Friday, March 15, 2013

“Food Glorious Food”: Attitudes Towards Food & The Unsettling Focus on Women’s Diet in YA & NA.

I like food. While I’m something of a fussy eater and can only cook a limited number of dishes in a semi-competent manner, inside I am a complete foodie who watches far too many cooking shows, browses cookbooks and blogs for fun and dreams of living life Nigella style. I’m also a complete sucker for food in film and literature. However, there’s been this strange trend in YA, and more recently NA, in regards to food that’s unsettled me for quite some time. Like all problematic things (joking, of course), it begins with “Twilight” and is emphasised in its official fan-fiction “50 Shades of Grey”. In one scene, Edward takes Bella out to dinner, even though she protests and insists she isn’t hungry. In the fan-fiction, Edward/Christian has dietary requirements written into his kinky contract with Bella/Ana, and seems to constantly talk about whether or not she’s eating. I most recently saw this trend appear in Abbi Glines’s “Fallen Too Far”, with the designated love interest becoming pretty angry over the heroine’s refusal to accept his offer of food from his fridge.

This trend unsettles me for a number of reasons, but first, let’s have some cultural context. From 2011 to 2012, hospital admissions for eating disorders rose by 16% in England. 1 in every 10 of those admissions was a 15 year old girl. In USA, it is estimated that over 24million people have some form of eating disorder, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The UK has the most overweight population in Europe, whilst a 2010 study showed that obesity had overtaken smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in America. The developed world has an unhealthy attitude towards food, exacerbated by the growing poverty gap, lack of cheap and healthy dietary alternatives, and a media with an extremely narrow focus on specific body types that they consider acceptable. I’m not for one second saying that the focus on food and women’s diets in YA and NA is directly responsible for eating disorders. That’s highly irresponsible and inaccurate. However, I am keen to suggest that this trend is indicative of a particular attitude that our media has towards women and their bodies.

When these male characters insist, with varying degrees of verbal force, that they know best on the heroine’s diet, it asserts an almost parental dynamic between the pair. The man is simply being parental. He knows better on this issue, and this is confirmed when the heroine finally gives in and eats, only to realise that she was indeed hungry the whole time, despite her protests. It’s a continuation of a wider them present in these books – that the man is always right in his quest to “protect” his love, be it from supernatural purposes or just from herself, and the heroine is a “good girl” for doing as she’s told. Here’s an example of this, from our old favourite, “Twilight”:

                “Drink”, he ordered.
I sipped at my soda obediently, and then drank more deeply, surprised by how thirsty I was. I realised I had finished the whole thing when he pushed his glass toward me. (Trade paperback, page 169).

I can understand the justification somewhat for this scene given that it follows a scene where Bella is almost attacked by a gang of would-be rapists, so she’d probably be flooded with adrenaline and in need of some proper nourishment, but given the pattern of controlling behaviour from Edward that continues throughout those four books, it’s tough to ignore the wider implication.

It’s also worth noting that in the vast majority of mainstream YA and NA romances, the heroine is described as thin (or curvy in all the right places, a phrase that makes me want to pull out my eyelashes) and attractive, regardless of her diet. A particularly extreme example of this can be found in Aprilynne Pike’s “Wings” series, where the heroine consumes nothing but tinned fruit and Diet Coke and nobody bats an eyelid. She is, of course, described as gorgeous constantly, although if anyone in real life had this diet, they’d probably be sent to a doctor with severe malnutrition (yes, I know she’s a fairy and everything, but she lived 16 years as a human and nobody thought “Hey, this is a bit odd, maybe we should look into this?” Come on. Lazy writing). It doesn’t help that we seldom see any other body types on the covers of YA novels. Often this is glossed over on the cover, as was the instance with the US ARC of Rae Carson’s “The Girl of Fire and Thorns”, with a side order of white-washing.

So why is this a thing in romance? Personally, I think a lot of it comes from a desire to be looked after. This is very much the case in New Adult romances these days, where I continue to be surprised when the designated controlling love interest allows the heroine to leave the house on her own. Having her nutrition needs taken care of is part of the overarching theme of being looked after by a man whose adoration dips frequently into obsession. It also removes some of the guilt that many women feel over eating and enjoying their food. “Fat” is a go-to insult to fling at any woman, regardless of her weight or BMI, so creating a scenario where the adoring gorgeous Joe Six-Pack not only wants you to eat food but makes it for you himself takes out some of the insecurities. Even though these women are constantly described as beautiful, many of them remain insecure about their looks. I understand that this is supposed to make her more relatable to the reader but ultimately that also presents many other problems. Some of us women are very happy with the way we look, thank you very much! We can still relate to a character if she admits that she’s gorgeous.

Another version of this food angle that I hate involves the man bragging about how much he loves a woman who eats “real” food like steaks and burgers and not silly little salads. Strangely enough, salads are real food and can be just as enjoyable as a burger (particularly some of Nigella’s salads). It’s similar to the tired and aggravating mantra that “real women have curves”. Newsflash: You can be a size 0 or a size 20 but you’ll still be a “real woman”. Your gender identity is not dictated by your body type.

Finding body positive media is tough enough, although a lot easier nowadays with the internet at our disposal, so finding heroines of all shapes and sizes who differ from the default mode (skinny, white, always described as pretty or variations of that word) can be hard. I don’t mind what a heroine eats throughout her story as long as she’s made that choice herself. When a male character enters the scene and begins to dictate how she should live her life, be it through making her dietary choices or controlling who she sees or talks to, it removes the woman’s autonomy over her own life. There’s something very wrong with all of these things being considered romantic, as I have discussed many times before (and will continue to do so if the New York Times best-seller lists are anything to go by). Not only that, the lack of body positivity in the genre is incredibly disappointing. For a genre that prides itself on inclusivity and progressiveness, this is such an obvious area that’s just being ignored.