It should really go without saying, and yet here I am, saying it… Please, for the love of all things good and tasty, don’t comment on what strangers are eating.
I’m saying this as someone who has recently been on the receiving end of such comments. In the last couple of weeks, three people have given me their unsolicited thoughts on my meals and (almost) ruined my appetite.
First there was the middle-aged woman in Mosman who walked past me enjoying a buttermilk pancake stack. “Wow,” she said with wide eyes, clearly impressed with my breakfast order. Or not. “That’s a whole week of calories on one plate,” she continued, furrowing her brow with concern.
Then there was the Uber driver who asked me where I was heading to dinner. “This little Italian joint on Lamrock Avenue in Bondi,” I said. “I don’t know whether to get pizza, pasta or both!”
“That’ll go straight to your hips,” he replied, with zero authority.
The third incident wasn’t so much a comment, rather a judgemental stare from a waitress who looked me up and down when I politely asked for extra butter for my already butter-sodden banana bread.
If threes a trend, this one falls squarely in the low-rise jean’s fad pile: uncomfortable, unnecessary and best left in the early aughts.
In isolation, these incidents are mildly annoying, but altogether they feel gross.
When you consider we live in a country where over one million people live with an eating disorder, where body image is consistently one of the top concerns for young people and where one third of us have starved ourselves to fit into an outfit, these comments feel even grosser.
Luckily, I’m pretty comfortable within myself and I have a relatively healthy relationship with food, so the comments didn’t shatter my self-esteem or ruin my day, but they did make a little dent on both.
For people with body image issues or disordered eating tendencies, such criticisms can be triggering, says Sherisse Cohen, a psychologist at Mindful Thinking. “It’s difficult to know what people are going through from outside appearances alone. Often someone struggling with disordered eating and poor body image can come across as healthy, confident and ‘together’. They might look ‘normal,’ but could be secretly struggling with negative body image, dealing with an unhealthy relationship with food or constantly measuring themselves against others,” she explains. “Without realising it, an innocuous comment about someone’s food at Friday lunch may trigger their negative narrative about themselves and their body.”
At least, this behaviour is rude. At worst, it’s insulting, dangerous and shame-inducing.
“Many of the clients I work with are hyper-aware of what people around them are eating and feel immense shame related to eating,” admits Cohen. “With this in mind it’s important to be conscious of the comments we make. Saying, ‘that cake looks delicious, right to the hips it goes,’ could unintentionally crush the person sitting across from you, whether they’re struggling with body image or not. Being around body positive non-judgemental people is helpful for all of us.”
Remember how we stopped asking women if they were pregnant because it was impolite and invasive? It’s time to do the same with food policing.
“As a rule of thumb, we should avoid body/diet/appearance talk altogether. Let’s talk about food in terms of aesthetics, nutrition, taste and craft,” implores Cohen. “And if anyone around you makes comments that chips away at body confidence, simply move it along and talk about something else, like the weather.”
If you see me at brunch this weekend and feel the overwhelming need to comment on my pancake stack, feel free to ask for a bite. I’m usually happy to share.