Guilty Feminist Deborah Frances-White tells Joanna Mathers why women should stop apologising for the food they eat
Pancakes with maple syrup and mascarpone; cheesecake with a scoop of icecream; hot chocolate, extra whipped cream. Ask confidently, front it out. No embarrassment, no guilt. Deborah Frances-White's challenge to self, accepted, nailed, retold in episode two of her award-winning podcast, Guilty Feminist.
Food is a feminist issue. Too much, shame. Too little, illness. Ordering a multitudinous quantity of dessert, wearing Lycra post-gym, and showing no shame didn't come naturally.
"I had to pretend I was playing a role," reveals Frances-White, fresh from an opulent lunch on a boat in Sydney Harbour. "To order with confidence and eat some of it with style."
The challenge took place at Patisserie Valerie on Charing Cross Rd. It's a place you go to eat decadent desserts and cakes but, as it transpired, most of the women who order the said sweet treats do so cringingly.
"The waitress looked so delighted when I made my order. I asked her later why this was and she said that it was a little odd, the way I ordered. 'Most women are shy about ordering cake - they apologise for it. They do a little dance. You didn't apologise,' she explained.
"I asked her about the male diners. 'They never apologise ... they'll be happy ordering two, three pieces of cake. But women would never order more than one piece of cake. Only one woman has, she ordered three. It was so unusual we talked about it in the kitchen afterwards...'"
Food, fat, sex, science, marriage, migrants, music. Seventy-five million downloads of podcasts running the gamut of feminist experience. Opening with her signature "I'm a feminist but ..." Frances-White has managed to tap into the spirit of 21st century feminists, to articulate our struggling, sometimes faltering, journey.
We're thirsty for connection, says Frances-White. We want a sanctuary, a place where we can share our defeats, our sadness, but also our victories. The Guilty Feminist is a forum in which we can find solidarity with women on the same path, while acknowledging our imperfections.
By prefixing "feminist" with "guilty", Frances-White shrewdly acknowledges the cognitive state that underpins women's contemporary lives. The "not good enough" ... not a good enough mother, not good enough at work, not thin enough.
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When it comes to food, this "not good enough" is particularly barbed. Frances-White says she doesn't know a woman without food issues. The indoctrination begins early. Little boys are told to eat up, it will make them strong. Boys who are "good eaters" are celebrated – a "healthy appetite" seen as a sign of masculinity. There's not the same language around little girls. Girls aren't meant to love food; food makes them fat. Girls can't be fat.
"There is a real 'reward' and 'punishment' dynamic when it comes to women's experience of food," says Frances-White. "Dieting/bingeing ... all the women's magazines are full of these tips for weight loss but they never work. And many of the people who have the most problematic relationships with food are the ones who are held up as the ideals."
Frances-White has had the curious experience of not living up to an idealised version of herself.
"I was playing a show in London and there was this huge billboard of me outside the theatre. I remember looking at it and thinking, 'I don't look like that.' When the photo was taken, I had been doing a lot of yoga, there was great lighting, I'd had my hair done," she says. "If seeing my own billboard made me want to hide in a corner, there's no way other women will achieve the perfection they are presented with, because it's not rea.
"Do you think that Jennifer Aniston looks the way she does on billboards? It's an unattainable ideal."
Such female ideals, created by the smoke and mirrors of Photoshop, are dangerous. The cultural imperative to be thinner, prettier, younger, plays havoc on our psyche. It affects every aspect of our lives – dating, friendship, going for promotions at work.
Some may question why it really matters. Surely, women's responses to such content is pretty irrelevant, in a world of climate change and Donald Trump.
"Yes, people may think this is all a bit irrelevant, that there are bigger things to worry about," says Frances-White. "But until we stop having these feelings of competition towards other women, until we stop carrying such shame, we need to keep fighting against it."
If the 21st century woman walks around all day feeling not good enough, it's an indictment on us as a society. And it's unlikely you'd find the equivalent in the male experience.
"Sure, men can have body issues, but do you believe that if a man is applying for a bigger role, his appearance comes into it? They are more likely to see that as irrelevant, to view themselves as a perfectly good example of his genre."
So, what do we do? As feminist, "can we have our cake and eat it too" – literally?
Frances-White believes we can but first we need to radically reimagine our relationship with food. It sounds deceptively simple. Eat when you're hungry. Stop when you're full. Break the "binge-diet" cycle.
"Eat what you want, when you are hungry," she says. "But listen to your body. You might want a doughnut; you may want five doughnuts. But after a while your body will start to crave vegetables and fruit."
She is a huge proponent of "mindful eating" – bringing awareness into the process of food consumption.
"Assess what you want to eat, enjoy it, note how it feels while you're eating it," she says.
Bringing awareness to the process slows it down, makes it less of a compulsion, more of a ritual. She knows that this can be challenging but believes that self-acceptance is the key.
"We are all in different stages. Just start at the place you're at and allow yourself to be in that space."
Frances-White is bringing Guilty Feminist to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch this month, with guests and topic yet to be confirmed. She's well-versed in Antipodean life, having been born and raised in Australia. Adopted at 10 weeks of age, she discovered her birth mother in New Zealand a few years ago. The process of tracking down her biological family (she also has three half-sisters) was documented in a stand-up show, Half a Can of Worms. The reunion occurred in New Zealand.
She'll co-host the shows here (which will be recorded as podcasts for Guilty Feminist) with Cal Wilson, the New Zealand-born comedian who now lives in Australia. Guilty Feminist shows are primarily attended by women and trans-gendered people, although 20 per cent of the audience is likely to be male. While feminism underpins all the content, the show deals in universals – injustice, racism, power imbalances.
And it's imbued with a joyous celebration of imperfection.
"It's incredibly powerful for women to realise they don't have to be perfect, even in their feminism. We are all starting from a place of imperfection. The important thing about this show is that it acknowledges this, but encourages women to accept themselves, to build solidarity, and grow stronger."
Deborah Frances-White is at Christchurch, Isaac Theatre Royal on February 18, Wellington TSB Arena or February 20, and Auckland Q Theatre on February 21-22.