THE FEAR of eating in front of others is not exactly rare. Many people who are diagnosed with social anxiety disorder report having this fear. We have reason to believe that public eating anxiety is most prevalent among women, whether they suffer from social anxiety or not, and, for many of us, it’s situational — feeling anxious about eating in front of men in particular, especially romantic interests.
There’s no shortage of evidence supporting the idea that women feel anxious about eating around men; besides the anecdotal evidence you can find by doing a quick Google search, there’s also scientific research. In one study, published in 2009, researchers observed the food selections of 469 individuals in three large university cafeterias, finding that female participants who ate in the company of men chose fewer calories than ones who ate with other women, whereas male participants’ food selections didn’t vary depending on the company they kept while eating.
A smaller study from 2011 looked at the eating habits of 127 college students; the researchers determined that women who sat with men consumed, on average, more than a hundred fewer calories, whereas men who sat with women consumed, on average, over 200 more calories than those who dined with other men.
Why is this by and large a “women’s problem?” It’s about more than the fear of a peppercorn embedding itself stubbornly between our teeth or having a particularly saucy forkful fall splat onto our crotches. Along with the obvious connection between weight obsession and food, I think this anxiety trend has strong ties to ingrained notions of female daintiness. There’s nothing dainty about sustenance – “feeding the machine,” tearing animal flesh and plant matter asunder between one’s teeth, sending the vanquished on to the digestive tract, a journey that ends in a toilet bowl. Eating is animalistic. It’s gory. It’s “masculine.”
The way I live my life is largely devoid of daintiness, and I like it that way. If I go on a date with a man, I won’t shy away from rigorous intellectual debate… and I might tell a fart joke at the dinner table. But I’ll also be self-conscious about eating in front of him. Gender norms are sneaky infiltrators.
This is why I was particularly struck by a scene from the recent Netflix release, Chef. Featuring an all-star cast (including Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman), it also features one of the least-likely sexy scenes I’ve encountered: a woman eating. I’m not talking strawberries dipped in chocolate or fingers dipped in whipped cream. I’m talking rich, gooey, slurp-demanding spaghetti. Scarlett Johansson’s character sits in a frumpy nightshirt, engrossed in watching the chef (Favreau) artfully prepare her a heaping bowl of pasta. She might pounce at any moment. He delivers; she eagerly stuffs her mouth. And it’s hot.
Some readers may be thinking, “Wait a minute! Scarlett Johansson is the sexy eater? An actress with a pretty face and a body type most women couldn’t possibly aspire to?!”
Giving props to Johansson’s hard-to-dispute acting chops as an aside, what I want to emphasize is that I don’t think the scene’s sensuality derives from Johansson’s looks. At all. It derives from the anticipation with which she watches every move the chef makes, each move bringing her closer to satiety. It derives from the ravenousness with which she gathers her first forkful, and the involuntary moan her first mouthful elicits. It derives from the visceral, carnal pleasure of eating — from the way she eats.
There’s a strong animalistic dimension to eating, and of course all women, and all humans in general, deserve to feel comfortable feeding their machines. But the sexy spaghetti scene pushes us even further: We can not only be comfortable, but downright sexy when we eat. Just as humans don’t have sex just to procreate, sustenance is not the only purpose food can fulfill. There is an art to eating, and whether or not we open ourselves up to the profoundly sensual dimension of the act is determined, initially, by what we choose to eat.
I want to try something new the next time I’m confronted with an anxiety-laden food situation, and I suggest others try it, too. Instead of going for the daintiest, lightest, least-likely-to-crotch-splat option, we could try choosing the thing that will put a spark in our eye, the sumptuous meal that will make us moan with pleasure. We can shift our focus from appearing dainty to having a genuinely sensual food experience. We can feel and be sexy while we eat, reveling in the process. And, not that it’s the most important consideration here, but what partner wouldn’t get a bit flushed witnessing this experience? Not one to keep around, I’d say.
Hot sauce. Cheese. Shrimp. Avocado. Eggs. These are some of my sexy foods. What are yours?