which led to its creation, however, are still out there.

Every time someone asks, “Are you really going to eat all that?” to a woman, they are reinforcing gendered social expectations. And every time they ask that question, they are also reinforcing a double standard. There is enormous pressure on women to not just eat light and eat right (…if I ran a packaged salad company, I’d coin that), but also to show that they are eating light and “right.” Woman hardly chew, after all – we just sort of pick daintily at our little portions with little cutlery and little smiles. Granted, now I’m just being snarky. It is true, however, that if you question what a woman is eating, and how much, you can be involuntarily casting aspersions on her weight, her femininity, and her desirability (because all of these tend to be bundled together into a box of anxiety wrapped up with a bow of self-worth. I don’t support this whatsoever, but I do acknowledge the situation).

So even if you are surprised by how much she is eating…maybe just keep it to yourself.

  1. Your Appetite Is Not My Appetite
In a culture which constantly tries to quantify everything, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that numbers aren’t always relevant. No two people are the same! So while calorie counting and watching the scales aren’t without merits, factors such as exercise, the actual age of one’s body (as opposed to one’s age in years), medical conditions, and build are all hard to reduce into numbers for an equation.

Here’s my personal take on the matter. As a girl bordering 6ft tall who lives quite an active lifestyle (walking everywhere, living on a farm) I have always been heavier and eaten more than most girls my age. Considering my appreciation for food, that situation never really seemed like much of a problem to me. As tends to happen, however, once other people drew attention to it – even jokingly – I began to see it in a different light.

“Wow, you eat so much!”

I’ve certainly heard that a few times (or, rather, every day for the last few years of high school). I was finally past the worst of my awkward stage and had somehow emerged looking still rather plain and fashion-blind, but nevertheless taller and slimmer than pretty much everyone. In hindsight, I think that people may have commented on how much I ate precisely because I never did. I ate what I liked and burnt all the energy simply through living my lifestyle. People did deem my eating noteworthy, however, and I became incredibly self-conscious. How ironic that others projected their own insecurities onto me so effectively that I adopted them as my own!

Getting out of high school – and out of that strange environment in which frenemy teens enact a sort of subtle schoolyard Hunger Games (ha, aha) – certainly led to me developing more realistic self-perception. Nevertheless, while my confidence may have matured, the same can’t necessarily be said for the tact of others and I still sometimes receive comments with a hidden sting.

I’m not even sure if people are aware of this element of their speech. Considering how much of an effect such comments had on me as a teen, however, I sincerely hope that people make a conscious effort to be more aware of their words – and to assess the ideas behind them critically – especially around young girls. Naturally, advocating any sort of censorship of speech is difficult to justify, for where will it end…? I will argue, however, that it is not oversensitive to ask that people comment less on others’ eating habits. Women are already policed and pressured enough about their diets without the everyday acquaintance weighing in too.

Through the very act of asking her about the amount she is eating, one assigns further importance to diet, and all these little bits and pieces lead at best to wasted breath on her part (she’d rather be eating, you know), and at worst to insecurity and eating disorders. There’s already enough of that going around.

So in the future, think about how you address someone – especially a girl – who is looking forward to her meal and planning on eating every last bite. Indeed, unless you are a medical professional with honest motives and useful feedback, or a bright green extraterrestrial…

…Stop Commenting On How Much She Eats.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

What Makes Literature ‘Australian’?

(hint: it's not a kangaroo)

Originally written for the ACT Writers Centre, and accessible on their website here.

'The Man from Snowy River' 

The world is full of impenetrable questions. Who is responsible for the word ‘flibbertigibbet’? Why is one sock always missing? And could the Pavlova really be as Australian as Crowded House?

Yet one issue repeatedly proves itself to be even more complex: that of Australian culture and literary tradition. To understand why certain books and stories are considered Australian requires more than merely knowing an author’s place of birth, or even their mother tongue—for Australian writing has been produced by Indigenous Australians and multilingual migrants as well as by those who speak English alone. Yet for all the diversity embodied by its authors, Australian writing—or at least, the writing which has come to define our literary canon—arguably revolves around a particular image of the country and its people.

This image was established by those who first brought traditional forms of Western literature to the Australian continent: British colonists and migrants in the late-18th and 19th century. By consequence—and reflecting attitudes which will surprise approximately nobody—the first pieces of Australian writing tended to focus on the wild adventures of daring settlers as they came up against the new frontier of the Australian outback. This writing included works ranging from Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, to Banjo Paterson’s iconic bush poetry.

