Dear Helena,

I have a friend who eats like a horse, though she never gets fat. I can’t help making lighthearted comments such as: “You can really pack it away.” One day we both ordered the same thing, spaghetti with three giant meatballs. I could only eat two. My friend ate everything and cleaned her plate with bread. I said something like, “Where do you put it all?” She exploded: “You’re always commenting on how much I eat, and I hate it! Was your mother anorexic or something?” Whoa! I thought I was giving her props! Obviously, it’s rude to remark on how much a woman eats if she’s hefty. But is it rude to comment when skinny or regular-size women eat hearty portions, and if so, why? —Two Meatballs

Dear Two Meatballs,

Some women say they like it when people remark on their hearty appetites. Maralee Burgard, a UC Berkeley student blessed with a fast metabolism, eats such large portions that her friends know to schedule extra time when they share a meal with her. “I feel a sense of pride and empowerment that I’m a woman and can eat more than many men,” she says.

But, unfortunately, most women are anxious about their weight, regardless of their body size. Drawing attention to how much your female companion is eating could trigger feelings of insecurity: “Am I eating too much? Is my friend trying to tell me I’m fat?” You never know how confident a woman is in her relationship with food, so you should never comment on how much (or how little, for that matter) she is consuming.

Besides, the question assumes that there is a generally accepted amount that women should and do eat. Few people would exclaim in wonder when men eat hearty portions. But when a woman eats like a truck driver, men feel moved to comment. Why?

Diane Harriford, director of women’s studies at Vassar College, has one explanation: “Voraciousness is seen as troublesome in women; we’re not supposed to take up too much space, have too many desires.”

A hungry woman stirs up some deep terrors, according to Harriford. “In some preindustrial cultures when there was a scarcity of meat, men knocked women’s teeth out so they couldn’t eat any of it.” When women eat a lot, it may trigger a primitive anxiety about getting enough oneself. Were you afraid your friend might go after your meatballs?

In future, concentrate on what’s on your own plate. Harriford says: “The only other group’s eating you comment on is children. The assumption is they don’t have the sense to know how much to eat. So commenting on how much women eat is worse than poor etiquette. It’s infantilizing.” It’s even worse than ordering for her without permission.

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