"Give that to Rebecca. She loves junk food."
"Huh?" This was at lunch, some time ago when I was at work. I'd been messing around on my phone, and hadn't been paying attention to the conversation.
"Here!" A half-eaten bag of candy was plopped abruptly in front of me. "Eat it."
"Oh, uh, no thanks. I don't want any."
"Yes you do. No one else is going to eat it."
"No, really, I'm okay. But thanks for offering."
"What?! Come on, I thought you loved junk food. You know you want it."
What the hell is this? I thought. This was a newish contract gig, and I didn't know these people all that well, so I couldn't be sure that there wasn't an edge of malice to the needling. "No, thanks. Really, I'm okay," I repeated again, more slowly and deliberately. And I placed the bag in the middle of the table, in easy reach of anyone else who wanted it.
"Huh," the coworker who'd been prodding me huffed. "I thought you just ate anything we put in front of you."
I was genuinely confused. I didn't think I'd had any particularly piggish behaviors at work recently. As a contract employee, I even make an effort to be the last person at any free stuff (food or otherwise) in the office, lest I look even more mercenary and opportunistic.
But I only let it bother me for a minute, and then I let it go. At least, until a few days later, when my husband was on the phone with his mom, and I overheard her say, "Rebecca loves sweets more than anyone I know." What? I mean, I like sweets--and especially when my mother-in-law makes them. She's a fantastic baker, makes wonderful jams and jellies, and has been known to turn out some excellent homemade ice cream to boot. But, again, I didn't think I'd ever gone overboard.
And these bizarre assumptions kept coming, presented as acknowledged fact by acquaintances and loved ones alike: Rebecca sure loves junk food. Rebecca's a chocoholic. Rebecca's a sugar addict. Rebecca loves anything fried. My response: Whahuh? I was pretty sure it wasn't a sideways crack at my weight (I'm neither under- nor overweight). And I do like all these things, but I don't love any of them in particular. Certainly not more than I love just about anything grilled or a spot of bourbon or whiskey. And yet I've never heard anyone say "Man, Rebecca sure loves cookouts." Or "Here, Rebecca, chug this bottle of Jack. You know you want it."
So what the hell?
Luckily for me--sort of--I figured it out the next week. One morning at my gig, there had been a lot of breakfast leftovers from an early morning meeting for the managers. By the time the rest of us started showing up for work, a sizable pile of bagels and donuts had been relocated to our office. As each of my female coworkers (and it was a mostly female office) approached the selection, I noticed that every single one of them commented aloud about doing so--and all of them negatively.
"I really shouldn't be eating this."
"I'm really going to have to work this off later!"
"This is terrible of me."
"You know it's bad for you because it makes you happy."
"Well, everybody knows I don't need this, but..."
"I know this is going straight to my ass."
"This is soooo baaaad."
I thought, Wow, they really can't stop beating themselves up about this. It's just a bagel.
How sheltered I was.
For the rest of the week, I made it a point to pay attention to the women around me in other eating situations (sorry, everybody I was creepily eavesdropping on). Probably 90% of the women I listened to talked about themselves and their food the same way my coworkers had. Nobody ever actually asked for the moralizing or justifications. Usually, women just volunteered them non sequitur, often at the very beginning of a meal, or in response to someone asking about the flavor of the food: "How's the sandwich?" or "That looks good," yielding a self-judgmental response. Even if they were eating something that would be considered "healthy" or "good for you," they commented on that too--often listing past dietary habits or anticipation of future eating habits as a means of explanation for their behavior. Like, "I had fried chicken for dinner last night, so I have to eat this salad to make up for it." Or, "I'm going to a birthday party tomorrow, so I thought I'd better eat something good for me now."
Social standing in the conversation didn't matter. Women did it in front of inferiors and superiors, in front of strangers and friends and enemies. They did it less often in front of men, but they usually still did it. They even sometimes did it if the only other people at the table were their children (and more than once, I saw it cause a child or a teenager to stop eating, even if only for a second). Pretty much the only women who didn't have a running commentary going about their food choices were women performing the three-ring circus act that is mealtime with toddlers, or women eating alone.
At public meals, women were subjugating every other social pretense to declare overt judgments about their food and its relationship to themselves. Even when no one asked them to do it, they went out of their way to outwardly display a fear of food, hatred of self in relation to food, or some other kind of deference toward the power of food. How fucked up is that?
And yet, this is completely normal in our society. We even teach it as normal to our children, boys and girls alike, without thinking about doing it. Pathological relationships with food are so expected of us as women that it's a standardized social marker. It's so normal that if women don't do it, then other people--especially other women--don't even know how to respond.
So they decide: you love sweets. Or you love junk food. Or you must be a wanton pig when it comes to food.
Just because you don't talk shit about yourself in public for eating a doughnut.
Certainly, the problem is deeper than a single social tendency. I'm not going to pretend that a one-step process of "everybody just stop talking about your food while you're eating it" is all it's going to take to disentangle the social and individual issues of food and women's self-images.
But try it, the next time you're eating somewhere. Listen for people announcing the value of their food and their eating habits to others. Listen for people sharing justifications for what they're eating with other people as they're eating it. Do they deserve to have to do that?
For that matter, do you? Do you beat yourself up for what you eat or why you eat it? You don't deserve that, either.
Be nice to yourself.
This question originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.