Why Don’t Women Eat at Parties?

New research shows that public events inspires gluttony amongst males.

Posted Dec 15, 2016

There are two kinds of people at a party: those who gladly eat whatever is passed around or served on a buffet table, and those who say, “No, thank you,” and eat practically nothing. The first are men, the second women. This is not to say that women go into semi-starvation mode when socializing. But as anyone observing the eating behavior at a party might notice, differences in consumption pretty much travel along gender lines. An acquaintance who owns an upscale catering business told me that the gender separation of eaters and non-eaters is particularly strong at fundraising events. It seems that the more one donates to an event, the less one eats if one is female. And selection of an entrée at a wedding, for example, is also often gender predictable: men usually order the beef and women the chicken or fish.

One might think it's considered bad manners or immodest for women to eat in public. The reason is more likely to be based on women’s dislike of their bodies. Looking at her body in the mirror before leaving for the social occasion, the woman tends to see imperfection: she thinks she looks fat, or that a body part protrudes too much, or her face is too round. If she has resorted to undergarments that exert a girdle-like pressure on her midsection, she feels bulges in odd places and thinks others will see them. She thinks,”If I eat normally at the event, won’t people notice how fat I am?”  

A niece who attended a co-ed university told me,

“The female students would eat a lettuce leaf and a cucumber slice for a meal when they were eating with the guys, because if we ate normally they might comment on our shape and compare it to another female who was not eating. We would wait until we returned to our all women’s dorm and order pizza or Chinese food because we would be starving.”

A Cornell University researcher, Kevin Kniffin, and his colleagues tested the aversion of women to public eating. Male and female volunteers were asked to consume chicken wings in an eating contest carried out either in front of an audience or in private. The males responded to the cheering spectators by eating 30% more in front of an audience than when they were eating alone, but the women exhibited an opposite reaction. Those eating in front of an audience felt inhibited and embarrassed, and ate less than women eating alone. This study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, concluded that overeating by males in a public space reflects their desire to be competitive with other men. But most women in that situation would cringe at a public display of gluttony.  

Is it possible that women refrain from eating among other women for competitive reasons as well? When two women are standing together at a cocktail party and one refuses the appetizer, might the other also refuse, if only to show that she too has willpower and self-restraint? If women are eating together in a restaurant, do they deliberately leave food on their plates to indicate their ability to stop eating before they are even full? Do women judge women who eat normally, i.e. bread, entrée, maybe even dessert, negatively? In The Devil Wears Prada, the newbie, played by Anne Hathaway, goes out to lunch with frighteningly thin, aggressive co-workers. Early in the movie Hathaway orders a hamburger because she is hungry. The others look at her as if she has ordered a human head for lunch. A quick learner, Hathaway changes her order to salad.

Of course, public non-eating does not mean private semi-starvation. Like my niece, women who refuse to eat in public may go home and eat normally or even overeat to compensate for hours of deprivation. Some, of course, don’t. But others who, when alone, are able to respond to their hunger, may not do so in a particularly healthy way. A meal at 11:00 p.m. or midnight after an evening out is unlikely to satisfy the USDA’s recommendation for a protein entrée, two or three vegetables, and fruit. It is more likely to be, at best, cereal and milk or less good, cookies or ice cream.

It is worth noting that none of this self-imposed restriction on eating seems to occur when women engage in regular exercise. When snacks are offered during a long charity bike ride, for example, women, like men, eat eagerly. A meal taken with other women after a strenuous exercise class focuses more on the instructor and aching muscles than on what is on everyone’s plate. Morning walking groups will often end their exercise at a coffee shop.

Women who are fit and exercise regularly may be less likely to reject offers of food in a social setting. Unlike the men in the Cornell study, who are supposedly showing dominance over other men by consuming large quantities of food, the fit woman may be sufficiently content with her body to relish eating in social situations. Or, of course, she may think that others will be surprised if someone as thin and fit as she is actually eating, and incur unwanted gossip, and so she refrains.

Maybe the solution is to return to the fundamental reason for eating: to give our bodies calories and nutrients. Our bodies tell us we need to eat by making us feel hungry. So, if you feel hungry at a social event, eat. If not, just talk.