Shall Women Eat Food?

14 Aug

Women’s appetite was remarked upon in the mid nineteen-hundreds by The Lady’s Newspaper which stated that gluttony was not altogether a male sin:

[h]ow often have we beheld it in the Park carriages rolling by, containing enormous women, bursting with plethora, in whose rubicund countenances the awful signs of habitual hot luncheons appeared![2]

Yet, while it was possible for women to eat as much as men, appetite was gendered and in a woman, ought to be suppressed. Female corpulence was perceived to be disgusting and debilitating, as portrayed by The Lady’s Newspaper’s description of ‘the once slim and elegant Laura Matilda’ who now ‘sits in mute obesity, her perceptions dulled with satiety, and a sullen scorn upon her heavy lip’.[3] Women who ate large amounts were not only perceived to be mute, dull and sullen, they were also regarded as masculine, as illustrated in The Beth Book. Beth’s music-mistress is a ‘“great fat old thing”’ who ‘“likes eating”’. Her greediness is apparent to the pupils since meal times are a public display in which she ‘“gloats over things, and she’s quite put out if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants.”’ The mistress’ appetite is described in animalistic terms, as Rosa calls her a ‘“greedy old cat!”’, while her eating habits make her ‘“just like a man”’, earning her the nickname of ‘“Old Tom.”’[4]

While eating large quantities was considered a masculine trait, an 1889 publication of Fun took the issue even further in an article entitled ‘“Shall Women Eat Food?”’ where it is questioned whether women should consume at all. In this debate, consumption is deemed ‘strange and abnormal’ for the ‘fair, delicate, refined woman’. Eating is associated with robustness and coarseness, characteristics which the Victorian woman should not display. It was so much the norm to follow this etiquette, however, that the author of this piece does not fear that women will display signs of hunger since there is:

a pure sweet instinct born in the feminine breast which shuns with horror and loathing the coarse and the repulsive, and we may trust to that instinct to teach woman that to eat is not her province.[5]

Since it is ‘not her province’ to eat food, there is a prescribed amount that women must eat and a way in which meals should be eaten. The author assures the reader that ‘we need not look forward to a calamitous day when our mothers, sisters and wives will tear, rend and devour sustenance voluntarily descending to the level of the wolf and hyena.’ The animalistic language of this article portrays the appetitive female as a carnivorous beast, something that readers would certainly wish to avoid. It is also made clear that a woman who eats more than she should will not only risk ‘degrading [her] own sweet nature’, but also ‘lose the affection and respect of her husband’ and alienate herself from ‘the trust, affection and respect of men.’[6] The undignified aspect of the female appetite is repeated in a conduct manual written in 1838 by a mother to her daughter, wherein she writes ‘[n]othing can be more degrading to a rational being, than to be the slave of an appetite’.[7] Once more, appetite is associated with an irrational, animalistic state. Self-control over bodily desire is thus designated as a rational quality that will gain the respect of the social order.

Continuing the view that a display of appetite is an act of degradation, eating often necessitates conduct that may be considered unsuitable for public sight. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Mary Smith speaks of the ‘curious proceeding’ involved in eating oranges. Cutting the orange is not an option for the women of Cranford since the juice runs out ‘nobody knew where’.[8] This uncontrollable juice represents the insatiable female appetite that might be betrayed at any moment, should there be a failure of dining etiquette. Consuming an orange proves difficult since it is impolite to suck, the maternal and sexual image that it provokes being inappropriate for public view: ‘sucking…was in fact the only way of enjoying oranges; but then there was the unpleasant association with a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies.’[9]  The only option left for the Cranford ladies is to ‘withdraw to the privacy of their own rooms, to indulge in sucking oranges’,[10] suggesting an almost masturbatory pleasure, a secret guilty process to eating.

Consumption was also problematic because it called attention to unpleasant bodily functions such as digestion and defecation. The vulgarity of appetite is portrayed in Wives and Daughters wherein the hour at which people are invited to dinner is of utmost important:

How ask people to tea at six, who dined at that hour? How, when they refused cake and sandwiches at half-past eight, how induce other people who were really hungry to commit a vulgarity before those calm and scornful eyes?[11]

In order to avoid the scornful eyes of fellow diners, women eat prior to a public meal, thus creating the appearance that they are not hungry. Women thus trained their appetites so that they did not exhibit signs of hunger, especially in public. In The Ladies’ Treasury (1869), one gentleman writes that women ‘wish to appear in the eyes of their male admirers as light, ethereal, angelic creatures, who are scarcely subject to the vulgar necessities of hunger.’[12] In ‘A Story, by Mrs. C.L. Balfour’ in The Lady’s Newspaper (1861), one character remarks that ‘“I am like some delicate ladies, who make a good dinner at luncheon, and then have an opportunity of etherealizing at the dinner-table”’[13] If a woman does not eat at all at the dinner table, however, it raises suspicion of secret binges prior to the meal:

[w]e do not like to see a young lady ignore our food, or turn from the proffered wing of chicken, albeit with an air of the prettiest disgust. That always, to us at least, engenders suspicion of previous banquets, of surreptitious luncheons, of forenoon indulgences in cakes and hot jelly, it may be with a flavour of maraschino. We see at once that there is a falsity in our sweet neighbour’s performance, that she is acting a part deliberately studied.[14]

Such a ‘false performance’ is given by Mrs Gibson in Wives and Daughters:

Then there was lunch, when everyone was merry and hungry, excepting the hostess, who was trying to train her middayappetite into the genteelest of all ways.[15]

Mrs Gibson wishes to avoid the ‘scornful eyes’ of her fellow diners, yet wants her guests to notice her small appetite and praise her feminine delicacy. Mrs Gibson thought that Dr Nicholls ‘would give her the proper civil amount of commiseration for her ailments, which every guest ought to bestow upon a hostess who complains of her delicacy of health.’[16] Yet, she is comically undone by the very man who she had hoped would call attention to her fragile health and refined appetite as the doctor sees through her façade, instead ‘recommending her to try the coarsest viands on the table; and, at last, he told her if she could not fancy the cold beef to try a little with pickled onions.[17]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] ‘Food and Feeding’, Hearth and Home: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen (London, England), issue 174, 13th Sept, 1894

[2] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[3] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[4] S. Grand, The Beth Book (London: Virago, 1980), p.288

[5] ‘Women, Tobacco, Food, Perpendicularity, and Other Matters’ Fun (London,England)23 Oct 1889 issue 1276

[6] ‘Women, Tobacco, Food, Perpendicularity, and Other Matters’ Fun (London,England)23 Oct 1889 issue 1276

[7] from ‘Female Excellence, or Hints to Daughters, by a mother for their use from the Time of Leaving School till their Settlement in Life’ (London, 1838) Bodleian Library, p.134 http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=62 [accessed 6th March, 2009] (53)

[8] Cranford, p.26

[9] Cranford, p.26

[10] Cranford, p.26

[11] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, p.462

[12] ‘The Wasp Waist’, The Ladies’ Treasury (London, England) 1st Nov, 1869, p.71

[13] ‘Tangle, A Story of Life’s Perplexities’ The Lady’s Newspaper London England 28th September 1861, p. 198, issue 770

[14] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[15] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

[16] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

[17] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

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