The Food of Love?

We’re in a restaurant having dinner. “I’m paying for this,” he says. He is trying to be assertive, not something that comes naturally. “No, don’t argue. I want to do it.” My first thought is oh, that’s nice of him, but below there is something that won’t let me accept. “But I want to pay for it,” he insists; he’s bewildered by my stubborn refusal. “I’m just trying to be nice.” I know he’s just trying to be nice, and as far as he’s aware, he has no ulterior motive. But I still won’t let him pay.

Have you ever had to argue with a man for the right to pay for your own food? It might sound like a stupid thing to fight for. You could say he’s making a ‘chivalrous’ gesture, and trying to show you he’s a decent kind of guy who doesn’t baulk at forking out for your noodles and beer. If you’ve only ever been used to skinflint students, you might find it a refreshing change. Parsimony is never a sexy quality. I know all this. I know he’s just being nice. So why can’t I accept it?

Have you ever had to argue for the right to pay for your own food?

I never used to understand why it made me so uncomfortable. Like most young girls, I learned that we should aspire to find a man who wines and dines you, buys you boxes of chocolates, brings flowers. Now I understand – it’s because of what it represents. When a man refuses to let you pay for your dinner, what’s really happening is that deep down, it reflects an ingrained cultural belief that a woman can’t afford to feed herself; or maybe that she shouldn’t have the right to. He’s giving you permission to eat.

In all societies, controlling the supply of food brings power. Societies feed the members which they value. In the majority of countries, women and female children eat last, and boys are fed first. Think about when you were younger – was your brother encouraged to eat more, as a ‘growing boy’? Did your mother take smaller portions and serve the rest of the family first?

In what we might call less developed communities, both women and men by necessity take part in food production, yet women’s access to that food is still restricted. Marilyn French was writing about this fourteen years ago in her book The War on Women, where she points out that although the male pursuits of hunting often yield much less food than the female tasks of farming and gathering, men are still seen as providers. We know that female infanticide and selective abortion are harsh realities of a world that values girl children less, but such atrocities are the extreme end of a continuum whereby females are consistently undernourished.

although ‘hunting’ often yields much less food than ‘gathering’, men are still seen as providers

In our society, however, if you have money you can eat no matter who you are. In theory, that is. We certainly aren’t being starved in this country. We can walk into any shop and buy whatever we like to eat. But are we being deprived of food in more subtle ways? An ideology of female thinness leads girls to starve themselves voluntarily, fighting against a dieting regime, a sort of religion of being ‘good’ and ‘naughty’, in which they are both tyrant and subject, priest and penitent. The purge and splurge mentality is alive and well, with binging and cringing as a side order. Even more widespread is borderline malnutrition. Women can eat, but are restricted from the most energy-rich calories in fats and carbohydrates. We’re being ‘naughty’ if we eat high-quality proteins and ‘good’ if we stick to dull roughage and salads.

They don’t advertise slimming products in men’s magazines; at least not to the same extent as in women’s magazines. Even though studies consistently show that some fat may be beneficial to female health and fertility, and even though a high-fat diet is much more dangerous to men, it’s rare to find a man who feels guilty about guzzling down a kebab, a few pizzas, or a full English breakfast.

Which brings me back to my dinner date. If he’s paying, will he be dictating what I eat? Will I feel happy ordering the triple chocolate cake, or the most expensive steak on the menu? If he’s picking up the bill, what’s my end of the bargain? It may be pricey, but I’m much rather pay my half and then feel free to go home alone should I so wish. I’d rather order what I want, and pay for it myself. When a man is always paying for you, however good and innocent his intentions, he’s controlling when and what you can eat.

If he’s picking up the bill, what’s my end of the bargain?

As women, nourishing ourselves is vitally important. As well as looking after our own health, anyone who wants to have children has to strengthen and nourish their body well in advance. We need to take in adequate supplies of iron and calcium. In our generation we have a unique chance to control our own access to food and secure the best nutrition we can for ourselves and our future children (if that’s what we want). So let’s do it. Long ago, in the twenties, Virginia Woolf was pointing out that when women are poorly nourished they can never “think well, love well or sleep well”. I wonder what she’d say about the desiccated and engineered ‘diet’ products and pills that pass for food among women, the watery skimmed milk and pitifully sparse low-fat ‘treats’.

So why do some men still insist on paying all the time? Is it that they have been socialised into believing that this is the only way for they to prove his manliness to their dinner date; that to split the bill is somehow an insult to their masculinity? Could it be that the idea of financially independent women is deeply terrifying in a male-dominated society?

In this way, women’s magazines have betrayed us in no uncertain terms. Claiming to be the voice of women, instead they are the mouthpieces of advertisers. They exist to convince us to buy more. For the first time in our history, women should be earning as much as men. The laws exist to help us, and the employment tribunals are there to help combat sexism and discrimination. Let’s leave aside for the moment the issue of unequal pay and access to pay rises. If women didn’t need men financially, what would change? How would they be controlled? And yet high-earning women still make themselves poor, propelled by guilt into spending thousands on handbags, skin creams, shoes, food supplements, and gym memberships. Women’s money is being clawed back by advertising agencies and big companies, mainly male-run. If we stopped listening to the guilt trips, we might have enough to pay for the man’s dinner for a change.

could it be that the idea of financially independent women is deeply terrifying?

There’s no reason why etiquette should still dictate that the man pays. Chances are he doesn’t earn any more than you, and is equally in debt from student loans as you are. We’ll never move beyond the battle of the sexes if men try to control women through their wallets, or if women exploit men for their money.

I suppose the ideal man would be one who is generous enough to offer to pay, but backs down in the face of my argument. Who, me, wanting to have my cake and eat it? Yes, but I’m happy to pay for the cake too.

Claire McGowan lives in Oxford and tries to forge a career in charity work while watching lots of ads with a notebook and pen, cutting up magazines to make feminist statements, and pretending to deconstruct Hollyoaks.