Surprising results from my totally unscientific survey.

I recently asked a bunch of people what, if anything, they would most like to change about their relationship to food. As expected, since people vary, there was a wide range of responses, all of which were cogent and wonderful.

I guess I had my suspicions about what issues would be most popular. I expected maybe people would want to learn how to stop eating when full? And, yes, that was a pretty popular wish. Or maybe, how to eat nutritiously (or, to use the phrase from Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs, “instrumentally”) without driving oneself bonkers? And, yes, that came up too.

But the most popular wish of all, the one that came up most often, was one that wasn’t even really on my radar when I asked the question – despite the fact that it was something I have struggled with myself, and something that was a key lesson I learned when I went through the Learn to Eat process myself several years ago.

You know what it was?

How to eat in front of other people.

By this, people do not, of course, mean how to put food in their mouth with other people present, or what foods they should choose when eating with others, but how to stop feeling so damn self-conscious about eating in public. Or with friends and family. Or with strangers at a party.

This not only makes perfect sense to me, having tussled with the same thing in the past, but it’s something that comes up again and again, now, with my clients.

So, I thought, yes – of course! Let’s write a little primer on how to eat in front of other people. And I have.

It’s a pdf, made with love…and with absolutely no clue how to make a pdf. I’ll email it to you if you fill in the form (the one that says “Join THE LIST”) over there on the right.

Alrighty then! If you take a look, let me know what you think. Or if you have things to say about eating in public, please do so in comments.







113 responses to “Surprising results from my totally unscientific survey.”

  1. Andra Avatar


  2. Stacie Avatar

    I’ve had multiple people tell me that they have issues eating in front of people and that it makes them nervous. I’m lucky enough that I don’t get too nervous about it anymore (I used to and actually refused to eat dinner with my first serious boyfriend’s family for quite a long time because of it!). I guess it’s not too surprising considering that everything we put in our mouths has either a positive or negative connotation – it’s hard to feel like you’re not being judged.

  3. vesta44 Avatar

    I don’t worry about what other people think of what I eat, whether it’s when I’m eating with family, friends, or dining out. I figure it’s none of their business, they don’t know what my health/digestive issues are, so they have no business judging me. I don’t judge them, so they can return the favor, and if they don’t, and decide to tell me how I should be eating (so far, no one has), they would be told to MYOB.
    I find that the older I get, the less patience I have with people who think they have a right to tell me how to live my life – in any aspect of it, from what to wear to what to eat to how much money I should be spending on anything.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Hahaha, right on.

      I also find that, the older I get, the less I care about whether I comb my hair before leaving the house. But maybe that’s just me :)

      1. Emily Avatar

        Ha! Me too. I often get to the middle of the afternoon before realizing I’ve neglected to look in a mirror on the day in question. Whoops!

  4. Fantine Avatar

    I’ve been working on intuitive eating for a couple of years now, but eating in public is still something I struggle with. I have such a hard time at company parties or lunches, and even with my own family at holidays. Thank you for addressing this issue (I just signed up for e-mails!).

    1. Suzanne Avatar

      I am so sorry. It enrages me that anyone would ever comment on someone else’s food other than to say, “That looks good!” It is the rudeness that kills me. I can’t get over that. Michelle here is a wonderful person and a great resource. (((BIG HUGS)))

  5. Lili Avatar

    Okay so now I have tea up my nose from laughing so hard Your gratuitous goodie just made my day!
    I can’t wait to read the pdf. The more uncomfortable I am , the less I can get myself to eat. We regularly have to get a big snack after my husband’s work parties because I am litteraly starving. I don’t know anyone, I have trouble connecting, so I end up waiting to feel faint to eat three cherry tomatoes. And I feel pathetic.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Hahaha, I’m glad you enjoyed the gratuitousness. Anyone who wants to know what’s so funny will have to sign up for the list and see for themselves :)

      And don’t feel pathetic — I find party situations with strangers to be the hardest of all. Sometimes just because I am too damn distracted to eat or notice how hungry I am. But I think, for me at least, a little reminder to settle down with my food in a quiet corner for five minutes might do the trick. But then there’s the self-consciousness part. Which, hopefully, the little primer will help.

  6. DivaJean Avatar

    That’s just dang sad. People afraid to freakin’ eat in front of others. The most basic of social situations taken away and made into a minefield just because of size…

    Once in a while, I find myself in a situation where I am out in the world and its dinner time and a bit more time than I’d like until I’d be home. I have stopped and bought myself a nice dinner at sitdown restaurants more than once in this type of situation. I find I prefer it to the squat and gobble of fast food. Anyhow, I mentioned this recently at the lunch table at work– that I was looking forward to the possiblity of taking myself out for a nice dinner after my next big meeting away from the office. So many were horrified that I would even consider for one moment to eat alone! And at a nice restaurant- not just Mickie D’s! When I pointed out that healthier, slower food is involved (real salad before the meal, an actual side veggie that’s not fries, etc), even that did not deter the overall horror of the very idea. Believe it or not, it only cemented the concept in my mind that this is something that needs to happen– not just for me and my “happy meal” time, but something that needs to happen to continue to push crazy boundaries that serve no true purpose.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      This is truly wonderful. It’s something I’ve done for myself a few times, but it’s never become a real habit. I’m going to have to rethink that one :)

      1. Tiferet Avatar

        Actually, it’s the way to go if you really want to concentrate on the food. When I’m eating with other people, the primary thing on my mind is the social interaction, and I have been known to be annoyed with myself if I get SO caught up in the conversation that I don’t remember what the thing I was really looking forward to eating tasted like. :)

        So sometimes when eating with people I allow myself to close my eyes for a minute and concentrate on the taste of my food and not care if people think I’m being self-indulgent. It actually leads to being satisfied with less food–I often think part of the reason so many people do overeat is that they feel so guilty about eating that they don’t enjoy it and get that satisfaction.

        And sometimes I go out and eat just to do it.

        Or just because it’s dinner time and I’m out, and I’m not going to be coherent enough to get my ass home if I don’t eat.

        Of course, I’ve only eaten out twice since the celiac diagnosis and one time I got glutened :( so I’m a little trepidatious about it right now. But I will not give up on eating out! I just need to know where is safe to go.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          When eating out with others, I definitely take time to check in with what I’m eating, because I have had that experience of getting too caught up in conversation many times, and was always disappointed to find that my food then went cold, or I didn’t notice it as much when I was eating. I’m a blabber-mouth, so it tends to be an issue :)

          Such a bummer about celiac and restaurants. But I wouldn’t give it up easy, either. I LOVE going out to eat, and I live in a city that’s lousy with exciting restaurants.

  7. Suzanne Avatar

    I believe that! I remember when I was a teenager and started going on dates I would choose food based on how easy it was to eat. Could I look good eating it, no spilling, nothing messy or sticky. Even salads were judged too difficult (involved too much chewing). I think I nibbled on dinner rolls a lot and drank sodas. Then I went through my severe disordered eating phase… the tl;dr version is by the time I met my husband I was well on my way to learning (again!) how to eat, and now I hope to instill confidence and bodily autonomy in my daughters.

    1. Tiferet Avatar

      Heh. Even now on dates I’m unlikely to eat anything I suspect I will spill on myself (sauce, &c) but that’s because I tend to wear really nice clothes on dates and I don’t want to ruin them.

      (I think honestly that if someone judges you because you spill sauce on your shirt, you don’t want to date them. But if I like my shirt…!)

  8. KellyK Avatar

    The main time I have trouble eating in front of others is with friends who are on diets, or turn food into a moral issue. (I need to remember that “Lying is a sin, stealing is a sin, chocolate is not a sin.” mantra–and replace sin with “naughty” as the case may be.)

    I feel weird eating sweets or fatty foods in front of coworkers, and I feel equally weird microwaving a Lean Cuisine in front of them. But generally that doesn’t stop me from eating what I want.

    1. Tiferet Avatar


      I’m often shocked when people call attention to what I eat, and I shouldn’t be, because it happens all the damn time. I still remember during my most disastrous marriage, that husband throwing a fit at me the day after one of his work parties because people had noticed how much I was eating and were talking about it.

      Well. They were snobby people, I didn’t know what to say to them, and I was nervous, so I probably did eat a lot. (Also, undiagnosed celiacs are often hungry all the time, and I was no exception.) He couldn’t believe I was angry with them instead of feeling guilty about it.

