When PepsiCo’s global chief executive Indra Nooyi made comments on the Freakonomics podcast about the supposed relationship between women and Doritos—those orange, triangular heaven-chips—the Internet laughed, sighed, and quickly generated a wave of snack food-centered outrage and satire. The whole thing sounds oddly familiar: BIC Cristal “pens for her,” anyone? Nooyi explained that women in particular could benefit from a version of Doritos that generates a less audible crunch and leaves the fingers free of neon cheese powder. Women, Nooyi explained, “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public,” nor do they appreciate having to “lick their fingers too generously.” In other words, women may eat, and they may even eat unhealthy food like Doritos, but it’s important that there be no witnesses. Their indulgence must leave no trace.
It’s no wonder so many women have such tangled emotions around eating. Marketers regularly use notions of sin and guilt to sell food to women. “Think Thin” snack bars and “Skinny Pop” popcorn are marketed as “guilt-free.” Recipes for everything from pasta to cupcakes to pancakes are routinely described as “sinful.” You can even buy a cookbook called The Seven Sins of Chocolate. We’ve been “bad” if we eat ice cream, “good” if we eat carrots. As early as junior high, girls learn to say “I shouldn’t be eating this!” before digging in. If you submit your confession ahead of time, if you shame yourself, perhaps others won’t do it for you.
Empirical studies demonstrate that we associate femininity with under-eating. Impression formation research reveals that we view women who eat low-fat foods as more attractive, but women who eat high-calorie junk foods as more sociable. In other words, salads make you look sexy, but Doritos make you look fun! This twisted logic plays out all around us. Film publicist Jeremy Walker coined the term “documented instance of public eating” to refer to thin celebrity women who make a point of gleefully telling journalists how often they indulge in high-calorie foods. It’s not enough that you need to commit to lifelong dieting in order to meet our culture’s body ideal for women, you also need to keep your diet a secret so that others believe your thin body appears through a combination of magic and the regular inhalation of cheeseburgers.
Celebrities like Kate Upton and Padma Lakshmi happily cash the checks they earn from writhing their slim bodies in orgasmic bliss as they bite into fast food sandwiches. Licking one’s fingers in these commercials is de rigueur. Finger licking for the sexual gratification of men is fine; finger licking to get rid of chip dust is not. Meanwhile, women who are overweight are shamed for any evidence that they eat anything other than celery. Given all these conflicting messages, perhaps it is unsurprising that an online survey of 2,000 British women found that nearly a quarter admitted to eating in secret and then deliberately hiding wrappers and other evidence. In general, women report feeling more shame than men do, but this gender gap is especially large when it comes to food, eating, and the body.
The notion that women’s shame over eating ought to be catered to isn’t just silly, it’s also unhealthy. Eating in secret and feeling guilt over eating are two important markers of eating disorders, and are included in commonly used screening measures. Though some might argue that fostering eating-related shame can be an effective weight loss technique, the science on this topic makes it clear that the opposite is true. A recent review in The American Journal of Public Health reports overwhelming evidence that shame is associated with negative health outcomes. Shame makes it harder to stick to exercise programs. It promotes binge eating and other unhealthy eating habits.
Let’s not feed the shame that so many women already feel about food and eating. Women do not have a special need for silent snacks. We don’t need quieter, mess-free junk food. We need a complete revision of the contradictory and sexist standards that make it so difficult for so many women to have a healthy relationship with food in the first place.