November 12, 2015
by Kim Bosch
It starts with butter—a solid chunk, roughly a large tablespoon in size and easily retrieved from the door of the fridge. It is melted in a small bowl in the microwave on high heat for forty seconds. Next comes the sugar. I forgo the accessible sugar bowl on top of the stove as there’s rarely enough in it for this project. Instead, I drag a chair over to the pantry and snatch the bag of sugar off the top shelf (along with the bag of white flour). I spoon the sugar into the melted butter. I don’t count the scoops. I keep adding and stirring and adding and stirring until a gritty paste reveals itself. I know what it’s supposed to look like. Then I add about a tablespoon of flour, a little bit at a time, until a sort of dry dough ball starts to form. I prepare and eat this only when I am alone. It is immensely satisfying.
When I mention it to people, I call it “the shame ball.” A self-deprecating title which I feel allows me to erase any real sense of shame in it at all. Like preemptively making a joke about myself. The more people, women especially, I talk to about my snack, the more they share their own indulgent recipes (and secret snacking rituals) with me. Raw butter, entire packs of gum, Kraft Singles, the crystalized lumps of brown sugar that you can easily pick out and pop into your mouth. The snacks are as varied as they are simple; however, it is not just the food itself that invokes such pleasure, it’s the ritual associated with the snack, too. One friend explains how something as mundane as popcorn becomes even more satisfying when eaten a specific way. “I take as much popcorn as my hand will hold, unhinge my jaw, and shove the entire handful into my mouth. Once my mouth is full, I take a small sip of pop or juice and let the popcorn melt away. Delish! Repeat, repeat, repeat.”
The creation of a ritual for eating these snacks personalizes the act of eating, and each woman I talk to has a unique snacking ritual that contradicts how a “snacking woman” is often portrayed. A quick Google image search of “snacking woman” curates ladies smiling at the camera while gingerly biting down on a carrot stick or apple, women in mock orgasm with chocolate at their mouths, women with a bowl of potato chips or can of frosting in front of her shushing the viewer with a single finger to her lips. These representations categorize women as specific types of eaters: healthy, sexy, naughty. On the contrary, secret snacking rituals are more visceral. One woman I spoke with remarked how her secret snack eating is “nothing like eating pretty bonbons while taking a bubble bath.” Instead, the snacking routine is created out of comfort and convenience. The adoption of one’s own system of eating therefore rejects these stereotypical categorizations of feminine eating, and arguably allows more focus to be placed on the pleasure of eating itself.
Of course ingesting a large amount of pure-form fat, sugar, or salt is also bound to feel satisfying, but there is more to this pleasure than a bodily rush. “I’m just basically giving into all my whims in one moment,” explained Erica Hess, a fellow indulger in secret snacks, “it’s that type of freedom.” She told me about a secret foods party she was once invited to, a potluck-style get-together that encouraged guests to bring “a food that they would only eat in secret.” She was really excited about it and prepared her then go-to secret food—a box of Bisquick mixed with milk, uncooked, served in a generic mixing bowl with spoons on the side. But when she arrived at the party, she was surprised how many of the snacks were just “regular foods.” She was disappointed because, “I just think there are so many aspects to day-to-day life that people don’t share—some women share with others, but I don’t think it’s really put out there.”
This potluck-scenario exposes the inherent lack of trust among people in their shared eating habits, which is most often due to concerns about being judged. The “regular foods” Erica mentions are a reflection of the commodification of the guilty pleasure, specifically the marketization of “cheat foods.” This phenomenon is exemplified in numerous articles found in women’s magazines and health websites with titles like “8 Cheat Foods That Won’t Ruin Your Diet” and that promote eating anti-climatic “treats” such as real cream in your coffee, veggie chips, or a handful of pistachios. Articles like these set forth a ranking system for the snacking woman—there are sanctioned snacks, with pretty packaging and shame-free advertising (“indulge yourself with a 100-calorie yogurt!”), and there are unsanctioned snacks which should never be eaten, probably not spoken about, and definitely not shared.