      I’m contrary by nature so if someone makes a comment about some delicious item being too sinful to eat I always want to take a double portion even if I don’t actually want it. Alas, I can’t fight sizeism that way any more because most of that stuff has gluten in it. But I will still revel in my ice cream.

  9. Twistie Avatar

    So why the heck hadn’t I signed up for the emails before? Had I known about the gratuitous pretty, I probably would have done it ages ago.

    Topic: It blows my tiny mind how many people fear a basic thing like eating. More and more people seem to consider it much the same thing as unzipping and excreting in front of everyone for some reason, even though it’s a much less disturbing (not to mention a less unsanitary) thing to do.

    Then again, I considered it a good sign for the relationship on my first date with Mr. Twistie that he was willing to share garlic fondue. Messy, garlicky, shared melted cheese… yum! I loved that he wasn’t worried about drips or garlic breath, and I think he liked the same thing about me.

    Oh, and DivaJean, you are not alone. I take myself out for lunch or breakfast on a fairly regular basis. Just me, my plate, and usually a good book – often about food, cooking, or eating. Good food is a great pleasure. Why save it up for company? I’m worth feeding well when I’m by myself, as well as when there are others around me.

  10. Claire Avatar

    Growing up, dinner was a race…and I had to eat the good stuff first or my Dad would steal it off my place. Then when I was older, people started commenting on how when I ate I kept my head right over my plate and inhaled my food so fast (“What are you, starving?”). Then I started getting really self-conscious about how I ate, and became particularly concerned about the amount of noise I made chewing food. It’s gotten better, but mostly because I retrained myself to eat slowly. I still feel like a huge slob eating in public though.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      You’re not a huge slob. You’re someone who learned the visceral survival lesson that, if you wanted to eat? You’d better eat while the eatin’s good.

      I have had these moments, when I’m really reeeeeally hungry, and someone’s hovering, picking at my food. There is an animal response to that — and the taking of food off someone’s plate while they’re eating is, on the etiquette scale, FAR more offensive than eating quickly and trying to protect your food.

    2. Jadey Avatar

      Oh, I learned to hoard (and subsequently gorge on) food this way, or else my dad or my sister might eat it (not off my plate, at least! But it would disappear from the cupboard pretty quickly). It didn’t help that I’m a super possessive control freak anyway, but it’s taken me years to start breaking those habits down, and it wasn’t until I moved out on my own less than a year ago that I even started to make real headway into creating my own comfortable style.

      Love for family, but dang they can create some weird habits. :\

    3. JennyRose Avatar

      Can you tell people it is a habit you picked up in prison?

    4. Tiferet Avatar

      Oh g-d, the patriarchy in action.

      I hate that shit. I still remember a meal in graduate school where this woman fixed a giant skillet full of food for three people (me, her husband and her) and I thought it would surely be too much, but he served himself first and without even thinking about it, he took more than half, because ‘women don’t eat much’ and she and I split what was left in half and ate that, and I was starving in an hour.

      I see this all the time, hear about households where the men take the best of everything or eat more than their share and the women actually encourage them to do it while their hungry children are sitting there, and all I can think about is what it says about the patriarchy. :( I also don’t think it’s an accident that a disproportionate amount of fat hate is directed at fat women.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Interesting. I have always had a real problem with the inequal distribution of food based on gender — and the fact that it is officially codified into certain nutrition recommendations, seemingly without questioning the fact that it is also a powerful cultural standard that is likely based more on sexism than physiology.

        1. The Bald Soprano Avatar

          I can’t find my copy, so I can’t cite it or quote from it here, but Perfection Salad has something towards the end on how the calorie guidelines were first done. IIRC, half-trained anthropologists primed with cultural expectations of women eating less went and saw situations during the depression as described by Tiferet, basically.

          1. The Bald Soprano Avatar

            Er, mis-edited the last sentence. situations during the depression that were like the one described by Tiferet, is what I meant to say.

          2. Michelle Avatar

            Okay, that is seriously disturbing. I thought I was just being a crazed paranoid feminist, and I was *hoping* my assumptions were wrong. I’m going to look for that citation, anyway.

          3. The Bald Soprano Avatar

            I found the book this morning:
            Laura Shapiro. 1986/2009 Perfection Salad: Women and cooking at the turn of the century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

            I was wrong about when, it was lat 19th century:
            “Once the investigator had figured the total amount of nutrients consumed by a family in a month, that is, she divided the total to find the quantities consumed per person per day. Then, since a woman was supposed to require only four-fifths of the food needed by a man, and children of different ages required proportionately less, the investigator assumed that these requirements were actually met….taking it for granted that every family divided its food at the dinner table according to the official proportions recommended by scientists. What seems more likely, however, is that the man, or the chief wage-earners, would have been fed as adequately as possible and that the children and finally the wife would have eaten what was left. This method also discouraged the investigator from taking into account the extra nutritional needs of women during pregnancy or when breastfeeding.” (157)

            it goes on to say that the work (i.e. physical activity) done by women and children was not accounted for.

            “The dietary standards that Atwater set —which recommended a certain amount of protein and a certain amount of calories per day according to the amount of work performed— ranged from a low of 2,400 calories (for a woman at light muscular exercise) to a high of 4,500 calories (for a man at hard muscular work). The only designations for women’s daily activity, however, were “light muscular exercise” and “moderate muscular work,” and the nutritional requirements for the latter were exactly the same as those for a man seated at a desk. Similarly, children were assumed to be at leisure, no matter what their economic circumstances were. Studying the diets of black tenant farmers in Alabama, then, the investigators noted that women and children often worked in the fields alongside the men, but since there was no way according to the method to take that work into consideration or to assign nutritional needs to it, they decided for convenience’s sake to assume that it didn’t exist.” (158)

            So I slightly misremembered, but earlier it talks a tiny bit about how Atwater came up with his dietary guidelines, and they were totally based on his opinions of Americans vs. Germans (srsly! he studied in Germany where they had developed guidelines already, on who knows what grounds, and he decided that Americans were just different and needed different foods.)

            er. sorry for the book in comments.

          4. The Bald Soprano Avatar

            argh. LATE 19th century studies.

        2. Anka Avatar

          I’m delurking for the first time to say thanks for discussing unequal gender-based food distribution and posting sources!! I’ve been looking for information like this for a long time, ever since I had some run-ins with my (Central Asian) mother-in-law when she was trying to teach me the “proper” family food distribution, which involved the lion’s share of food and meat on one large platter for my husband and brother-in-law, while three grown women (me, her, and my sister-in-law) and my sister-in-law’s three kids shared the second, smaller platter and usually went away slightly hungry (“it’s better for women that way! It’s healthier!” Ugh). This made me furious because I’ve experienced (and hated) the same phenomenon growing up female in the United States. After the big fight I had with my husband about this (in which he defended this practice but ultimately absorbed the injustice of it and now redistributes the food himself more fairly when we’re over there and ignores her yelling), I tried to find statistics, articles, etc. to back me up online, and could only find sources that say that women need far less food than men physiologically. Apparently, it’s Science, just like evolutionary psychology!

          But I can definitely say that this attitude that women should eat much less, or lighter, or less expensive foods has made me self-conscious about eating in public, and takes a lot of the fun out of it, though it hasn’t made me stop.(For example, I noticed that women eating meat in previous academic, urban, hipsterish social circles I was a part of would get much more flak or side-eye for not being vegetarian then the men would, maybe because as the daintier, more caring sex that’s what women were ‘supposed’ to be, but it’s probably really about consumption of resources and power). People around me, starting with my family, have always made negative or incredulous comments about the amount (enough to be full and not to get hunger-based migraines) or type (I will eat meat if it’s there) I eat and indicated that it’s unfeminine of me to order steak or a full dinner, or non-diet coke, or get a whole dessert for myself, which I do on principle. “You won’t be able to eat like that forever, you know!” Yeah, just try and stop me….

      2. G Avatar

        In my family growing up, we were not super-poor but sometimes getting food was a struggle, especially during the recessions in the ’80s/early ’90s when my father was often laid off. So a lot of my early experiences with serving food to myself were strongly colored by “make sure you save enough for dad” (he had a physical, outside job and ate a lot to make up for the calorie expenditure). So us kids and my mom ate less to save food for my dad, who was the bread-winner of the family. I wonder how that colors my food issues today.

    5. Katje Avatar

      My dad used to take me to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard treat if I’d been a good girl, and then if I didn’t eat my food fast enough he’d take it away from me and eat it in front of me. This didn’t just happen with DQ.