While such adventure-style narratives represent an ever-shrinking proportion of the Australian experience, they do help to explain the foundations of the modern national psyche; although the oral storytelling tradition in Australia is potentially the oldest in the world, its value has only begun to gain mainstream recognition in recent times. The stories which were propagated throughout the country from British settlement onwards reflect a particular form of romanticism coupled with a muted wariness of this ‘wide brown land’ and ‘her beauty and her terror’. These tales were therefore filled with survival against the odds, brawny drovers and bushrangers (note that one of our national heroes is Ned Kelly), mateship, egalitarianism, and a love of the underdog. If you’re Australian, you may be either rolling your eyes or tearing up at this point—especially if you’ve just remembered Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

20th century Australian literature came next, ushered in by Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career in 1901—often touted as the ‘first authentic Australian novel’—and swiftly followed by Jeannie Gunn’s 1902 publication We Of The Never Never. Both texts explore the lives of pioneer women in the bush, and are often considered to be quintessentially Australian; realism had arrived in the outback. They also heralded in an increasingly reflective tone in Australian writing, as seen later in the works of Ruth Park, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Patrick White. Family struggles and the quest for identity are integral themes, and ones which have grown into central concepts in much Australian work, whether set in urban or rural locations. This is undoubtedly due, not least, to the complexity of the question: what is ‘Australian’? Where do you come from, and where do you belong?

On that note, it is worth pointing out the more sobering elements of numerous works falling within the Australian literary canon. Disquiet is a defining feature of much Australian writing; after all, if one lives on this continent, it means that one has a family history which either includes leaving home and heritage behind at some point, inhabiting somebody else’s, or being forcibly evicted from one’s lands. Much literature by Indigenous Australians addresses such issues; Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is perhaps the most famous contemporary example. Furthermore, the settler’s unease when faced with the harsh, unpredictable Australian environment has translated into a common undertone for literature ranging from Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, to Gail Jones’s Sorry, to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. The land and its habitations in these novels are practically characters in their own right. Indeed, many popular novels such as the aforementioned Cloudstreet, or Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, border on magical realism—a stylistic choice which leads full circle (albeit from a different angle) back to the romanticism present in early Australian fiction.

Yet the proliferation of Australian writing with these themes—the harsh land, the difficult lives, and the smattering of spirituality over a grim face—does not ipso facto mean that these themes are Australian writing. Indeed, both writers and readers could do well to ask: to what degree does Australian literature capture its subject, and to what degree are we cultivating our own culture through the stories we weave?

Naturally, culture is in part formed by storytelling, and there is no denying that this is very much the case in Australia, as evidenced by its literary history. Yet one can still question how much the fixation of Australian literature on the land, for example, has to do with the tangible stories existing in our country, as opposed to what publishing houses wish to print. This is especially worth pondering when one considers that the overwhelming majority of Australians live, and have long lived, in cities.

Nevertheless, for publishers to be printing this particular brand of Australian fiction, it does indicate that these stories are what will sell to the public. Questions surrounding the ‘Australian’ aspect of these books are therefore potentially irrelevant—it’s an aspect we’ve apparently all embraced, after all. This said, however, such trends in the major canonised Australian novels over time, do perhaps reflect a vacuum of themes, perpetuated by publishing bias, critical success, heavy-hitting literary award nominations, and—of course—sales.

None of this is altogether bad. Indeed, in many ways it is good, for we now have an easily-identified literary canon—easier to package and pitch to overseas markets!—filled with poignant stories, and handy tips on what to do if you find yourself stranded in the Blue Mountains with a flock of mangy sheep. Yet as both readers and writers, it is important not to grow complacent. Employ a theme too many times, or too simplistically, and it becomes a trope; so be careful when writing about this wide brown land. There’s much to love about Australian literature, but there’s also a very real risk of cheapening it—and creating a hackneyed cast of rough white men, tokenised Indigenous Australians, and mystical lands of which we have no experience—if we adhere too closely to the beloved foundations of a national psyche. Perpetuating this particular tradition of Australian literature could also discount or overlook the stories of people such as Indigenous Australians or migrants of non-European descent, whose voices might not fit into the narrow, potentially exclusionary focus established by British settlers and their European literary heritage. Pride in our distinctive but contentious literary past could result in our peddling little more than one narrative. Moreover, the nation in this narrative might not even exist—and may never have done so.

With this in mind, is the advice therefore to write in the most ‘truthful’ manner possible, by writing only that which you know? No: aside from other decent reasons such as the right to use one’s imagination, as a resident of Canberra, I cannot endorse a rule which would condemn me to a lifetime of describing public servants and 70s architecture. But do try writing something which reflects your Australia, whatever that may be, and however corny that advice may sound. Granted, as always, our country continues to exist in part through how we see it—take the extreme hipster scene flourishing in Melbourne (ah, Melbourne), which is part-organic, part-constructed—so there can never be an unfiltered truth regarding what we see around us. Yet that still doesn’t mean that you have to sell your soul to the trope god in order to write a novel which can be recognised and appreciated.

Therefore, in the tradition of authors who wrote what they saw—or imagined they saw—take a look around you at the people, the attitudes, and the social values. We live in one of the most multicultural and diverse nations on Earth. So what can you bring to Australian literature that’s fresh? Whose story are you writing?