Many of the women I’ve talked to seem to agree: there are unspoken rules about the indulgences in such treats. Most do not desire to share their snack (and/or their ritual or eating of it) with another person, others downright hide their snacks from partners, family, friends. Some explained that it is the fear of judgement that stops them from sharing, while others simply said that it is more enjoyable to eat by themselves. Other women told me that certain snacks could only be shared with certain people. One woman described how her secret snack—“Scrapey-Scrapey” (or “Scratchy-Scratchy”), the hardened chicken fat that fills the bottom of a pan after being cooked, and that must be “scratched” up in order to eat it—started as something shared with her brother when they were kids. She noted that when she is with her brother she feels no judgment in eating Scrapey-Scrapey, but in her own home, she sneaks it “so as not to be considered a weirdo for scraping the pan with my bare hands.” She continued, “For me it’s like, why is it okay when my brother is around? Because he is a man and he does it so suddenly it’s not weird? Or if it is weird, it’s like endearing weird, not gross fatty-fat weird.”
Considering the pressures placed on women to eat well and to be healthy (read: thin), the act of eating, even in its most simple form, is gendered. For women, eating has always been a keenly observed and heavily scrutinized public act. Take for example the somewhat recent stranger shaming phenomenon of “Women Who Eat on Tubes”—a Tumblr that displays photos of women (and only women) eating everyday foods on the London Underground. The rightful outcry against the site focused primarily on issues of voyeurism, specifically that women on the site were photographed without their knowledge. However, Nell Frizzell of the Guardian rightfully points out that the larger issue lies in the fact “that women eating on the tube is even seen as noteworthy, [and that] to enjoy food alone and to eat without shame are vital parts of becoming self-sufficient.” In a society that continuously scolds and infantilizes women for their eating habits—not unlike a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar—what then is the value, if any, of women choosing to eat poorly and in secret?
All too often, eating alone is seen as a symptom of loneliness, misbehaviour, and so on. The act of eating alone implies guilt. In an article on the rise of secret female snackers, Cathy Kapica states flatly, “if [women] were eating snacks like they should be, they wouldn’t be worried about doing it in secret.” As Women Eating on Tubes implies, women who eat are specimens to be observed. Therefore, the creation of a private space for oneself to simply eat can be liberating for women. As Erica explains, the pleasure of eating her secret food is not just in the food itself but also, and importantly, “being home alone, [because] no one’s watching.” Eating alone takes away the audience, so that the act is no longer a performance for women which like the ritual, allows women to focus more on the pleasure of eating instead of the performance. Considering also that historically the preparation of food has been an all too frequent duty assigned to women, the stripped down methods of making these snacks (eating out of simple bowls, using one’s hands instead of linen tablecloths and fine china) further reject the decorum typically associated with women and food preparation. Eating becomes less about performance when we disregard pretty presentation.
Choosing snacks that actively reject the nutritional value of food is also rebellious; eating non-nutritionally is a rejection of productivity. For women, nutrition is often aligned with the concept of “balance”—a balanced diet, a balanced skin tone, the work-life balance. Everything in moderation, ladies. But in reality, the concept of “balance” means control. That is, “balance” as a term doesn’t simply reflect caring for oneself, but instead indicates a state of perpetual unease: eight glasses of water a day, seven servings of fruits and vegetables, high protein, low fat, no sugar—our diets are a constant juggling act. Balance is work, and in the context of health, it has come to represent self-denial more than self-respect (balance never implies one should have fries, it always implies one should have salad). Much like “cheat foods,” “balance” controls women, it makes us uncomfortable, and constantly reminds us of what we should and shouldn’t eat. This often results in “balance” being flaunted as a means to achieving what in reality is an unattainable body. When women choose to eat the crappy food they love whenever they want, they are rejecting the rules, the unrealistic goals, the balance—instead, they take pleasure in eating, even if it is just for the amount of time it takes to enjoy their snack.
“Society expects you to be a certain way and for you to fit a certain standard, so I think pigging out is a statement,” said one women I spoke to. I couldn’t agree more. With that, I take the bowl containing my shame ball, huddle into the corner of my couch, and spoon it into my mouth in small wedges, slowly chipping away. The privacy, the ritual, and the personal decision to make and ingest this thing, which provides me such pure and immediate pleasure, makes me feel content. In that moment, I am truly satisfied.
Kim Bosch is a writer and educator. She lives in Ottawa.
Image by: Melanie Lambrick
“Things We Eat Alone” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)