      When I came home from seeing him for the weekend, my mom would spend all week re-training me not to inhale my food (because I’d never enjoy it, and would invariably binge eat later on because I was hungry, or my volatile emotional state was telling me I was). Then I’d see him for the weekend again, and the cycle would begin anew.

      Nowadays most of my friends know that unless we’re as close as Christina and Meredith they do not get the food off my plate. I’ve been known to stab people in the hand with my fork. I’m still working on healthy eating habits. It’s a very slow process.

      (But I do have an awesome boyfriend who always makes sure I get enough to eat whenever we’re hanging out together, which is more than I can say for myself (I will go hungry all day for any number of reasons). That goes a long way towards breaking my cycle of internalized misogynistic fatphobia.)

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Seriously, people swooping in a snatching your food is awful. I get really possessive about my food if there’s any hint of this happening, and I’ll get downright nasty if I need to. I think it’s a basic animal instinct, to protect your food — you know how even nice dogs growl if you get between them and their food.

        1. Anka Avatar

          This post made me realize another one of my communal food habits–I eat really, really slowly. It’s directly traceable back to my family growing up, which was a dysfunctional scene in which everybody got their own food, except it was understood that (since I was the scapegoat) mine was fair game for everyone else. For some reason, instead of eating really fast, which would make more sense, I learned to eat really, really slowly, probably as a way to say “see, you may have just taken a lot of my food, but I *still* have some left after you finished yours.” So now I literally can’t eat quickly if my life depends on it, and I get nervous when sharing with others (pizza, popcorn, etc.), because I’m obsessed with not eating too much (behaving like my family did with me and eating other peoples’ portions) or too little (so everyone else eats more than I do and I feel triggered and shortchanged), and that takes a lot of the pleasure out of it. So to cut down on the stress, I prefer to get my own popcorn at the movies and my own dessert, the second of which is apparently a patriarchal no-no. All this early conditioning has also made me hyper-aware of the way food is distributed in social groups.

  11. duckybelkins Avatar

    Sometimes eating in front of people is harder but for some reason eating alone in the cafeteria is harder. I’m totally cool with eating by myself but I’m always worried that I’m going to be judged if I’m found alone eating a generous portion or a less-than-healthy meal.

    Yesterday was the worst though because I got up in front of a class and gave a 2 minute presentation on why the Obesity-Epidemic isn’t actually an epidemic (I even prepared a few pages worth of notes to cite if they had any questions but they didn’t.) I even pointed out to them that when you talk about the so-called epidemic that you’re talking about me. Eating in public after that was hard but I think it’ll be okay today.

    When it came to learning to eat what you want, how long did it take you to associate food with how it made you feel? I’m having some trouble with soda that I don’t want to admit. I crave it all the time but when I drink too much of it I develop a few unpleasant problems. I don’t want to give up soda or anything but I can’t seem to drink it in moderation either.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Wow, first of all — congratulations on your presentation! That is one of the hardest things in the world to do. So incredibly awesome that you did it.

      At school, I also LOATHE eating in the cafeteria alone. It’s because it’s public, yet there’s no one there eating *with* me to talk to. But I have gotten better at it, and that was mostly by making sure I found a comfortable seat, and then focussing on the food itself. I kind of learned to zone in on how the food was tasting and how I was enjoying it and how full I was, and the rest of the world kind of faded away a bit. (I have this weird thing where I’ll sometimes eat “seafood salad” from my school’s cafeteria at like 10:30am all alone. It’s bits of fish and shrimp with green onions and bell peppers in like Italian dressing. I love it, but it’s considered…weird…to be eating cold fishy salad for breakfast. I got over that, though, because I love it so, so much. I just sit and kind of commune with it.)

      Anyway…learning to associating food with how I felt afterward (like, both immediately afterward and maybe 30-60 minutes later) actually started developing, for me, when I was working with the dietitian — maybe halfway through. I had this big crisis where I started binge eating in response to the treatment (something that wasn’t really a habit for me before, so it scared the shit out of me), and then, to get that to stop, I started practicing *really* focussed/mindful eating.

      I would serve myself a “nutritionally complete” meal — a combination of things that I loved but that I also knew were nourishing. I distinctly remember my very first meal like this: it was lunch time. I had just come from the session with the dietitian. I had nothing at home to eat, and I was getting hungry. I knew that not eating was NOT an option, but I was terrified to binge. I decided to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I thought would make a satisfying lunch.

      I think I ended up with a really tasty turkey sandwich (with cheese and mayo and mustard and tomato), a little salad with Ranch dressing, a cup of whole strawberries, and a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies. I put it all together on the table, then sat down alone, in the quiet, and ate it a little bit slowly, and focussed on really, REALLY enjoying it. If anything wasn’t quite doing it for me, I left it on the plate. If part of something else appealed to me more, I ate more of that.

      At the end of the meal, I felt AWESOME, both emotionally and physically. And that feeling of general physical well-being stuck in my head. Then I started to notice that feeling come when I ate a really tasty dinner with vegetables on the side, and water. Or when I had cereal and bananas for breakfast — something that just hit the spot both taste-wise, and nutritionally, for me at that moment in time. And, after more practice, I started to pick up on some consistent patterns of what made me feel like what (like with the pop, something I really truly love, but that can sometimes make me feel like crap.)

      And picking up on those patterns didn’t mean there was A RULE for what I could or couldn’t eat, but my awareness of those things made it a CHOICE. A real, conscious choice. If there was pop at a lunch meeting at work (yes, dietitians drink pop, guys! And they love cookies, too) but I wasn’t REALLY jonesing for it, and knew it would make me sleepy through the afternoon, I’d skip it. (In fact, I think it was drinking Sprite at a lunch meeting at the clinic where I first noticed that pop did this to me.) Or if I really wanted it, I’d have some and then try to figure out how I could compensate for the sleepiness — drink more water? Have some trail mix in the afternoon? Go for a little walk outside in the fresh air?

      Anyhow. Short answer: I started noticing this about midway or maybe 3/4 through the How to Eat program, but it’s been a learning process ever since them. And sometimes I’m better at noticing than others, but I still figure out new things all the time. (Last night’s lesson: rice pudding sometimes gives me heartburn.)

      1. foreveropera Avatar

        First: The pdf was SO wonderful. Can’t thank you enough.
        Second: I would love more talk about this very subject. I think learning to listen to my body has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. I feel as if even the thought of what would be nutritionally healthy for me puts me immediately into diet mode. And it kills me that to reach for a salad (which I actually LOVE!) puts me into a tailspin of restrictive eating.

  12. Poppy Avatar

    This is something that’s been an issue for me as well. I’ve always been thin, not even underweight according to BMI, but thin. And I’m a vegan. So it sometimes happen that I, a thin person, just take a cup of black coffee when others eat coffee with milk and cake. Whenever that happens I can’t help thinking that everyone else in the room looks at me and judges me to be anorectic. There’s a sort of chocolate ball that’s vegan and can be found in lots of coffee shops here in Sweden, and whenever I see that that’s available I get so relieved. I mean, I like these chocolate balls, but primarily I’m relieved since I don’t have to look anorexic.

    I know this is all terribly stupid, and since I’ve managed (through eating tons and tons of food and pumping iron at the gym) to put on four kilos during the last year I’m less self conscious when it comes to eating. I whish I could have just shrugged it off though, it’s so stupid.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      It’s not stupid. It’s incredibly uncomfortable (and TOTALLY not okay) for people to judge your eating habits based on how you look — whether that is fat or thin.

      The important thing is, you know your reasons for eating the way you do and choosing the food you choose. They are GOOD reasons, and no one has the right to question them.

      1. Poppy Avatar

        You’re right of course, thanks. But it’s like almost NO weight is acceptable. Fat people get all kinds of crap, and me, who used to have like BMI 19 or something, get questions like “But are you really allowed to be a blood donour? [When I’ve mentioned in some causal conversation that I give blood regularly] I mean since you’re so thin?”

        I think I have like BMI 21-22 or something now, and I don’t think I’ve had that kind of comment for quite some time. So perhaps 21-22 is acceptable. Below that, and you’re “anorectic”, above that, you’re disgusting and fat. *ironic*

        1. Michelle Avatar

          You’re right. The zone of “acceptability” is a knife-edge that’s really hard to balance on. It’s frustrating.

          1. meerkat Avatar

            Yep, 22 is THE acceptable BMI according to the Wii Fit.

