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When Eating in Public, Some Students Feel ‘Food Shame’

Food shame affects students as they consider dessert choices in the cafeteria. | Photo by Jocelyn Doina/The Minaret

A University of Tampa student walks into the cafeteria daily and feels anxiety when deciding what to eat.

Before choosing a dish, she considers what those around her would think of her choice.  This issue, known as “food shame,” causes someone to select food they feel is more appropriate by their peers’ standards.

“Sometimes I think about that,” said the junior, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I hear that voice in my head ‘don’t eat too much.”

A separate anonymous sophomore has similar views on food shame.

“I’m naturally skinny, but it’s like I feel people just kind of judge me . . . so it’s like you can’t win,” she said.

Assistant professor of psychology Cynthia Gangi said the feelings of food shame are deep-rooted.

“This fear stems from the fact that the large portion of food could perhaps be suggestive to others of a deeper character flaw,” she said. “Food and weight-related stigma is one that has deep character implications. It relates to perceptions of laziness, self-control, self-esteem, respect, health values, motivation and so on. . . . So people might think they are ‘sending a message’ to others about their inner character through their food choices.”

The reason why we may feel others are judging us based on our food choices or the portion of food we eat can best be explained using Charles Cooley’s theory “The Looking Glass.”

This theory proposes that our self-image relies on how we think other people view us. In other words, we define ourselves by how other people react to our behavior.

“It may be an accurate depiction of what they’re thinking of us or it might be all in our head, but we then respond to that interpretation,” said Sarah Jirek, an assistant professor of sociology. “We feel feelings perhaps of shame, perhaps of guilt, with regard to food or feeling bad about ourselves, and then we respond accordingly.”

Freshman communications major Jasmine Fajardo has gone through a similar situation of being in a public setting and feeling that everyone is judging her.

“I’ve gotten amounts of food for dessert, but just to take it to my friends at the table,” she said. “And it looks like I’m the one getting three cookies, two cakes . . . and it’s like ‘Oh, my God, they’re looking at me,’ but honestly I really don’t care. It’s not anyone’s business what I eat.”

In addition to the looking glass self-theory, our societal norms also come into play.

There is a concern about what may be acceptable to eat in public, depending on whether you identify as male or female.

“There are norms in our culture about what groups of people eat and how much is acceptable to eat,” said Jirek. “If you go against that, whether it’s perhaps men eating less or women eating more, then it is considered normative.”

Sophomore marine biology major Laura Muniz said she sees the opportunity of being able to get whatever you want in the cafeteria as an investment.

“I like to take advantage of actually being able to go into the cafeteria and having the option to serve yourself as much as possible,” said Muniz.

Some question food shame’s gender specificity, including its prevalence in females.

“To say that food shame is a female phenomenon would be misrepresentative of both theory and data,” said Gangi. “First of all, food-related issues, eating disorders, etc., can occur in men. They do seem to occur at lower rates, but these issues are definitely on the rise.”

According to the nonprofit organization Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc., 10 percent of people with anorexia and bulimia are men.

Most do agree the gender ideals for women and men are different. In our society, men are often pressured to have a muscular body, while women are pressured to be petite and thin.

“When it comes to what it means to be beautiful and attractive, women receive messages from so many different sources in our lives, that what matters, in some ways most about our identity is our appearance,” said Jirek.

The act of food shame can have negative effects on our eating habits, and how we view food in general.

“Food shame can counterproductively lead to an increase in poor eating habits,” said Gangi. “By feeling shameful about your food choices, you are adopting the very stereotype that you are secretly opposed to and you are fulfilling it.”

Zoe Fowler can be reached at Zoe.Fowler@spartans.ut.edu.

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