It’s hard to turn down food.

Discusses food choices, eating habits, diet talk.

A 'Hot Chocolate' Cupcake, complete with marshmallows and chocolate sprinkles

Socially hard, I mean.

One of my students’ common elective classes had a potluck/party one day this past week. (I don’t know more than that — e.g., reasons why — but I do know that student consensus is that this elective class is harder and more work than are any of their core classes, so I don’t think it’s cool to begrudge the students or this teacher one day off — if it is even a full day off.) Because I am Everybody’s Second Mother at school, this meant that my classroom was used for food storage, both before the potluck class (depending on when in the day each one had it) and of leftovers afterward. In turn, this meant that every student who brought food into my classroom offered some to me.

Now, despite having normal blood glucose levels, I don’t do well with sugary foods in quantity or on their own. And for whatever reason, all of the potluck-associated foods that I saw were of the sweeter variety: cupcakes, doughnuts, whipped cream fruit salad, cookies. While most of them looked delicious (bright neon icing has not done it for me since I was about six years old), I knew that if I wanted to avoid feeling like crap after eating them, I needed to limit myself to one — and then only right after my lunch, when I’d eaten something with substantive amounts of other nutrients. Left to my own devices, I would have easily declined most of the food because, based on my own needs and preferences, I genuinely didn’t want it.

My own devices are one thing. Social pressure, even well-intentioned social pressure, is another.

“Are you sure you don’t want a cupcake? They have chocolate.”

“Who doesn’t like doughnuts?”

“What, my cookies aren’t good enough for you?” — a student in mock indignation.

And my favorite, spoken by a coworker in the faculty cafeteria, where some of the leftovers had migrated:

“Don’t tell me you’re on a diet again.”

Which is interesting because while I’m no stranger to dieting, I actually don’t think I’ve been on — or implied I’ve been on — any form of calorie or food group restriction since I’ve known this person.

But even more interesting — or frustrating — is the fact that all of these were said to me after I’d already been offered food and declined the offers I didn’t want. (I mean, I did want a couple of cookies at the end of my lunch, and so I had them.) Like, it’s not enough just to not want something, say no, and have that no accepted.

I get that there’s often a social and communal element to eating. I like going to the cafeteria every lunch, not just because it gets me out of my classroom, but because I prefer eating with others to eating alone. I love to cook, and I love to share my cooking with others.

And I’ll admit, I’ve often laid on some consumption encouragement of my own. “Please, eat as much as you want; it would be awesome if I didn’t have to take any of this home.”

And it occurs to me that some of this is about permission. When I share food with others, my instinct is to give blanket permission — “eat as much as you want” — and to more or less let the chips fall where they may. (I recognize that adding the bit about not wanting to take any home isn’t keeping the permission completely neutral, though I like to think it doesn’t single out any individual in a group.) But when I want to share others’ food, I often come up against internal or external guilt; in times like that, my instinct is to seek permission. And if other people are eating the food in the same quantities as I’d like to eat it? My mind definitely perceives that as permission.

I’m wondering now if this isn’t somehow — secretly, unspoken, unconsciously — predicated on the idea that all the members in a communal eating group have a shared desire to eat all the food. Or all the dessert food or cheesy food or salty food or whatever the named other “bad” food is. Which is sometimes true, I’m sure, but isn’t always.

I’m also wondering if some people — adults here, people who’ve had time to analyze media and diet talk and body shaming — want to interpret my body as their permission. As in, because I’m often the fattest person in any given eating group, if people aren’t looking to me as a stand in for whether it’s reasonably okay to “give in” and eat a particular food. Or even — I wonder if some people want to use anyone else as their permission, regardless of body size.

Which, it would certainly be nice if people accepted my declining any given food at any given time for what it is: an individual choice. It would also be nice if people recognized that my body, my eating habits — or anyone’s bodies or anyone’s eating habits — are not a stand in for permission to eat because nobody needs permission just to eat food.


I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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Posted in non-asana
6 comments on “It’s hard to turn down food.
  1. G says:

    A lot of the coercion around food seems predicated on the idea of scarcity: if I don’t eat this delicious thing now, when it’s available and reasonably socially acceptable, I’ll never get to. My coworkers tend to ask me right after I’ve eaten lunch and I’m full– and while that birthday cake is probably delightful, eating it will make me feel icky. I have permission to have cake whenever I want to– why would I eat it when I don’t really want it?

    • Tori says:

      I think you’re right about scarcity. Due to a few factors, sweet foods aren’t generally available at my work. Of course, I don’t know what my coworkers do and don’t eat outside of work — but if some of them are familiar with the food-restriction-mindset (even if they’re not actively restricting sweet foods now) and then are presented with ALL OF THE DOUGHNUTS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE, it makes a certain amount of emotional sense to assume that everyone is going to want to eat them. And, maybe by extension, if someone doesn’t EAT ALL THE THINGS, it’s because they’re denying themselves permission — rather than just, you know, not wanting them.

  2. Oh, I’m so guilty of this. I do exactly what you do — I want to give everybody permission to eat all the time because I feel like mostly, we’re all struggling to give ourselves that permission and feeling like we can’t have the cookie. But I totally forget that often, people need permission to NOT eat as well. Newly resolved to be more understanding/respectful of that when I am feeding people, thank you!

  3. This is very interesting. We have a substantial number of working lunches at my jobbe where food is provided: big platters of sandwiches or whatever that people just take however much they want. I know that I tend to overeat when food is provided in that manner, and so I almost always bring my own lunch to these events so that it is easier for me to control my consumption.

    It is extremely rare that someone at the lunch doesn’t comment about this. My impression is that there are at least two aspects: (1) You think you are better than us to not eat the same food that everyone else is eating? (2) You think you are better than us to be able to turn down free food?

  4. Christian Rene Friborg says:

    My nutritionist wants me to bring my own lunch or snack when it comes to events like this. As much as possible I want to avoid all the food that I shouldn’t consume.

    • Tori says:

      Interesting suggestion. Given that I had no way of predicting how much food there would be or that it would be offered to other faculty — since the potluck wasn’t happening in my class — I’m not sure how applicable it is here, though. Moreover, I think the bigger point is that if I said “no” to any given foods, that should have been respected the first time, whether I’d brought my own food along with me or not.

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