          2. meerkat Avatar

            PS I don’t mean to imply that people with BMI 22 will never get harassed for being too fat or too thin. But it is the razor thin line on which the Wii Fit at least will approve of your BMI.

          3. Poppy Avatar

            That’s sick! I had no idea!

          4. schmemily Avatar

            This is the reason I can’t ever imagine owning a Wii Fit, even though I think I would like everything else about it.

  13. Jadey Avatar

    I hate catered or restaurant lunch meetings with people I don’t know well. If I can make and bring my own food, then I don’t feel so weird (get so show off my kitchen skillz, yeah!), but a lot of times my appetite just dries up completely and it’s a waste of a free meal. :( With people I know and I’m comfortable with, I’m okay. Actually, I was very proud of myself after going on a date a few weeks ago and eating in front of a totally new person without any discomfort at all! Especially because, even though it was his idea to go to a restaurant at lunch time, it turned out he wasn’t hungry and I was starving (I was expecting to eat, dammit), so I had a a big plate of scrumptious calamari and he had some toast. Even with the food disparity and the gender norms and blah blah blah, I enjoyed the hell out of that calamari and left the nasty salad untouched (I like salad, just not one made like that). It helped that I wasn’t tremendously interested in him in the end, though.

    Shopping in front of people (namely cashiers, who get to see all my purchases) makes me feel weird though. I shop strategically at different stores not only for good deals and the right brands/quality, but to avoid looking like I buy too much of the “wrong” food. It sucks though because there’s only one store that I will buy my produce at because it’s the only one with decent veg and fruit. But at all the other stores, I feel like I’m being judged for not buying enough veggies etc. I know it’s silly, but it’s hard to shake the feeling.

  14. Well-Rounded Mama Avatar

    I’m not very self-conscious about eating in front of others UNLESS I know them to be judgmental about food and weight. Then I start feeling self-conscious because I *know* they are judging my choices, how much I eat, what I eat, etc.

    I try not to let it affect what I eat too much regardless, but I can’t say it doesn’t make me self-conscious about it and sometimes it does affect what I choose. Mostly I try hard to think, what would I be eating if they weren’t here? Am I really still hungry? Do I want this food? Am I enjoying it? And then I try to let those answers guide me so I disengage from people’s judgment affecting my choices.

    I have to say that shopping is a little harder for me. I grow a lot of my fruits and veggies for myself in the summer, so at that time, there’s a lot less fruits and veggies in my shopping cart. I always wonder if people then think I don’t eat enough F&V when I’m actually eating the best kind, home-grown. Sigh. The stupid things we worry about!

    I’m especially self-conscious if I’m out shopping for a birthday party or some special occasion and getting foods I wouldn’t normally get (or not in the same amount). I worry about meeting someone I know and having them judge me. It’s happened IRL, and I hate self-defensively explaining that I’m buying for a party etc. I usually try not to justify these things, but it’s hard not to feel like I should be. Even when I *don’t* justify it to others, I hate feeling like I should, or knowing they’ll judge me regardless of what I say.

    Shopping in public bugs me a lot more than eating in public.

    1. Twistie Avatar

      OMG, Well Rounded Mama, I had that same weird feeling about ‘I’m not buying enough fruits and veggies!’ when I started getting boxes from my CSA! I know that those boxes have actually increased my veggie intake because they show up on my doorstep and go brown and gooey if I don’t eat them before the next box arrives (and because, in my very individual case, it turned out to be cheaper to get that box of veggies than to buy them at my local grocery store), but people in the grocery store don’t know that. They just know that I’m not buying my usual carrots and cabbage and spinach there anymore.

      It took a while to just relax and remind myself that the guys working the produce still seem to like me and aren’t bugging me about my supposed lack of vegetable intake. I know what I’m eating, they don’t seem much concerned about the specifics, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what other people think of what I may or may not be eating. What matters is that I’ve found a system that works well for me.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I think shopping in public is hard, too. That’s something I didn’t write about, but could use addressing.

    3. ako Avatar

      I always wonder if people then think I don’t eat enough F&V when I’m actually eating the best kind, home-grown.

      There’s two grocery stores I like to go to. One has good produce, and is occasionally short of other things I find useful (tofu, certain cleaning supplies, cheese). The other one consistently has the other things, but doesn’t have great produce.

      On my more insecure days, I feel awkward about going to the second store, and sometimes struggle with the urge to tell the clerk “I don’t live off cheese, really! I have a fridge full of vegetables!” Rationally speaking, I know that many of the clerks are not interested enough to care, many of them would understand not buying vegetables every single trip, and “The grocery store clerk drew an inaccurate conclusion about my eating habits!” is not a major crisis if it happens. Irrationally, it’s occasionally hard to keep that in mind.

      1. Embersmom Avatar

        There was a thread on a blog I read recently about things people buy and check-out clerks. It’s not so much the OMG, she bought no vegetables than “she only bought crisco, baby wipes, and saran wrap. What the hell???”

        Myself, I see someone buying snack food and cake and assume that he/she is buying for a party, not that the person is making bad diet choices, and really, it’s not my business, and I’ve forgotten all about it by the time I get in the car anyway.

        Standard groceries aren’t an issue. Weird combos, that’s what gets clerks wondering…. Almost makes me want to go buy incongruous stuff on purpose….

        1. Another Michelle Avatar
          Another Michelle

          I always wonder if grocery clerks notice when I buy weird combinations… a kosher salami and a pound of bacon; or expensive gluten-free oatmeal and a bag of all-purpose flour; or lots of greens, lots of organic whole grain products, and four big tubs of full-fat ice cream with all the fixings. If they do, they’re always polite enough not to say anything.

    4. Heidi Avatar

      “Shopping in public bugs me a lot more than eating in public.”

      Oh yes, this!

      We were in the UK in January and stocked up on all the delicious, non-perishable snacks that my husband and I miss from there (he’s English, I’m American, and we live in Seattle). OMG, did we buy LOTS of chocolate and crisps! I was a bit appalled when I saw it – I bet the checkout lady had never seen anything like it!

      I felt GUILTY. Guilty for purchasing stuff that I get every two and a half years (the last time we visited) and that I know it will take me months to eat. My husband didn’t feel that guilt at all – he just tossed his stuff on the belt, laughed at the amazing amount of it, and carried on (he’s not fat, incidentally).

      I feel defensive like that any time I’m in the grocery store and don’t have some undefined but still very real-feeling ratio of “healthy” stuff to “treats” (and oh, I struggle so hard NOT to use those words, so why do they keep coming back to haunt me?!). I feel embarrassed for my tub of ice cream, or my two bags of two-for-one Cheetos. My husband, on the other hand, frequently shops with me and his items tend to weigh heavily (no pun intended) on the side of cookies/chocolate/potato chips/ice cream and he doesn’t care if the cashier thinks badly of him.

      Of course, the cashier also isn’t likely to think badly of him – he’s not the one who weighs 300+ pounds.

      I know I shouldn’t care what anybody thinks but I do. Somehow it’s easier when I’m at a restaurant to order without worrying what people will think.

  15. inge Avatar

    When I’m eating in public, I always feel that I have to carry a very large sign, “NOT on a diet, damnit!” I get second helpings, order my mocha with full fat milk and cream, and squee over chocolate cake and bacon.

    I’m not sure why I am doing that, or why I even care. I’m trying to eat in public like I do in private: What I like and as much as I like. But when I get seen with a plate full of greens, no dessert, or a herbal tea, no sugar, I feel as if I am conforming to a style of feminity I do not want to be seen supporting.

    Last weekend I had tea in the evening when all the other girls had beer, and there was some ribbing about healthy choices, which made me explain that I was a tea addict who would turn into a raving monster at midnight if she did not get her daily dose. (It’s kind of true. I get headaches when under-caffeeinated. But mostly I don’t care much for beer in winter. But saying so might have implied a critique of the others’ preferences…)

    It’s weird and complicated, and I don’t really get it.

    1. bananacat Avatar

      Ugh, I know! Sometimes I feel like I just can’t win. If I eat healthy stuff, people will assume I’m dieting. If I eat higher-calorie stuff, people will assume that I should be dieting. There are a lot of things that I prefer the taste of that would be considered diet foods, even though they’re not all necessarily that healthy, and I always feel like I have to explain myself. I really love the baked version of Lay’s potato chips, because they don’t make my fingers all greasy. I only drink skim milk because I can’t stand the taste of any other kind. And whenever I buy or eat that stuff, I always feel like I have to make a point that it’s not because I’m dieting.

