Thursday, September 17, 2009

Food As A Social Tool

I have a close friend who is naturally very slender and yesterday I received a phone call from her requesting a visit. Specifically, she wanted us to go out and have a milkshake and a piece of chocolate cake. I told her I was happy to go along for the ride, but that since I had just made myself a cheeseburger, I didn’t feel that eating sweets would be a very wise choice for me.

Now the point of recording this is actually not to highlight a moment to be proud of – although I am, especially considering the shake she was suggesting is my all time favorite flavor. The reason I want to write a post about this is that I was totally surprised when my answer turned out to not be adequate. She was obviously unsatisfied and pressed me more, raising the point that it was a pastime meant to evoke commiseration and camaraderie. Now she is a great girl and was not even a little bit rude when she was trying to convince me to eat with her, but I was really shocked that it was an issue.

Not that I should be. In today’s society we go for coffee, meet for lunch, bring pastries to business meetings, have friends over for dinner, and go to the bar to watch the game. These are all common practices that completely revolve around what we put in our mouths. We are a civilization comforted by the common practices of eating and drinking. In this busy world, we enjoy visiting and socializing with others more when we feel justified in slowing down, and we do this by fueling our bodies in some form or another while simultaneously engaging in social interactions.

This is not to say that it is not a valid practice. I, myself, would never dream of failing to offer some sort of sustenance to a guest in my home. I was just unsettled by the idea that people put so much stock in this custom that challenging the status quo leaves them scrambling to correct any divergence from the norm.

Maybe I’m over-analyzing the whole thing. Maybe my friend just had a moment that was uncharacteristic yet perfectly timed to get me thinking on this subject. I do know that like the great person she is, she respected my second refusal and we went out anyhow. She ate and I didn’t, and I never felt like I was missing out on anything.


  1. You are not over-analyzing at are spot on....I've encountered this again and again since I drives me nuts! Definitely takes some adjusting hate to feel like you're disappointing someone or somehow breaking a "tradition" many of my little traditions are food-centered. It's been quite the adjustment!!

  2. You are so right - here in Scotland, it is considered rude not to offer something to eat if someone comes to visit, or to not bring something if you go to visit - slightly too much food there!

    I have quite often struggled at social events too, where I am expected to eat what is put in front of me and that is so difficult on a diet. It is almost as if it has taken over the social aspect in a way.

    Thanks so much for your lovely comment on my blog - it was so nice of you!

  3. Yep. It's hard when people think your refusal to join in with eating with them is somehow akin to you withholding a part of yourself from them. We're having a party here at the theatre tonight, catered, and a woman especially came up to me and encouraged me to stay after for the party. I have a bit of social anxiety and often don't stay for the after-parties, but I appreciated her special invitation and made to consider it. Then she said, "There's plenty of food here for everyone, you have to have some." How could I respond to this kind invitation - with a story about how I'm dieting? telling her I've brought my own food? that I'll probably be tired and need to get home and cook myself some fish? You find ways of making compromises. You say that you'll be glad to accompany them while they eat. You learn to come up with non-food socializations. The people who know you're on this journey eventually learn to adjust their expectations from you, too. Hopefully your friend will figure that out, and she can have her milkshake while you have your yogurt with berries and nuts or something.

  4. This is such a cultural thing, isn't it? In my family - everything - revolves around food. You can't just sit and talk with a cup of tea - there has to be biscotti or crumpets or shortbread or cake.

    You can't just go to someone's house to visit. It has to be for a meal. And not just "a meal", a meal with 3 courses and dessert and wine and cheese.

    Why do equate love and affection with food? Will our friends and family really not love us if we don't give them chocolate cake when they come to visit?

  5. It's about balance. I had to learn how to socialize with the people I care about and not let the food control me during those times. My friends and family have not change but I have so it's up to me to make the right choices. It's all about balancing it out. Stay strong and focus. Good luck!

  6. SUCH a great post!! This has affected me more as I tried to spend less money, and less when it's an issue of healthy eating, but the heart of the matter is still the same. When I plan social things with friends, it ALWAYS involves food. Get togethers for lunch, dinner, coffee, etc. Always.

    As I have very little money now, I am trying to think outside the box and come up with other non-food related activities to plan, and I'm finding it difficult!

    And even health/food wise, like if a coworker has a birthday and I didn't eat cake, I felt like I was being a snob for not eating it like everyone else.

    At the end of the day, your choices and actions matter to YOU! No one should love anyone any less (not saying this about your friend) because they are choosing to eat healthy or not eat out or whatever. I have to remind myself of this connnnstantly.

  7. It is such a common association and I guess I just never considered it until embarking on this journey!

    Hallie, I think you said it best when describing people's reactions to others who draw away from the typical socialize and eat scenario:

    "It's hard when people think your refusal to join in with eating with them is somehow akin to you withholding a part of yourself from them."

  8. So true and it does make it difficult for those of us whose bodies don't handle "a milkshake and a piece of cake" without consequences. I haven't had too much trouble, but I have had friends beg me to rearrange cheat day so we can feast together :)