I hate going to restaurants, especially ones with dim lighting. I like food that tastes like cardboard, preferably just rice. I know it’s an art form for some. I watch my partner read every single ingredient on whatever product she buys, handling her sharpened knife like a serial killer. Going to the supermarket with her means I’ll be waiting by the cashier clutching rice and avocados for twenty minutes as she goes on scheming, pacing up, down, and around all the aisles. I get it. Her brother is a cook. They like discussing different body parts of fish, different degrees of dark chocolate, and so on. To me, food tastes good if it’s made by someone I love, and that’s the only criteria. Having worked in too many restaurants, I assure you the employees don’t wash their hands, the chefs are mentally strained, the servers are underpaid. It’s a terrible industry and I don’t understand what’s wrong with just wanting to eat rice twice a day until I die. The phrase “food porn” makes me uncomfortable. I do not find food in itself sensual—fruits, vegetables, raw meat. I have a hard time decorating my hunger. It’s not the food that’s sensual after all, but the appetite. Often my lack of participation in food pleasures makes others defensive, or they criticize me, diagnose me, show concern. I ate my first strawberry at age twenty-one. I didn’t like it. An entire short lifetime of resisting peer-pressure ended in one anticlimactic bite into that fuzzy, red triangle people will not give up. Food is emotional. Food is expensive. Food keeps us alive. It’s complicated from every angle.
Food and femininity are painfully aligned. I see my grandma frying schnitzels in sweatpants. She has been preparing the same meals for over fifty years. She’s obsessed with feeding us, haunted by night terrors about our stomachs. She’s brilliant—without finishing high school in Poland, she was able to climb up and manage Israel’s leading hospital. She did this in her thirties after giving birth to my mom when she was only nineteen. Her dream was to become a lawyer. She texts the members of my family daily to check when was the last time we had eaten, and what we want her to make us next. She is the food giver. It’s her channel of love and care taking. My grandpa is very fat. At seventy-six he can’t eat anymore. He’s finally full. On the verge of tears, he screams at her to stop making him chicken, but she, like many brilliant people, tends to be obsessive and thorough in her misplaced mission to ensure none of us will starve. Food no longer depends on a women’s imprisonment in domesticity alone, but someone somewhere is always carrying the weight, paying the price for this cavernous industry.
A few years ago I tried dating a man. It was a short, exhausting failure. What struck me most about that experience was discovering that men complain about their appearance and weight even more vocally and less shamefully than women do. When men express these food anxieties, they are not usually judged or diagnosed, they are answered seriously, laboriously, by the ear at hand. I asked my three straight friends for confirmation, and they agreed this was common. Some of them are unwell, but their masculinity will not allow visibility of their vulnerability. Many women are doing just fine, but their individuality is threatening to the long-held gender roles, specifically those regarding food and the female body. The boundaries of our bodies in space seem to be controlled so painfully by food. The relationships between space, gender, and food are inevitable. I remember sitting on a stool in a kitchenette during my freshman year of college, legs crossed, hand under chin. Suddenly, someone remarked how feminine I was, like a revelation. Surprised, I objected defensively. In my experience, I had always felt neither feminine nor masculine, just a gaze. Others joined in, and the more I objected to this intrusive adjective and the way it rang, resonating the gestures of my mother, the more they insisted. I won’t deny it if that’s what people see, but why does such an arbitrary binary allow for boundaries of my space to evaporate? Coded a femme woman, what I eat or don’t eat becomes a public forum for discussion. Anything a woman does that does not align with the social codes of expectation becomes a platform for diagnosis.
I cannot think of anything more private than my intestines, so why are we constantly searching for external authorities on food: how to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and so on. In reality, it’s a lawless, genderless realm based purely on self-knowing and adjustment. In a privileged society, it’s possible to say each body is different, we all react differently to different ingredients, we all feel strong at different weights. The shallow aspects, the symptoms of food, are carried so publicly and insensitively while the burning core is completely ignored. Instead of policing each other’s plates and discussing diets while surrounded by nauseating abundance, why aren’t we asking how to treat our food givers with the respect they deserve and have never received? The funds surrounding food are mysterious. The amount of money that goes into branding those awful frozen pizzas or food reality TV shows could feed at least one of the nine million who die of hunger each year. I’m not that naive. I grew up in the 1990’s when there was a lot of talk about world hunger, cheesy all-star celebrity music videos, and intense anxiety over the ozone layer. Food is intoxicating. The most complex aspects of our lives end up being institutionalized the most easily. I’ve been too fat through one eye and too thin through another eye. These unstable calculating eyeballs of ours are misdirected in their informational fevers. For such smart animals we can’t seem to figure out our own hunger. Perhaps we could be kinder when trying to understand one another’s hunger.
Mika Bar-On Nesher is multidisciplinary artist and writer based in Brooklyn & Tel-Aviv, she studies creative writing at the New School.
Featured image by Mika Bar-On Nesher.