No absolutely, I feel treasured, like a kingfisher, when you snap an illicit shot of me snarfing the escaped scraps of my tortilla-based lunch out of the recesses of my sleeve and then post it to a webpage so the trolls of Appetite Police UK can gurn and cackle over my parted lips and visible mucus membrane. No, you’re right, I just need to get a sense of humour (this is a joke, yeah?) and then I’d realise that shaming disguised in a perve hat and a moustache and calling itself ‘art’ is actually just harmless fun. You can call me a frigid harridan and I can say you’ve got a tiny cock and everything will be equal in gender politics. Huzzah.
I’m learning to get good at taking constructive criticism so, here’s me, getting light-hearted about policing women’s behaviour and joining the protest against the bit-of-cheeky-fun-turned-shit-throwing-rumpus that is the Women Who Eat On The Tube facebook page. I turned up at Kensington High Street tube station, clutching my grub of choice in a paper bag (a change from the usual can of Stella), to join all the others waving lunchboxes and napkins, ready to demonstrate that Women Who Eat On The Tube Are Aggravated And Will EAT CRISPS IN YOUR FACE. I’m making it sound militant, it wasn’t really, it was perfectly good-natured with people dangling precariously from handrails and listing in time to the train to share their sandwiches. Apart from the jostling media battling over the banana-in-gob money shots (and the odd male journalist who seemed keen to make us all look stupid, like we hadn’t noticed that cramming together in the arm-pit smelling, life-sapping, tube-fug to wedge Tesco jumbo-choc-chip-of-shame-cookies in our mouths for the cameras in the name of equality was verging on the laughable). But still.
It was fun. It was silly but it was still a protest.
To explain, for anyone in the UK who has been in a box/abroad for the last two weeks, the WWEOT facebook page invites its members to snap illicit shots of women eating on the tube and post them to the group to be commented on. Since various articles surfaced last week, the debate has raged over whether the (now closed group) page is ‘observational art’ (like my arse) as described by its founder, Tony Burke, or whether it’s a misogynistic hotbed of creepy folks getting a kick out of shaming women. Joining the mobile picnic gave me the chance to chat to some of the people there, whilst throwing my lunch all over myself as we lurched towards Hammersmith.
Despite Mr Burke reckoning that feminism was ‘not relevant’ in this debate, most people at the picnic felt that his opinion was ‘bullshit’ (I’m paraphrasing) and their problem with the site boiled down to the fact that it was shaming women for eating in public – Burke had claimed in an interview that he’d chosen to focus on women because he needed a niche and saw more women than men eating on the tube so considered it would be a ‘richer vein’. We considered that what he really needed was probably a wank but he didn’t want to say ‘wank’ on BBC Radio 4.
Pretty much everyone picnicking reckoned that this was the man-guilty-of-self-serving-policing-of-women’s-bodies version of an embarrassed cat scraping fluff over its shit on the carpet. This kind of social control of women’s behaviour is so normalised now that it’s become invisible and almost acceptable. What I found truly disturbing is not only how Burke claimed ‘the story’ was what was really important about the images (what story? Woman gets hungry, women eats food… man imagines her baguette is his cock?) but how many people defended his behaviour as totally fine and normal. He tried to make it a question of privacy in general but there’s an unmistakable whiff of gender politics about the whole thing, however he might try to frame it. He’s pretty much already pissed in his own chips by writing this fantastically gross intro to the site, totally killing any suggestion that this isn’t about male gaze, power, shaming and eroticising women:
“Everywhere I go, I see women eating on Tubes. Like little mice hiding packets of crisps and biscuits in their bags and purses. Slowly, secretly, guiltily raising each bite-sized morsel to their salty lips in the hope that no one’s watching. Well, I’m watching. And I’m photographing, documenting the fascinating world of the Women Who Eat on Tubes”
Way to go, Burke, absolutely no one thinks you’re a creep now. Why not liken women to exotic London fauna and your efforts to ‘wildlife photography’? Oh no, wait…
In his defence, I don’t think he ever intended to mortify loads of women or horribly objectify them, I suspect that he just thoughtlessly took snaps of the slightly titillating topic of women eating but it went ‘radioactive’ and bit him in the arse. Likewise, I can understand people who think that this is a massively overblown feminist hissy fit over something minor when we should be agitating for world peace. But this beautifully illustrates what happens when men and women clash over gender politics in the public realm – when women get angry they’re told to lighten up and get a sense of humour (a la Burke stylee), when they retaliate with something humorous, they’re dismissed as stupid or silly. In any case, the chastised man doesn’t apologise or accept that his behaviour is any less than absolutely fine and makes up some spurious nobbery in defence of his absolutely fine actions.
I accept (aren’t I big?) that there is a big question here about how easy it is to snap and shame people now, broadcasting our mockery to millions in just a click or two. Whether it’s people drooling on themselves on the bus (we’ve all been there), the awesome combo of shorts held up with string and leather jacket that you haven’t seen since your dad quit his band or a hot guy on the tube that you just had to capture, our small-scale objectification generates a low-grade poison that affects us all. Burke and his followers cite Tube Crush as an equally galling example where people post sneaked images of men they fancy on the tube, as some kind of justification of WWEOT because, chuh, people are totally, like, objectifying men too.
Firstly, the fact that that person over there is poking that person in the eye does not make it ok for you to do it to me. Secondly, it is not my place to speak for all those hurt and humiliated men that have not come forward to complain about the site (or maybe they have? I don’t know) because they don’t like being objectified and referred to as ‘The Straddled Kindle Reader’. Finally, this site is explicitly about men blah blah stuff about balance of power blah blah as much as I don’t condone rape culture in any variety (scary ladies threatening to ‘pin down’ Mr Pin Up is not the badger’s nadgers) or sexual objectification, this site is banging on about how hot they are, not shaming or insulting them and it’s about men. It’s still not great. That doesn’t make WWEOT AOK.
But what really gets my rabbit about WWEOT is it demonstrates how unacceptable it is for women to have, much less satisfy, their own appetite. As a woman who has always been a little bit fat, I’m pretty aware about the inferences made about my appetites based on my size – that I am insatiable, greedy, all-consuming, of food, sex, men, control, whatever, that I will eat the world and still be fat, ugly and unworthy. I read once that ‘man is jealous of woman’s pleasure’ and a woman, alone, eating on the tube, is nourishing only herself, something that seems to be viewed as unforgivable when she should be satisfying only others. Women are not immune to this conditioning and can be equally harsh about other women eating. But by taking her photo and posting in on WWEOT, whoever does it is it taking away that personal moment of pleasure or sustenance, and making it all about the viewer, eroticising or shaming the subject to switch up the power.
This need to oppress women in this so-subtle-it’s-almost-acceptable fashion doesn’t help anyone. Insisting that women need to be controlled or stripped of power suppresses their ability to contribute fully to society and places men in the precarious position of always having to be powerful to demonstrate their manliness. The huge majority of suicides in the UK are men – we don’t teach them how to manage feeling weak and ask for help, just like we don’t teach our women to take what they are entitled to. A newspaper lady asked me what I thought about the new privacy laws and I said laws probably wouldn’t be as helpful as trying to build a society where peoplemight just be a bit more respectful and a bit less likely to photograph a gaping cake-hole for the sake of a snicker.
Which left me with one major question – what do I take to eat? A cream-filled chocolate eclair or a banana to inspire the euphemisms? Or am I trying to make the point that women should be allowed to eat without it being a sexual performance? Whatever, I wasn’t eating any calorie-policed salad. I went with the beef sandwich. Bring on the meat gags.