  16. Ashley Avatar

    I eat lunch with the same girl every day at work. She’s the only other girl in our office and before she started working here, I ate by myself every day. Anyway, she is my friend and I’m very glad I have someone to eat with, but we make such different food choices that I feel like she must be judging what I eat every single day. Most of the time we both bring our lunch from home, but occasionally (including today, in fact) we go to this deli a few blocks from our office. When we go there, I always get a sandwich, chips, a root beer, and a cookie. She gets a sandwich, soda, and either chips or a cookie. I feel self consious every time about getting the cookie, and I have no idea why. It’s not like she has ever said anything to me about anything I eat, and this girl is my only friend at work!! I worry that maybe I’m the secretly judgemental one or something.

    1. Tiferet Avatar

      When you said you make “such different food choices” I was thinking that you were going to say that one of you only eats salads and other ‘healthy’ stuff and the other likes ‘junk’, or that one of you was veggie and the other not, or that one of you always brought cooked food from home and the other ate items out of packages. And maybe that is the case when you both bring food from home–you didn’t say what you were getting.

      But at the deli, you are actually getting the same food. Sandwich, chips and/or cookie, and soda (root beer is a soda).

      The only difference is that you get one more item than she does. My guess is that she probably doesn’t notice. Or thinks that you maybe skipped breakfast. It’s essentially the same meal, it’s just that you’re having all four items every time and she only gets three, alternating between two.

  17. April Avatar

    Y’know, with some exceptions (which I’ll mention later), this had never even occurred to me, that someone would be uncomfortable eating in front of others. It’s like Thin Privilege (kinda like white privilege, or male privilege). I don’t expect to be judged for what I’m eating/not eating, so it doesn’t occur to me that it would be a problem for someone else–even though, now that I think about it, it’s totally obvious.

    Note to self: Make an effort to notice when I’m judging others’ eating habits, and try to ask myself why.

    Now, it’s true that it happens to me on occasion–I can sympathize with the other commenter who said she was vegan and got tired of people thinking she was abstaining for unhealthy reasons. I do realize that I’ve made a point of eating junk food in front of people who think that all vegans are health nuts, or that I’m thin because I’m vegan (um, no: it’s more likely to be the combo of biking everywhere, genetic lottery, and taking Adderall for my ADHD). It’s part of why I bring vegan junk food to parties, although also it’s because I like eating it, and I want to show people that vegans eat good food and aren’t deprived. Vegan cupcakes make everyone happy.

    But the one that bugs me the most is eating in front of people whom I just met, but that I’ll have to be around all the time. Like coworkers. They’ll see my supposedly weird food (tofu? seitan? WTF is that?), or see me not eating something (like if there’s veggies and ranch dip out, I’ll eat the veggies and not the dip). And then, here come the questions and comments. First it’s telling me that I’m “good,” (god, does that make me rage) or asking if I’m on a diet in an unbelieving tone. Then I inwardly wince as I tell them, No, I’m vegan. Sometimes (especially in parts of Portland, where I live) it’s no big deal–if they know other people who are vegan, it’s not that unusual. But if they don’t? Oh lord. First I have to explain it to them. Then they play the guilty card: Well, I don’t eat *that* much meat, or Oh, I get my meat from humane farms…ARGH. Your conscience is not my concern. I don’t care. Or ask me a bunch of questions: Don’t you miss meat/cheese? Why don’t you eat eggs? How do you get enough to eat? Or worst of all, they get really accusative: You vegans are so pushy. That’s an elitist diet, since you have to be wealthy to eat it (oh god, that’s a can of worms, and it definitely makes me defensive, since I’m hardly rich). You’re probably malnourished (yeah, ’cause that’s how I ride my bike dozens of miles in a day, by being malnourished).

    And then there’s the people who just generally try to argue with me. Or the people who decide on that basis alone that I’m clearly a freak.

    And it sounds worse than it is, really. But all of these things have happened to me at some point, and I do dread people’s reactions. I’m starting a class to become a Certified Nursing Assistant in a little over a week, and we only get a half an hour for lunch, so I’ll have to bring it and eat it there, and I realized the other day that I’m dreading people’s reactions to my food far more than I’m dreading learning how to help people use bedpans. Which is stupid.

    1. Poppy Avatar

      Oh, I so recognize that. People start feeling guilty over their own eating habits. Sometimes they appologize, in a joking way, to ME for eating meat. Like “hehe, here I am with my steak, sitting next to a vegan, I’m sorry if I disturb you by eating this steak”. I just go “You shouldn’t apologize to me, you should apologize to that cow”.
      I don’t verbally attack people, but neither do I hide what I think when THEY bring up the subject. I’m not gonna comfort somebody, pat them on the back and go “oh it’s okay, it’s perfectly okay that you eat that steak”, since I wouldn’t be vegan if I thought so.

      When it comes to the “malnourished” thing, it’s like you have an extra obligation when you’re vegan. You sort of have to prove to people all the time that you’re not malnourished. Since I added 4 extra kilos by pumping iron (and they’re mainly placed on my arms and shoulders), going from waif-like to a more butchy look, I don’t really get that any longer. Which is nice. But really, a vegan should be “allowed” to be waif-like as well, without getting the “malnourished” card pushed into one’s face all the time. I suspect it’s easier to be a waif-like meat-eater.

      1. April Avatar

        I use the same line when they apologize to me too!

        I had a coworker once who found out I was vegan and said that, obviously, that’s why I was tired all the time. “No,” I responded, “I’m tired all the time because I stay up too late on the computer or out with friends.” That shut him up.

      2. Chickie Avatar

        “You shouldn’t apologize to me, you should apologize to that cow”.

        I hope it’s okay if I steal that line from you. It annoys me to no end when people apologize to me for what they eat. They can do and eat what they want, I’m not the food police, but I think your reply is fun and to the point.

        1. Poppy Avatar

          Oh, you’re welcome. :-D I’ve been vegan for fifteen years now, and in the beginning I suppose I was more “humble”, but after years of stupid comments from meat-eaters I just got tired of their crap.

  18. C.E. Avatar

    I get anxious eating with my family because I can’t help but to compare our portions and how fast we eat. I’m usually the one who takes the most yet finishes first, all while observing what and how my mum and sister are eating.

  19. Rubyfruit Avatar

    The odd thing is, I’m fine eating in front of strangers. In fact, I can do this, but not in front of family members, especially my mother, who tends to lay the Diet Talk on pretty thick and has since I was a teenager and since I started gaining weight (and it has gotten to more than “little hints” now that I’m in my 20s…). I don’t know how it feels to be self-conscious about eating in front of strangers, because I never did care about the opinions of people who I’ll never see again. No, more of my self-consciousness comes from family members who insist I’d be fine if I just ate less of this and more of that and tried this diet program and lost the “extra ten” (over and over and over and over), and always the threat of every single disease in the book, followed by a painful and early death unless I lost the “extra ten” (over and over and over and over…and then what?)

    So…Summary: Fine with eating in front of strangers, not nearly as fine with eating in front of family. Help!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      All I can say is: boundaries. If you’re an adult (and even if you’re a kid, but kids have a harder time defending themselves), no one should be talking about what you eat. You have to tell them, diplomatically, that it’s not an open topic of conversation.

      1. Amy Avatar

        This, exactly. There was a wonderful blogger some time ago who wrote a post wherein she said, if someone brings up the subject, that she replies, “I don’t talk about food and weight stuff with people.”

        I’ve been mentally practicing this, since, after years of relative social isolation in the interest of protecting myself from people’s attitudes and judgments, I’ve become pretty intensely involved with a group where several of the members have body/weight/food issues that spill out at various times. Overall the involvement has been a very positive change in my life, but damn I hate other people projecting their shit onto me. Like, last year, I went to a meeting that was on easter, and people brought various foods, and I put various foods onto my plate in quite reasonable amounts, and in that moment caught the most food-fearing obsessive self-hater (who’s a nurse practitioner by trade) looking at me across the table with an expression of utter HORROR on her face — like she COULD NOT BELIEVE that 370-pound me was going to eat a hot cross bun, 12 yogurt-coated almonds, and half a deviled egg. And I HATE how self-conscious that made me, for the rest of the day, and I hate that now I don’t go to the social events for this group if food is involved, and I hate that I’m paranoid about what these people think about me because of my size, but hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

        But anyway, so I’m rehearsing.

        Other person: [Insert obnoxious weight or food related judgmental comment]

        Me: Oh, I don’t talk about weight/body/food stuff with people.

