I once spent a morning with two non-Americans who ever so graciously offered to buy me a cup of coffee. When I indicated that I wanted a cappuccino, I reflexively followed my request with “with almond milk, please.”
It was not the first time we had gotten coffee together, and my self-immolative tendency to trade milk froth’s airy delightfulness for almond milk’s ultimately dissatisfying attempt at it had not gone unnoticed. When asked why I opted for almond milk every time, I balked. In retrospect, it was not my lack of a cogent response to the question that shook me; it was the posing of the question itself. I realized that my almost religious avoidance of dairy products aligned so neatly with preexisting expectations of a 19-year-old girl’s dietary habits that I never felt compelled to develop any solid reasoning for my practices. I improvised a weak response that relied on the questionable statistic that ¾ of my fellow Jewish people are sensitive to lactose and veered the conversation away from my shitty nut milk foam.
That innocuous question, and my subsequent surprise at being questioned in the first place, elucidated a phenomenon with implications far greater than my coffee order. Though the concept of women, particularly American women, practicing dietary restriction lost its novelty long, long ago, there has never been a period when such a practice masqueraded as healthfulness as convincingly or as widely as it does now. Google any staple of the major food groups—meat, dairy, bread, corn—and you will find endless testimonials, articles, and think pieces on the purported health benefits, or lack thereof, associated with avoiding them. Within this noisy inundation of nutritional advice from Google MD, any kernel of truth that may have accompanied such wayward claims about any arbitrary food group is inevitably lost. As such, it becomes clear that perhaps the enduring popularity of practicing dietary restriction—particularly among young women—is more complex than just a cultish dedication to nebulous conceptions of health and wellness. Perhaps the aestheticization of a woman’s food choices and the idea that what she eats can augment or diminish her perceived desirability incentivize dietary restriction as much as does the promise of health or thinness.
My initiation into the cult of dietary restriction occurred when I worked at a swanky Italian restaurant in SoHo that happened to be a popular scene for French people, fashion industry people, and Instagram people. During my time there, I quickly noticed that the fashionable sensibilities of the female patrons extended far beyond their sartorial choices; it appeared that they permeated their eating choices as well. My exposure to an environment where dietary restriction was presented as an extension of fashionability, one where I had a vested interest in maintaining my perceived attractiveness to the clientele (attractive men and their tips), breathed life into my previously dormant desire to “eat healthy.” Hence, there, on the corner of Prince and Lafayette, my dilettantish approach to veganism was born.
The healthful benefits of avoiding meat and dairy are plentiful, but were not primary motivators in my avoidance of said foods. It was my experience of being so seduced by the positive, gendered associations between female attractiveness and prudent eating habits that revealed the crucial role such associations play in the pervasiveness of dietary restriction among women.
Women’s eating habits are perceived as accessories of their desirability and play an increasingly dominant role in mainstream narratives of female attractiveness. One does not need to look any further than Instagram or any fashion magazine to find evidence of this. The litany of “health” Instagrams dedicated to capturing vivid images of avocados and acai bowls are pretty much entirely run by women. There is an entire subgenre of Youtube videos titled “What I Eat In a Day,” and I could hardly find a single one posted by a man. A solid portion of Vogue’s content consists of very thin, conventionally attractive women eating pizza and other classically unhealthy things simply because that specific juxtaposition insinuates a blasédom that is endlessly alluring.
Why are we not bombarded with images of men sexily eating spaghetti or demurely ordering room service croissants? Because there’s no punchline.
The aestheticization of women’s dietary choices leaves its mark practically anywhere women come into contact with food. Columbia’s dining halls are no exception, and a number of functional differences between Barnard and Columbia’s dining facilities evidence as much. The most glaring difference lies in the fact that while John Jay and Ferris offer buffet, all-you-can-eat, go-ahead-and-gorge-yourself-to-death dining options, Diana limits the amount of food a student can grab for a meal swipe, and Hewitt, in having dining staff serve the main entrees to students, inadvertently imposes portioning onto the mostly female students that eat there. That, paired with the fact that Diana apparently considers a smoothie an entree, essentially means that not all swipes are equal.
Though I do not posit that Barnard consciously ascribes to harmful notions of female eating, it is worth considering that the notion of men eating less than women simply does not fit into our highly gendered cultural narrative surrounding food. Men’s bodies, and the way they sustain their bodies, are just not policed to a degree where their perceived desirabilities are inextricable from their eating habits.
I had never been able to practice dietary restraint in the past. My past attempt at keeping kosher failed miserably. However, I still refuse to let a drop of cow’s milk enter my system. I still don’t have an answer as to why I do this. The few times I have eaten dairy in recent history, the ground did not split open, nor did my body disintegrate at mere contact with such a profane substance. I suppose the overwhelming culturally-facilitated inclination for young women to practice dietary restraint, as well as the positive feedback women receive for doing so, incentivized my phobia of cow’s milk far more than the Lord’s condemnation of it ever could. Plus, on top of being able to reap the social benefits of being a woman that has disciplined her eating, I can also reap Hashem’s reward for being a pious Jew that makes sure never to eat milk and meat. I’ll see you all in heaven. Unless they don’t have almond milk there—then I’ll be looking elsewhere for my afterlife accommodations.
Arielle Isack is a sophomore majoring in american studies. She often cringes at how much extra she has to pay for coffee drinks when she adds almond milk, but then realizes that social validation and religious piety are priceless. Shoot her a line at email@example.com if you want to start a coalition for all the dining halls to include oat milk in their non-dairy milk repertoire. Not a Relationship Girl runs alternate Fridays.
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