The disheartening inevitability of a woman being shamed for eating in public

When a woman eats in public it violates all kinds of unwritten assumptions about how women "should" act, and gives licence to those who wish to shame them.

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In the days following my first ever lecture to an audience of several hundred students, I was struck by an unsettling realisation. Suddenly, there were people living and walking in my city that knew who I was and would recognise me, while I would not be able to do the same. This was entirely new to me. Up until that point, I had always taught small seminar groups, so if I bumped into one of my students at the pub, I would know who they were, and could modify my behaviour accordingly (or, more likely, go to another pub). But then after one of my lectures, a student I didn’t recognise said hello to me in the street, and it occurred to me that now that I was lecturing to such a large group, things had changed. I felt a bit exposed, and unpleasantly visible. I couldn’t possibly know who they all were; but they would all know me. It felt like a tiny, microcosmic glimpse into what it must be like to be famous. For a few days, I walked around town slightly warily, wondering if the people who made eye contact when I passed by them had been in my lecture.

Almost the first thing I felt self-conscious about, and decided I would now need to be more vigilant about, was public eating. My main concern about being recognised by my students was not that they might witness me being drunk and rowdy, or that I might inadvertently push them out of the way to get served at the bar. The thing that made me really uncomfortable was the idea that they might spot me walking down the High Street stuffing a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch into my mouth. I got over it, of course. Despite this initial flurry of unwarranted vanity and self-importance, I quickly realised that the likelihood of any of them caring enough about my snack choices to take to Facebook to discuss them was very slim indeed. But that my first concern was with being observed – no, caught – eating in public reflects something I have long suspected and have now had confirmed: women are not supposed to be seen eating. Because really, they are not supposed to eat.

I’ve just read this interesting piece by Sophie Wilkinson about the relatively new trend of ‘stranger shaming’ – taking photos of people in public spaces, in order to mock, embarrass or humiliate them. Sophie herself has been the victim of this, having undertaken the provocative and threatening gesture of eating a pasta salad on the tube, and subsequently finding a photo of her taken without her consent on Facebook. Naturally, the picture was accompanied by a range of derisory and vicious comments, many of them suggesting that Sophie’s public eating displayed a lack of etiquette or decorum: “I would like the name of her finishing school”, said one particularly droll commenter.

Of course women aren’t the only victims of stranger shaming, and I find the practice extremely disturbing whoever is the target. It’s nasty, bullying behaviour to mock strangers who are innocently and obliviously going about their lives, and a huge violation of someone’s privacy to take a photo of someone without their consent and publish it online. I think this is a pernicious trend that needs to stop, whoever the target, and whatever their alleged misdemeanour. But we can learn a lot about the kinds of behaviour our society considers unacceptable, and therefore deserving of public ridicule and humiliation, by observing the types of behaviour that will leave you vulnerable to stranger shaming. One of the most noteworthy stranger shaming sites is Men Taking Up Too Much Space on Trains, the content of which is self-explanatory. In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that I was once sat next to one of these men, whose legs were so far apart that I was basically pressed up against the window to avoid our thighs touching; and in my annoyance, I did take a photo of him with my phone, which yes, I then tweeted. In my defence, the photo was only of the man’s legs, so that he was not in any way identifiable from the picture. And I hadn’t given this issue as much thought back then. I probably wouldn’t do the same now. But the reason I felt this behaviour was so outrageous as to be worth sharing with my friends was because he was, objectively, taking up more than his fair share of the space. I was squashed into the wall, while his legs were splayed at a ninety degree angle, as are those of many of the men who feature on the website. While I don’t condone these men’s pictures being published without their consent, especially those whose faces are clearly visible and who are therefore identifiable, it’s interesting to note that the kind of bad behaviour that gets men publicly shamed is, arguably, objectively objectionable behaviour. The men in question are taking up more space than they are entitled to, and in so doing, causing inconvenience and discomfort to others.

But as the Facebook group that Sophie’s picture appeared on tells us, for women, one of the biggest crimes is to be observed eating in public.  Perhaps you didn’t already know this. But I had clearly absorbed this message somewhere along the way, because I knew I didn’t want my students to witness me eating. I think I have absorbed the message particularly effectively because I went to an all girls’ school that had a rule to the effect that sixth formers in the town at lunch time must not eat as they walked, because that would present a bad impression of the school. But this is clearly a rule that many people endorse on some level, or the Facebook group would not have thirteen thousand members, and many hundreds of photographs submitted.

As a currently slightly overweight woman, I am especially aware of the social unacceptability of being seen to eat in public. Women should not be seen eating, because women are not supposed to eat. Whatever else they are, and whatever else they do, women must first and foremost be beautiful. What it means to be beautiful is to be thin; and to be thin, one must not eat. Therefore, the woman who eats in public is flouting not only a convention of etiquette. She is also brazenly, shamelessly showing her disregard and contempt for the rules governing women’s proper social conduct and appearance.

Of course, the woman who should be shamed for her public eating must still be objectified and treated as a target of sexual aggression. Because food isn’t the only thing women can put in their mouths, amirite guys? By daring to satisfy her hunger, the woman who eats in public has shown herself to possess lascivious and insatiable bodily appetites of other kinds too, and has thereby invited all the inevitable “open wide, gobble down on this, she looks like she enjoys swallowing, the greedy bitch” comments. Moreover, many of the comments on the Facebook group show their thinly-veiled disgust and contempt for women’s bodies: witness their being likened to animals, engaged in “feeding frenzies”, or, as happened to Sophie, her mouth described as a “gaping orifice”. Just by existing in a public space and daring to nourish herself, a woman apparently makes her animal nature and the material reality of her body too visible, too real to be ignored. And this, as we know only too well from our societal fear and disgust of menstruation and lactation, is immensely disturbing for many people, and must therefore be discouraged through the use of social sanction – such as the stranger shaming Facebook group or Tumblr.

This is a profoundly depressing and dispiriting conclusion to arrive at. But the upside is that by simply daring to walk down the street while feeding ourselves, it turns out we are doing something surprisingly rebellious and transgressive. I hadn’t realised radical political action could be achieved so easily. So on that note, I’m off to buy a packet of Monster Munch and walk down the High Street.

This piece first appeared on Rebecca Reilly-Cooper's blog.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is a lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Warwick. She tweets as @boodleoops.