        OP: Why not?

        Me: 1) Because I think what people eat is their own business.
        2) Because I don’t care what other people eat and no one should care what I eat.
        3) Because it bores me.

        Or, as mimi smartypants put it in her most recent post, “I don’t want to talk about [my eating habits] because it may make me sound crazy. Also, it’s boring. Man am I sick of people blathering on about food. Paleo, vegan, clean, whatever. Just eat it. Be quiet.”

        /novel-length comment

        1. Michelle Avatar

          “Paleo, vegan, clean, whatever. Just eat it. Be quiet.”

          This made me laugh so hard. I actually have an Epictetus quote on my fridge that says, “Preach not to others what they should eat. Eat as becomes you, and be silent.”

          I also think saying “I don’t talk about food and weight stuff with people” is a great way to handle it. Practice makes perfect :)

          It’s ridiculous that we have to live in a world where other people police what we put on our plates in the first place, and especially when we’re visibly fat. I hope you remember you’re a rational person living in an irrational world. You negotiate your way the best you can.

    2. Emgee Avatar

      Yes, Rubyfruit, I have the same issues. I am working on boundaries, but it isn’t easy. Last Thanksgiving Mom sat next to my son’s girlfriend and announced to the table that she had nothing green on her plate and that she needed to get more nutrition in her diet. I, in turn, announced to the table that it’s Thanksgiving, when we get to eat what we want. Later mom asked in the kitchen who it was that dumped too much salad dressing on their salad and then didn’t eat it. I said, “Um, gee, mom, I think it was one of your GUESTS!” (it was another friend of my son’s), and that seemed to stop her. How is it that good manners seem to go out the window when commenting on people’s food??

  20. Andrea Avatar

    I’m a grazer, and tend to eat smaller meals or snacks throughout the day. It’s a lot easier now that I’ve been following the “eat when hungry, stop when full” philosophy. When I am eating out I don’t often eat much, and I take leftovers home. But then I get a lot of comments like “Is that all you’re eating?” or “How come you’re still so fat if that’s all you eat?” It’s taken some past and current partners a bit of time to realize my eating habits and stopped with the “Aren’t you going to finish that?” comments.

    On the other hand, even though I’ve stopped labeling foods as good or bad, I sometimes have trouble eating certain things when I am alone and in public–chocolate bars, pizza, ice cream, etc. I feel constantly judged, even though I’m sure no one is sitting around judging my meals.

    1. Miranda Avatar

      Oh, that all happens to me, too, Andrea. AAARGH!

    2. April Avatar

      I am flabbergasted that there are people who think it’s okay to ask that. What the effing hell.

  21. Amie Avatar

    Thank you so much for this, Michelle. This really could not have come at a better time for me. I recently had some really big realisations about my disordered eating and the root of my nervousness when eating in front of people was one of them. I finally feel like, after living with this for ten years, I’m about to make some real progress!

  22. sleepydumpling Avatar

    I have found it difficult to eat in front of others for most of my life. Particularly people I am not wholly comfortable/at ease with. That can be because I’m nervous about impressing them, or because I am feeling judged or policed in my eating. If I feel comfortable in someone’s presence, the problem is not there. Sometimes it is just a symptom of stress and anxiety that causes me to shut down when it comes to eating in the company of other people.

    Even now, after years of therapy and working on my food issues, this is the habit/symptom that crops up the most regularly.

    The fact that society in general deems it acceptable to comment on what other people are eating does not help one little bit.

  23. Bec Avatar

    I have always had (and still do have to some extent) issues with eating and shopping in public. I really don’t know why as I have never had any (major) body image issues and I know I don’t give a shit about what other people choose to eat and buy so why would I think that anyone else is judging me?

    It’s very weird. Like I have no problem eating what I want in public by myself. But when it’s in public when other people are with me I get this crazy feeling that I have to conform to what everyone else in the group is eating. If I want a salad but everyone else is getting KFC, I’ll end up getting KFC because I don’t want to be seen as “that” girl – the one on a diet who only eats lettuce. Never mind that I’m not and never have been on a diet and my friends would all know that, and never mind that KFC is not what I want to eat at that moment. I’ll still do it. And vice versa if I feel like a Big Mac but my girlfriend is having a “fat day” (ugh) and going for the super boring “healthy” option I’ll follow suit. And this time it’ll be because I don’t want her to feel like I’m rubbing the fact that I am physically smaller than her in her face by eating McDonalds while she thinks she can only have salad.

    I could go on but I think the most appropriate summary is just AAAAARGH. And the weirdest part is that in pretty much every other aspect of my life I don’t have these conformity issues. I wear what I want and go where I like and hold whatever views I feel are valid and in general I’m a fairly confident person…but I still lose my shit internally over food. ?????

  24. Elodie Avatar

    Wow, I had no idea this was an issue for people! Eating with others is incredibly important as a social and bonding experience for humanity. It’s one thing that cuts across cultures and time. If we can’t eat with each other, we are in serious trouble as a society.

  25. Miranda Avatar

    One problem that I consistently have when eating with others is pressure from some family members to eat gigantic mounds of food that I really am too full to finish. My Dad has always been this way with me and now, since I have been married, my mother in law does the same. I really dread eating with either of them. Both think they have the right to decide how much should go on my plate, and a really big deal is made if I decide I want less food than they serve me or, even worse, if I choose not to eat at that exact moment. All kinds of sulking and whining go on if I try to follow my own body’s needs and stop eating when I’m full. All kinds of tactics to make me feel guilty. I’m a grown woman but it’s like they think I’m a little kid. I guess they mean well, but it can be so tiresome at times and I just wish I were able to deal with the situation without me losing my temper or them getting offended. Does anyone else have this problem?

  26. Nancy Lebovitz Avatar

    I took a little survey of your question here. Not that many answers, but I think they were more like what you were expecting.

    On the other hand, my readers are pretty much from sf fandom, and it’s a subculture which is less pathological about food and fatness than the mainstream. I’m not saying it’s a total haven from fatphobia (it isn’t), but it’s better.

    May I suggest reading if you’re dining alone? You may still look as though you’re not quite ideally normal, but at least you’ve got something to distract you from worrying about what other people might believe about you.

    I may have the very minor occasional twinge, but I’m very much not self-conscious about what or where I eat, to the point where I’m horrified at how pervasive you’ve found self-consciousness about food to be.

  27. Kaia Avatar

    The thing I find difficult isn’t others watching me eat, it’s watching others eat. It doesn’t matter if the food in question is healthy or unhealthy, how they eat it or why they eat it. It just puts me off eating in front of them myself. Possibly some twisted psychological thing there, but yeah. I can only eat in front of other people if I don’t watch them eat (hi there plate, you look very interesting today!), or, if I can’t get away from that bit, wait until they’re all done.

    I have no idea why this is, or why it affects me so much. It’s very, very strange. And now I have to sign up for your newsletter, damn it.

  28. Shalla Avatar

    I alway feel like I have to explain myself when eating in public. Mostly, when I’m eating “healthy” foods or declining a desert because I don’t want people to think I’m doing those things because I’m on a diet or placing judgment on people who are eating the delicious baked good that’s sitting in the break room. It’s always, “Actually, I’m eating salad because I really, actually like salad.” (Why don’t people believe this?!) or “I can’t have that cookie/cake/ice cream because I can’t eat gluten or dairy. It will make me sick. If I could eat it, I totally would.”

    Also trying to learn not to let the comments about my bringing homemade lunch or eating a salad or whatever being good ruin my appetite. Nothing ruins a good meal faster than people placing a moral judgment (good or bad) on it.

  29. Jae Avatar

    I used to have a SERIOUS issue with eating in public. Like a this-is-a-top-five-fear type issue. It was so bad that in junior high, I used to wait until my whole table got up to get lunch to get something small out of the vending machine; I would stick it inside my book bag so no one who passed by could see that I was eating something. I wouldn’t even get up to throw the garbage away, lest anyone see that I had consumed food. When I got to high school and ate a sandwich on a school trip, one of my friends from junior high remarked that, in three years of knowing me, he had never seen me eat anything.

    This thrilled me.

    Granted, I had eating disorder problems, but underneath it all I wanted to look like I had no needs. I know it’s nonsensical and not anywhere near realistic, but it made me feel better about myself (for about ten minutes at a time) to be able to deny that I was a messy person with needs and wants and feelings. I knew deep down that it wasn’t true, that it couldn’t be true for anyone, but I was so afraid that people were always judging me negatively (and that these judgments were correct and deserved) that I wanted to do anything I could to make them appear to be untrue.

