Girl, Eating: A Very Brief History
CW: disordered eating
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
For tonight’s ‘girl dinner’: a meal fit for a cat or a rather peculiar dog. A single can of tuna fish, a side of lettuce (no dressing), a slab of cheese. Tomatoes, cucumber: the more vegetables the better. If you are lucky, there might be a cracker. Certainly not more dairy than a thumb’s width. The meal must appear rushed together, as though it was assembled with less than twenty seconds to spare, or at gun-point. No burgers, or fried foods. Anything more than one hand-full is out. The golden rule: the more food, the less girl.
The ‘girl dinner’ trend is one of the subtler versions of disordered eating content available on TikTok (though not all videos under the sound promote these kinds of eating practices). But between adverts for the Barbie movie, and reminders to ‘scroll less’, and ‘take a break’, the content continues, from juice cleanse products to ‘what I eat in a day’ videos. The latter, using the ‘wieiad’ tag, often offer viewers a step-by-step guide into the formation of eating disorders— every meal is a ‘girl dinner’. Perhaps more troubling than the videos themselves are the aesthetics which accompany them. The ‘What I Eat in a Day’ slideshows are often adorned with relics of femininity: coquette-core, ribboned brandy tops and love-heart bowls. Both the ‘wieiad’ and ‘girl dinner’ trends involve disorder, packaged neatly, and with ribbon trimmings.
For much of history, dietary choice was a luxury that most women (and men) could not afford. In early medieval Britain the average dinner consisted of bread, and a ‘companaticum’ (a broth). In the ninth century, ‘protein rich’ foods became more common, and meats like pork and rabbit were consumed. Lynn White Jr. uses this shift in the English diet, paired with the use of iron cooking utensils, to explain the sudden increase in ‘female longevity’: the introduction of more iron in the diet benefitted women disproportionately, raising their life expectancy.
Bodies— particularly those which have been assigned female at birth— have always been subjected to trends. As Anne Hollander writes, “the look of actual human bodies changes very little […] but the look of ideal bodies changes all the time”. Hollander continues to emphasise the 15th to early 20th centuries as periods in which larger bodies were favoured— a larger body mass was associated with the upper-class, and access to more resources, and was therefore more attractive. This, paired with the elevation of the female body in artworks like Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, ensured that the ideal for an upper-class diet was to gain, not lose, whereas the goal for a peasant remained the same— to survive.
A vast time-jump must be made, in order to move away from ‘diet’ as a general term, encompassing the choices and habits of a population, towards ‘the diet’ as a deliberate attempt to limit and restrict an individual’s food intake. The moment in which ‘thinness’ became the dominant standard for women is contested, with some historians citing the rise of ‘slim’ advertising in the roaring twenties, and others— most notably Sabrina Strings— arguing that it was far earlier, as a way for colonisers to create artificial distinctions between the ‘enslaved’ body and the ‘colonising’ one.
While the origin of ‘thinness’, as a ‘desired’ attribute, is in dispute, diets can be charted and recorded from the 20th century onwards. While, to avoid encouraging the very thing which I am critiquing, the details will be brief, diets in the sixties included: grapefruits, a dubious (and now discontinued) ‘slim-mint’, strange liquid milks, and pineapples. In the seventies: only cheese; only lemonade; just cookies. The eighties: diet coke; cabbage; cottage cheese. And so on. And so on. Each diet as baffling and disconnected as the rest, all supported, of course, by the advertising of the time, backed by the companies which produced its products.
Our ‘girl dinners’, however, are self-produced, and self-continuing, separate from any marketing. But they, like most trends, rely on a wider history of female self-hatred and disordered consumption. Less obvious than a black-and-white poster, a slim woman at its centre, content from TikTok has the opportunity to be more insidious, and more pervasive, than all of the messaging of the seventies combined. So, crack open your can of mackerel, take four olives out of the fridge, and join your mothers, and their mothers, in silence, staring into the screen.