Eating Last, Eating Least

Malnutrition and food security are intimately connected with issues of gender. One such culturally-oriented gender norm is the amount and order in which women eat. This seemingly small gendered habit of culture has broader ramifications about gender inequity and female self-help and self-determination.

In many countries in the world, in spite of the fact that women are overwhelmingly responsible for growing, gathering, preparing, cooking, and serving food, women tend to eat last. Because of this and other reasons, they also tend to eat the least. The first, largest and best portions are served to adult men and male children (or children generally); women are often culturally expected to condone and be pleased with this sacrifice, for their part.

When confronted by a food crisis (as catalyzed by drought, crop disease, conflict, and many other natural and human-made causes), the results of this cultural habit become obvious: women are left with the smallest and often least-nutritious portions at the end of a meal.

One might assume that we are only talking about Africa, or Southeast Asia. But the sacrifice of basic necessities, like food, on the part of women is a phenomenon that can be found in “developed” countries, too. The recession in the States has seen some women going to extraordinary lengths to provide for their families, including depriving themselves of sleep (although women tend to sleep less on average, anyway) and rationing their (sometimes crucial) medication.

I’ve often noticed that here in Cambodia, women tend to eat last. This is because women with small children are obliged to feed children first; children are often allowed to run around during a meal, so women sometimes situate themselves in places where they can intercept children to get them to eat (e.g. sitting on the floor of the living room rather than at the kitchen table with the rest of the family). Another reason is that some women are too tired or too busy to eat with their families; they are busy serving rice, refilling the soup bowl, going outside to retrieve something off the grill. Sometimes they end up eating a meal long after everyone else has finished.

Come to think of it, that reminds me an awful lot of my own mom. She was often so busy feeding/serving the rest of us that at the end of it all she would either join the meal and then continuously have to get up again (get something from the microwave, the fridge, the grill, etc.), or join the meal after one or more of us were finished.

Another reason Cambodian women skip meals or eat smaller portions is because they simply don’t have enough time or money. A friend of mine whose a noodle seller often skips meals. She makes meals for other people, both customers and her own family, but she, herself, often only eats one or two meals a day. This, despite the fact that she is burning possibly 50% more calories than any other member of her household.

This image of women as eternally self-sacrificing mothers does not just disadvantage women on an individual level; women’s overall self-perception, as a group, tends to be maternal and self-sacrificing. The woman who chooses a career path over a “family path”, or who simply wants to have a job in addition to being a mom, may feel guilty or even “unnatural” about such a decision. The woman who doesn’t want to have children may feel stigmatized as “unfeminine” or “unwomanly” (and also “unnatural”). But women’s perception of themselves need not be any more self-sacrificing than their male counterparts. When women are continuously obliged to put the needs and wants of other family members first, they are also putting themselves at increased risk for mental health problems. The issue is cyclical, as mental health issues in turn decrease women’s productivity, and personal satisfaction with and enjoyment of daily life. They are also less likely to see how their personal issues connect to larger structures of gender inequity, as if they are suffering alone and that is as it should be. This is ideal for the maintenance of such a system: the self-sacrificing servant (or slave) is much easier to control, coerce, and take advantage of than one that is aware that they are not suffering alone.

Most mothers are never going to eat if it means their children aren’t going to eat, but there is no reason why a father should not be equally self-sacrificing (and many are). There should be no need for gendered norms like this, but rather our culture should embrace a norm of equal access to resources (including food, time, and money), regardless of gender.


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