    Trying to type all that out now… it barely makes sense. I can’t believe I ever believed it. It’s not that I’ve dumped all my body/eating baggage, but I’ve come a long way from that time in my life.

    1. Amanda B. Avatar
      Amanda B.

      @Jae: I totally hear you on that one. As a teen, I would either not eat when offered food, or take just a little (i.e. 1/2 a slice of pizza). Sometimes it was out of fear for being judged about my weight, but mostly it was because I felt like I would please people more if I didn’t need stuff. Appearing needy was one of my biggest social fears. And I’ve definitely done the “sneak a granola bar, hide the wrapper” thing.

      I’m grateful to have (mostly) moved past that. And I agree, it looks so much sillier in hindsight…

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I think I didn’t eat lunch at school once during 7th grade. I was just too nervous.

      1. Sue Avatar

        I didn’t eat in a cafeteria until well into my 20’s. My mother was ahead of her time with food restriction. Starting in the 5th grade I was no longer allowed to eat lunch. The school wouldn’t allow that so I was sent to school with a brown paper bag with no food in it. I would just sit in the cafeteria while ever one else ate. It was clear to anyone with a brain that I was not eating but that paper bag was all the teachers needed to see to pretend otherwise. By junior high I would spend my lunch period in the band room. It was really quite scary when went to the cafeteria for the first time as an adult. I was extremely nervous since I didn’t have experience picking out food in that situation. And of course I felt everyone was judging what I picked.

        1. Well-Rounded Mama Avatar

          Sue, this is just sooo sad. Your mother started forbidding you from eating lunch at ALL? In 5th grade? And making you pretend like you did to sneak it by?

          Augh, that is just awful. I’m so sorry.

  30. mara Avatar

    Very interesting. My first reaction to this topic was to think that I don’t have many, or even any, issues with eating in front of people. I am okay with people seeing that I eat and what I eat. I haven’t encountered too many judgements except from people who clearly are expressing their own issues, not anything to do with me.

    But, what I noticed just tonight:

    I think I’m less apt to be mindful and present when eating with others. I’m less likely to eat till I’m satisfied (so I’ll sometimes have a little private after-meal when everyone is gone) and at the same time I’m also less likely to stop when I feel done, if I’m eating with others. Depending who those others are. I’m just sometimes a bit less attuned to ‘me’, in the eating process, than if I was alone.

    Also, it’s really irritating when people urge me to eat. For some reason that seems to happen, my relative fatness notwithstanding. Usually… oh, okay, this is strange or interesting. Actually, there are only two people who regularly urge me to eat more. Both are slightly fatter than me, and not accepting of their fatness, but (on and off) actively trying to lose weight. I think both are aware that I’m NOT trying to lose weight. Both have said to me on occasion that I have lost weight or look thin (I haven’t and don’t). And both seem to want me to eat MORE scones (or whatever) with MORE butter and seem to think I’m holding back if I don’t! (I’m not). I feel like they must be living vicariously through me or something. It feels ‘off’, anyway… that’s the part I react to with irritation.

    Also, when I was dating men, back in the day, there were certain men I just did NOT feel like eating with, and that was a real red flag. Every time I didn’t feel like eating with someone, I didn’t truly and honestly feel like doing anything else with them either.

    Also, conversely, when I absolutely, off the charts, LOVE eating with someone, I generally fall in love (or already am in love) with that person.

    1. Nismat Avatar

      This is SUCH a good point – I have been on dates where I felt deeply uncomfortable about eating with them, and it was always a good sign that I wasn’t comfortable. I plan to listen to my stomach in the future, as a much better judge of whether not the situation is a good one!

  31. hi there! Avatar
    hi there!

    I just signed up on your email list to get the pdf…

    As for eating in public, I do have a funny story about when squid ink pasta was all the rage–late 80s? I saw this guy at a restaurant eating some trendy black pasta, thinking he was coolness incarnate based on his mannerisms and decided that red wine teeth dinginess is nothing compared to how squid ink makes them look. NOT a first date food! GRAY TEETH…

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Red wine makes me look like I’m toothless. I shudder to think what squid ink pasta would do to me.

  32. Sara A. Avatar
    Sara A.

    Whenever I feel nervous about eating in front of someone, I ask myself why (as in the underlying causes). I don’t necessarily have problems eating in front of random people as in eating on my own at a restaurant but mine are nerves about eating in front of specific people. I interpret looks from the public as some sort of nod to perceived knowledge as in because I’m a fat woman I’ll know what’s good on the menu. I also kind of feel like I’m representing myself as a normal eater because I’m not eating anything radically different from anyone else. But in front of a specific person like a someone I don’t know too well, don’t trust, don’t feel comfortable with, or have been fighting with I become unable to eat in their presence or I start second guessing my ordering. I think this is why I often eat small amounts at family gatherings and then go home STARVING.

    I’m especially uncomfortable eating in front of my mother-in-law she just puts me on edge in general, but something about eating in front of her… I know that in reality she’s just trying to figure out what I like and stuff and that I come from a different culinary tradition than she does so she’s trying to figure me out but in my head she’s judging what I’m eating and how much. All while wondering what her son sees in me and wondering if the fat will be passed down to her grandbabies. His family pictures look like the pictures that come with the frame: all blond, smiling, with their eyes open, and nobody is mid-sneeze. I am short, fat, dark haired, and incredibly unphotogenic. In my head she sees me as someone sent to ruin all future family photos. Then I start hoping that all of her kids will end up with people who’ll help take the blame for ruining family photos.

    1. deeleigh Avatar

      I am also fat and dark haired and have married into a family of photogenic blonds. They’re not all thin, but the ones who aren’t are top heavy or hourglass shaped, and I’m a definite pear. I look like the black sheep in all the pictures. But, looking different from them doesn’t mean looking bad. At least, that’s how I try to think of it.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Well, even if you’re the black one, at least you’re still a sheep.

        1. deeleigh Avatar

          Well, you know how Scots are.

          1. Michelle Avatar

            And Scots know sheep.

  33. Emily Avatar

    Hey Michelle,

    Just wanted to say I am glad you’re posting again because I really enjoy your blog :)


  34. Anna Avatar

    I hadn’t thought of this either, but dman it is the same problem I have! Weird how it could be so common but not realise other people suffer from it too.

    Not only do I feel self concious eating in front of other people, but I feel like I somehow have to justify it. It’s a tough habit to break, and I’m working hard on it.

  35. AnthroK8 Avatar

    Whoo hoo! I joined the List, and am looking forward to my PDF! Yay!

  36. Kate M Avatar
    Kate M

    My friends and family are very good about food (eat what you want and how much of it you want and don’t feel bad if you leave some on your plate because you accidentally took too much), so I don’t normally get uncomfortable eating in public, but having to fend off the inappropriate comments while eating with coworkers on business trips is EXHAUSTING!

    If I eat a salad, I get comments about how I’m making my coworkers look bad because I’m being “good,” and they’re eating fried things. If I opt to order dessert, I get comments that it’s “ok” for me to have dessert, I’m “allowed,” because I worked out at the hotel. Or questions about whether I now feel “guilty” because I ate dessert.

    What is WRONG with people?? The carrot cake looked good! I ordered it! I ate as much as I wanted and then stopped! (Ok, I probably had more than necessary to fill my stomach, but darn was it good!) And the salad? The salad looked good too! Because on business trips, I NEVER get enough veggies and greens, so yah, I actually crave that stuff. So I ate it.

    Why is this a hard thing? Why do people think they should comment on my food choices? And what, for goodness sake, gives them the idea that commenting on my choice of meal is in any way shape or form acceptable??

    1. Inca Avatar

      Well, I do think that food, health, and shape have become such an issue, that even wellmeaning people do not know how to be normal about it. I think it is still important to distinguish between intentions.
      It is something you see with every subject that is uncomfortable. You see it happening with sexual orientation or handicap or disease as well – people just start commenting on it out of the blue. But, there is still a big difference between people that do not know how to express their good intentions, and people demeaning you by making rude comments.

      Nobody has any business judging anyones food choice, but the examples you give seem to be intended well but worded awkward. Yes, they should rather just not commented on anything.
      Listening to the intention of people has helped me getting around (very) misplaced comments every once in a while without being upset about it.

