Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bon Appétit



My daughter was about  six years old when this happened. She was at a birthday party of one of her classmates.  I had left her there and come home.  Just when I had reached home I got a call from the mother of the child whose birthday it was. Apparently my daughter was crying bitterly and she wanted to know if I could come over. I was a bit puzzled  that this should happen because she was a very social child. But when I went there I found that she was indeed upset and wanted to be taken home. 

On the way home when I asked her why she was crying she told me that it was because some of the girls in her class had called her a “pig” after she had gone to take a second helping of some of the food served there. I was shocked that little girls could be so cruel! 

When I narrated this incident to my mother in law after I reached home, she did not seem to think there was anything wrong with the girls calling her a “pig”. “You should have fed her properly before sending her there! She would then have not  eaten like that!  “was her comment. 

This reminded me of the novel “Gone with the Wind” where the heroine Scarlett and her sisters would be fed a full meal before being sent out to parties. The idea being, that it would  curb their appetites and they would all appear to be “dainty and feminine” picking at their food.

I have never seen anyone commenting about a boy/ man’s appetite in this manner.  In fact many mothers often boast about how much their son eats – “ You know he ate an entire dekchi full of biryani”? “ My son needs at least 6 dosas for breakfast. He likes ghee to be spread on them and then sugar sprinkled on top”
So, what is about a girl or a woman that makes society restrict the quantity that we eat? Are our bodies made of something different? Something like air or water for instance?

Every generation of girls has had to go through it .  I remember when I was a kid I had to stay with a neighbor for a few days as my parents had to suddenly leave town on an emergency. This lady told my mother  in my presence, when she got back “Meera ate four chappatis every night at dinner. You should get her to eat less”. My mother being a practical lady told me that this neighbor or ours was a miserly person and that was her way of complaining about feeding an extra person. But I remember the sting that the woman’s remark carried!! It made me think of myself differently for a very long time.

However, I must say my parents have never curbed our eating. Coming as she did from a family where girls were made to eat last and therefore the least, my mother believed that whether it was a boy or a girl, unless one ate well one would never have the energy to go about one’s activities in life. My mother rarely talks about the discrimination she faced as a girl when she was growing up. But this is one topic that gets her talking . She keeps telling us that as girls they would often not be served vegetables and had to make do with roasted “Aplams” ( papad/ pappadams)  because the men and boys  in the family who were always served first would have finished off all the  vegetables leaving nothing for the women/ girls. The women would congratulate themselves every time this happened saying that the preparation must have been very tasty! However, my mother always tells me that the reason for her ill health today is because of the poor nutrition she had as a child and a girl. 

Despite the fact that there have been a lot of social change since my mother’s time and in almost all middle class families everyone eats together, the fact that women and girls are expected hide their appetite baffles me! 

If eating too much is bad, it should apply equally to men and women/ boys and girls. But I guess it is not about health. It is about keeping to a socially constructed gender stereotype.  A girl is expected to be feminine and femininity is all about appearing thin, frail and dainty. So how can you sustain that image if you are taking 3-4 helpings of something at the table ?  “She eats like a man” is something I have heard some women say about other women in disgust. Okay, so ladies if it is disgusting to have an appetite like that of a man’s then why do you nurture it in him?

And I must say, the irresponsibility with which men eat annoys me. While in the earlier generations one could excuse them because they never entered the kitchen and therefore did not know if there was anything left of a tasty dish for others ( read girls and women) I cannot understand how they continue doing this even today. There are men and boys  I know who finish off that last bit of a curry without even asking others at the table if they might like  some. The responsibility of ensuring that everyone has had their adequate share appears to be that of the woman. How many fathers check a son if he is taking that last bit of a chappati or that piece of chicken from a dish? Actually how many mothers say anything when their son or husband does this? But I have seen mothers chide their daughter when she attempts this ( “Ask your brother/ father if they want it”). 
This kind of irresponsible eating builds selfishness and a sense of entitlement for everything . By tolerating it or not discouraging it in our children or selectively discouraging it only in our daughters we are building a generation of men who care least about anyone and women who think foregoing something is what makes her a woman.

There is a saying in Tamil generally used by mothers / aunts/ grand mothers while cleaning out a vessel of the last morsel of food  and depositing it on a child’s plate’ “Adi vazhichi aana pole” ( Cleaning out the vessel completely so that you grow like an elephant). Other than my mother who had no choice but to deposit that last bit equally on mine and my sister’s plates, I have rarely seen others in my family deposit that last bit on the plate of a girl child. That I suppose says it all !!!

12 comments:

SG said...

