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 !!!