    2. deeleigh Avatar

      I hate that too. I’m fat, and I actually find myself eating less ‘healthy’ food in public than I do at home, because I’m sick of people congratulating me when I eat some kind of veggetably thing that looks good to me and that I’m in the mood for. I’ve loved vegetables since I was a kid, but since I’m fat everyone assumes that I’m forcing myself to eat them because I’m trying to lose weight. So I’ll go for the chicken sandwich and fires or the fish and chips just so I don’t look diety.

  37. Annie Avatar

    First time visiting your blog. It’s fabulous, and I love your message :-)

  38. Judy Avatar

    I eat slowly, I guess. In a group situation I’m always the last one to finish eating, even when all the meals are the same. It makes me extremely self-conscious when wait-staff pre-busses everyone else’s plates, leaving me (the fatty) the only person at the table eating. I know that the wait staff is doing their job, it’s my issue, not theirs. I feel like everyone in the restaurant is staring at me thinking that must be my second meal or something.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      That’s interesting because I’ve had a lot of people say that they eat FAST, and that makes them feel self-conscious as well because they’re always the first one done!

      1. Judy Avatar

        I totally get that. I find that I eat MORE SLOWLY in front of newer acquaintances so that I don’t look like the fatty shoveling the food. And yeah, that creates the circumstance I noted above.
        I try really hard to ignore all of this and just eat in a way that feels comfortable & natural to me. Really, the speed with which I enjoy my meal can’t be all that interesting to onlookers.

  39. Betsy Avatar

    I just came across this article in the NY Times, which I thought related to this post. It’s about starlets making a show of eating during interviews:

  40. Stephanie Avatar

    You know for all my Issues-with-a-capital-I related to food, and some pretty messed up disordered eating, this is the ONE area I don’t have a problem with. I eat in public just fine, and don’t generally feel bad about it, or embarrassed, or shamed in any way. I suppose that for all the unhealthy attitudes about food learned at my mother’s side, there are also a few healthy attitudes. One of those is a general “I don’t give a shit what you’re eating, and I don’t give a shit if you give a shit about what I’m eating” attitude.

    Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel “overweight shame” just BEING in public and subjecting other, better, more beautiful humans to my mere disgusting presence. But hey…I’m working on that. :)

    To that end, I should say that I have only just discovered this blog (in a roundabout way from a link to a link to a link from this wonderful article: WARNING to those who tend to be triggered by strident douchebaggery…avoid the comments!). Reading this blog has filled me with more hope, and a greater sense of acceptance of myself, than I can EVER remember feeling. As a fat person, I absolutely tend to isolate myself, and self-isolation is fertile ground for imagining a world where no one understands how you feel, everyone judges you, and you don’t deserve to be content or serene or happy.

    Thank you, Michelle (and all of your wonderful commenters), for reminding me that LOTS of people understand how I feel, most people don’t judge me (and if they do, eff them), and I sure as hell deserve to be content, serene and happy exactly as I am.

  41. Nismat Avatar

    I too have found eating in public really difficult since my early teens, due to panic/anxiety issues – this comes as a feeling that some or all of the food isn’t safe, no matter how illogical that really is… It’s not just eating out that I experience this, but family meals out in restaurants were always particularly triggery (and also social occasions with people I don’t know well – hence eating on dates being particularly problematic).

    Recently (now in my thirties and after several years of therapy) for the first time, I have noticed that I’ve been able to go out for meals and (more often than not) eat without panicking about the food that I’m eating – I haven’t quite managed to work out what is making the difference (I think it’s something to do with having a clearer and more robust sense of who I am warts-and-all – and that being ok), but I’m really enjoying being able to eat out without the panic.

    I just found your blog today – so many awesome posts! Thank you!

  42. Hope Avatar

    Thanks – I can’t wait to read it. :)

  43. Julie Michaud Avatar
    Julie Michaud

    I just discovered you through Coyote Crossing (Chris Clarke), and have put you up on my blog roll.

    This is an interesting discussion, and I’m coming to it from the angle of being too poor at this time to afford good food, so I don’t eat out too much. When I do, I love it, except when the food I end up having spent precious cash on is not worth it – i.e. this “funky” eatery on the drive served “Green Salad, with their own dressing … “. They used salad greens from the organic tins you buy, BUT they didn’t wash it or pick through it even to see if some of it had gone bad – and at least half of it was rotten – I told the waitress, and requested a better salad – she brought it back and apologized that a new staff had made it, and that a senior staff had made the new one. Well, it was equally as bad. I was disgusted and will not go back there to eat.

    I want to read through the comments here and follow your blog regularly, as I feel that this sharing of issues is great.

    Thanks for all the honesty!

  44. Maggie Maguire Avatar

    I went to a Convent boarding school and every day before we went in to dinner the nun in charge read out to use from a book a etiquette to finesse our table manners. It is always handy to know that you should cut off a pat of butter and put it on your side plate and not keep diving for the butter dish. (I am being sarcastic of course.)

    Being worried about eating in front of people is not a big thing in Australia even for fatties like me but one lesson from the nuns really dominates me. We were always told to never eat in a public street and I still can’t do it. Even when it would be most sensible to sit down and eat my packed lunch on a mall bench – I just can’t bring myself to do it.

  45. Heather Avatar

    Opposite problem. I had anorexia through middle school, high school, and college. When I eat by myself, with no one to distract me, I get far more anxious. I can’t do it without a book.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I’ve heard this before, regarding anorexia nervosa specifically. I think in that case, the issue is severe enough that you need to slide your eating under the radar or past the censor, if you will, in order to get food into you. Whatever you need to do to get fed!

      In other sort of sub-clinical disordered eating situations, this also happens, however — most people have trouble with “mindful eating” because then they are alone with the horrible internal messages about how they should eat less, shouldn’t eat that crap, are going to get fat, etc. etc. etc. That’s why a lot of people who are anxious about eating, or who have a history of dieting, will eat while watching TV or reading or in front of the computer — it’s less anxiety-provoking than actually being alone with the food.

      Anyhow, it’s not exactly an opposite problem, but one that can happen instead of, or alongside, the self-consciousness of eating in public. Most of the people I work with, unfortunately, find both to be uncomfortable!

  46. Jess Avatar

    When I was in high school I developed so much anxiety about eating that I became unable to eat in front of other people without immediately developing intense nausea. Eventually this spread to just any eating, and I lost dangerous amounts of weight. I actually thought I might be dying. I think going to college (and a women’s college, where it was very impolitic to comment on anyone’s eating or food) saved me because I was able to convince myself that no one really cared what or when I ate. Now when I am with my mother, who cannot stop from commenting on and trying to control when and what everyone around her eats, I am just amazed at how I internalized it all. When other people do the same thing I get crazy angry and then they get surprised that I am all upset over such a ‘small thing.’

    Thanks for this post. I did not realize how many other people have issues with this topic.

  47. Audrey Avatar

    Oddly enough, I’ve never had this problem. It was only in front of my mother that I had to police what I ate, lest she make a nasty comment. (Then again, I had a paternal grandmother that would call me skinny and try to fatten me up every summer. How confusing!)
    Maybe *that* has a lot to do with how I feel about this. In all other aspects of my life, too, my mother was quite rigid – leading to my supposed “problem with authority” (their words, not mine) in the Marines. In the USMC, it is believed that you are a reflection of your leaders. Have crappy leaders? Then you have fat, happy, undisciplined Marines. Have good ones, and you’re lean, mean, green fighting machines.
    So, this belief leads to the boss pestering the peon about his weight/eating habits/exercise habits/attitude. When they started pestering me (I believe, in the beginning, because I was the only female), I told them, diplomatically at first, to mind their own business. It quickly got nasty, and swear words entered the fray, like many confrontations in the military…and the inevitable discipline ensued. (Luckily, for me, it was during the beginning of the Iraq war – so they were in need of trained people to work. I didn’t like just being a body, but it was better than ending up disciplined severely. They needed me – so they couldn’t go that far. )
    I’m an introvert (INTJ) , so , I pretty much live inside my head. The only person that’s really important to me is me (and my hubby). The only person whose opinion I care about is my own. I’m not used to caring what other people think – what they *think* doesn’t matter. It doesn’t enter my head. I couldn’t care less. In fact, I’ve had to work on being more empathetic – friends have told me that I come off awfully cold and arrogant sometimes. Reading some of the comments on this page, I’d say that I dodged a bullet. (Not to be dismissive about anyone’s experience and feelings about this – I get anxious sometimes, in social situations, although for a different reason.) Like the previous poster, I had no idea that so many people had issues with this.