Very disturbing. Coming from an all boys family (6 brothers and no sisters), never thought about it or discussed about. Every girl/kid has the right to eat how much ever they want. Denying them vegetables is unthinkable.

Also, guests have to be aware of how much food is available, especially when the good is being catered. A few days ago, we had 3 couple as guests. Since we are in the process of setting up our kitchen, we opted to cater the dinner. We asked all 6 of them what they wanted. Each wanted one rava dosa and a plate of Idlis. So we ordered 8 rava dosas and 8 plates of idlis. When the food was delivered, one couple ate 2 rava dosas each and one plate of idlis. At the end, me and my wife ended up eating only the idlis. (The lady even remarked “that is why you have to eat the moment the food is delivered”.)

Meera Sundararajan said...

I can believe that SG. It would happen only in India. We once had a lot of relatives at our house. Every one finished off whatever was on the table, not once thinking of our domestic help who was also expecting to eat dinner at our place . I had to give her my share of food because after all, as her employer it is my duty to ensure she is fed. After that experience, I always take out a portion for the help before putting the food on the table!

KParthasarathi said...

May be in olden days or in poorer families where sons were considered assets,girls might have been fed less or deprived of good education in preference to boys.Things have all changed.

As a part of large family in my younger days, we all used to squat in the dining room and my mom would serve the food.There would be no discrimination and I always suspected that she would not keep for herself if the children demanded more.Generally no one would ask for larger helpings.But then we were taught 'table' manners not to swipe clean the plate(vazhicchi) or eat with noise or slurp or fight/ talk negatively.Each one was expected to wash his/her plate.Supping dinner together was a pleasant and memorable experience that is rare in most homes these days.

simple girl..... said...

this would happen in the past, nothing would be left for mom and aunt as everybody would finish it off.. When we as a child would want more and food was about to get over, my mom would assert that only her portion is left and then we would back off .. But now sense prevails...We ask before taking the second helping.

One question Meera, did you talk to the child's parents who was cruel to you daughter? I am asking this as I am just curious to know whether one should talk to the parents or not ..

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ KP girls may be deprived of the required quantity of food even in not so poor families. Here it is not so much the lack of availability of food ( thought that is the main reason why they are deprived of food in poor families) but also the fact that girls are not expect to eat like "Bahasurans" ( my grand mother once told me that :) ). Less food is expected to keep you looking slim and beautiful. It is sometimes seen as good manners among girls. You are expected to say "No no" to anything that is offered to you. This is more so when the girls become teen agers. Good table manners ( or floor manners as it used to be those days) are important. One aspect of this is to ensure that every body has had their share. This is particularly so when the entire family eats together.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Simple Girl even though food availability is not an issue in most middle class families today people still expect that girls should not exhibit too much of an appetite for food. It is considered to be "crass" / "crude". Kids often pick up these things from the elders. So no point bringing this up with the elders. I am sure the mothers who were there were also gossiping about the second helping that my daughter took. Only the kids were more open about it!

Alexandra said...

Very disturbing that this is happening at such a young age :(

Ankita said...

this post deserves a loud applaud. this is a post with real substance. This discrimination is always there, though in shades but it still hangs around the Indian mentality like a phantom. I remember when I was some 15 or 16 years old, an aunt of mine taunted me on eating 6 toasts for bf to which I quickly replied that I need food as I am growing up and her sons (of the same age) eat far more. And also that I am eating at my own house, from my own kitchen so she should shut the f*** up. She got so annoyed that she stopped speaking to me and called me a manner-less moron but I really do not care for such idiotic people. My parents supported me throughout in this :D

My mother restricted her presence in our house after this incident and my father too, speaks rarely to her.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Ankita you are lucky to have parents like that! In most cases the parents would have made the girl apologize and given them a lecture on how to be respectful to elders! A lot of what we learn comes from our parents.

Ankita said...

yes Meera, very true

Divya said...

I was quite chubby as a kid and I remember my grandmother taunting the six-year old me to eat less and instructing my mother to feed me less so that I wouldn't become as fat as my father (since obesity runs in the family)!!! To a large extent, the concept of beauty stops women and girls from eating the amount they truly want to.....When I go out with my "girlfriends", I have noticed how less they eat - but they seem to be having quite a lot when they are indoors......The whole concept that they should be perceived as 'health-conscious' and people who do not indulge in food is idiotic, in my opinion. I eat as much as I want - and yes, I do over-eat sometimes if I like something but if my brother is allowed to do so, so am I.

Thank you for writing this post :-) It's something I could relate to yet not something I'd ever have consciously thought about.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thanks Divya for the comment. I think all of us have encountered some comment or the other about our appetites that has been unpleasant!

Post a Comment

 
;