Food media collapses elaborate, perfect food into the lifestyle it is made to seem to promise. This means it turns our unfulfillable desires into a normative protocol for vigilance over one’s appetites. We can consume as many images of food as we want, but with them we ingest rules for self-management.
These rules are typically yoked especially to the disciplining of female pleasure and appetite, urging the consumer to believe herself at her best when her desires are sublimated rather than indulged in immediate and visceral pleasure. Attitudes toward food are generally divided along a gender binary: privation for women; plenitude for men. As food writer Ruby Tandoh notes in Eat Up, “the boundaries between consumption and self-denial, power and passivity often trace the crude line dividing men and women.” Likewise, in Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu argues that “the accession to manhood” is symbolized by abundance, the need for heaped sustenance to propel a boy through, while “a girl’s accession to womanhood is marked by doing without.” Instagram allows her to do without and like it too — a world of pleasure without calorie content or long-term physical effects, a glossy sanctuary in which food is divorced from anxieties around polluting or adulterating the body or risking social transgression.
Tandoh argues that “a media saturated with images of idealized bodies, and by a pervasive culture of female guilt around food” coerces women into complying with the “superhuman” injunction to transcend physical urges. Online food is an extension of this: women are associated with peripheral, sugary or light foods (salad, cupcakes, iced coffee), acceptable if “naughty” delights. The food must be lean, pretty, attractive, charming — a synecdoche of the invisible woman it champions. This contrasts with food coded male: large, messy portions of meat or the barbecue, a ritual of fire and flesh beyond the feminized kitchen space. These messages normalize the gendering of food, of male desire with primality and women’s with delicacy. Women are expected to conceal their appetites for food and sex unless they can be constructed as providing for the needs of others.