I love food — cooking it, eating it, and sharing it with others. Sometimes, though, my enjoyment of food can feel like an act of defiance. With so many complex issues bundled up in the act of eating — from health to body image to gender — it can be intimidating to just sit down and really relish a meal.
When I started a food blog in 2011, I knew I wanted to infuse some of that chin-up attitude into my writing. Every food blog needs a snappy name, and I wanted mine to capture the joy I find in food even when it feels complicated.
I thought of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot. In one of the best-known stanzas of the poem, Prufrock imagines himself as an old man.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach …
That peach leaped off the page at me. I plucked it out of the context of the poem and sat with it for a while. I knew I had a title for my blog: Dare to Eat a Peach.
“Prufrock,” to me, is a poem about hesitation, about indecisiveness. For a long time, that’s how I’ve felt about food. As an overweight woman, I find myself constantly second-guessing when and what I choose to eat. Some of it is health-related, and some of it is the fear of being judged.
Our culture places enormous pressure on women to feel shame over the act of eating. It’s there in our advertising: Think of the already-slim woman dreaming of cake and eating cake-flavored yogurt instead. It’s there in our cultural tropes, like the woman on a first date with a man who orders a salad and then picks at it, choking down a few mouthfuls or nothing at all.
It’s in our social rituals, too. How many times have I seen a group of women criticizing themselves for what they were eating? “I can’t believe I ate all that pizza. I’ll go for an extra-long run tomorrow.” It’s a bonding call-and-response, and I am definitely not immune to it. We police each other.
And to make it worse, the goalposts are constantly moving. Eat too much, and you’re unfeminine; too little, and you’re unhealthy. Mac and cheese makes you fat, but if you eat nothing but salads then you’re trying too hard. I’ve heard all these messages — some at the same time — in TV and on the written page and out of the mouths of people I know and care about.
And there’s an extra layer for women, like me, who are not thin. Our bodies are so often up for public comment, and “Are you sure you should be eating that?” is one of the sharpest weapons in the English language. Think of the caricature of a fat woman eating a burger; she’s sloppy, unattractive, easily mocked. Who wants to be seen as that person in real life? Even when I’ve looked forward to a meal all day, it’s easy to second-guess myself out of enjoying it.
A peach, then — with its flushed cheeks and juicy, fragrant flesh — is the opposite of that. It’s sensual. It’s indulgent. It’s super-seasonal, arriving in high summer when the weather is sticky and we walk around with our arms and legs bare.
A peach, then — with its flushed cheeks and juicy, fragrant flesh — is the opposite of that. It’s sensual. It’s indulgent. It’s super seasonal, arriving in high summer when the weather is sticky and we walk around with our arms and legs bare. I wait all year for the best peaches, then work my way around the farmers market sampling each stand’s wares, trying to decide which is my favorite that day.
When I’m feeling indulgent, I’ll grab a ripe peach and eat it standing over the kitchen sink, slurping up the juice that runs down my hand and wrist. It’s the kind of sloppy, un-graceful eating I’ve long been afraid to do in public. But why? What is there to feel shame about, in enjoying the food that makes my mind and body happy?
I love eating peaches, just like I love eating fried eggs and cucumbers and lentils and, yes, pizza and mac and cheese. These are things that satisfy me, that give me pleasure. Over the years, I’ve realized what I’m really losing when I let the imagined judgment of others take over my meals.
Food is about nourishment and taste. But for many of us, it’s also about diving into something taboo, something we might be scared to admit that we want. It’s about daring to own our needs and desires, and in the process pushing back against the cultural pressure to be smaller, to want less, to be embarrassed by our own hunger.
So every day, I work on shedding my shame. Admitting that I’m hungry, even if no one else around me is. Ordering what I want at a restaurant, instead of hanging back and waiting to see what everyone else gets. Taking second or even thirds of a dish I really love. Wearing that sleeveless top in the summer, and eating peaches over the sink.
I dare to eat a peach.