When I was in high school reading glossy magazines, I remember noticing that every interview with a prominent actress seemed to begin with her breezing into a restaurant in a comfortably chic outfit and makeup-free, casually but enthusiastically ordering a meaty, high-fat meal – a burger with fries, a steak and glass of wine – and proclaiming her love of food. This pattern was so prevalent that it began to make me uncomfortable; what was the obsession with actresses proving their appetites? Why was this such a regular – to the point of clichéd – occurrence?
I was recently reminded of this question when I read the article “The Myth of the Eating Actress” by Julie Gerstein.
In the article, Gerstein talks about the ways in which thin female TV characters are often shown eating lots of food. Gerstein thinks this might be because “the fantasy” of “eating tons and tons of food” without “consequences” is one that is important to women.
I think Gerstein confuses the issues a little when she conflates actresses and their characters, and the effects that their on-screen eating might have on a viewer. For instance, she cites Garance Dore’s assertion that if women in real life ate like women on television, “they’d look more like Lena Dunham than Carrie Bradshaw.”
Ignoring the glaringly obvious point that there is NOTHING WRONG WITH LOOKING MORE LIKE LENA DUNHAM THAN CARRIE BRADSHAW, Gerstein misses a chance to make a key point here – that Lena Dunham is an actress, and Carrie Bradshaw is a character.
This is where I think that the DIPE (Documented Instance of Public Eating, a term coined by Jeremy Walker) in interviews is more harmful than it is in television shows. Television shows such as “Sex and the City” sell a fantasy. Just like nobody REALLY believes that Carrie Bradshaw could afford that apartment and shoe collection on a columnist’s salary, nobody believes that scarfing down Magnolia cupcakes, ice cream cones, and sugary cocktails will actually result in Carrie Bradshaw’s wiry frame (for most women, at least). However, when an actress enthuses about her love of chocolate cake and her refusal to work out, the disconnect between her body type and these professed behaviors can come across as disingenuous.
In a New York Times article on the topic, the author believes that “Any individual DIPE may not shed much light on the inner life of the latest actress, but collectively, their frequency seems to tell us something about societal standards, judgments and yearnings.” Obviously many of these judgments and yearnings involve women’s sexuality and desirability.
One of the obvious reasons that men love “women who eat” is because there’s an easy mental parallel to be made between an appetite for food and a sexual appetite. A woman who is enthusiastic about consuming food in public is assumed to possess similar physical appetites in private.
However, in an article about why we don’t need a “most beautiful” woman award, Simon Doonan reveals, perhaps unintentionally, a more insidious reason that actresses feel that they must portray their appetites as voracious; as the subtitle of the article states, “It’s not true beauty if you work too hard at it.” His article discusses Gwyneth Paltrow and her admission that she works out a lot and eats restrictively; while anecdotally I know that a lot of women prefer when actresses are honest about the work they put into their figures, Doonan believes that the work she puts in makes her undeserving of a “most beautiful” title, and that such a title should go to someone who is “beautiful” without trying (oh, and who also has a “nice rack”).
The New York Times article mentioned above sympathizes with that kind of pressure, as it discusses the pressure that actresses must feel as they work to stay movie-star thin while still appearing relatable.
Jennifer Lawrence seems to be doing a good job at appearing relatable; she has a reputation as a movie star that people would love to be friends with. She regularly decries the Hollywood pressure to be thin, explains her decision not to lose a lot of weight to play the undernourished Katniss Everdeen, and declares a love of breakfast food. (Recently she has even declared that media should regulate the use of the word “fat,” comparing its harm to that of cigarettes and bad language ). However, these attempts at relatablity don’t work for everyone. Blake Lively’s repeated declarations that she loves burritos and chocolate are viewed with skepticism.
I have to wonder why we have this double standard. Why are we more likely to believe Jennifer Lawrence (or less likely to believe Blake Lively?). Why do we even care? Do we care? I have a few ideas, but I’d be interested in seeing what you think. Leave your ideas in the comments!