Woman eating salad at work

Are you ‘performatively eating’, or do you really want a salad for lunch?

Posted by for Nutrition

If you’re the ‘fit friend’ in your group, chances are that you’re known for eating ‘right’ and exercising. But how much of what you eat around your mates or in the office is performative, and how much is it a genuine desire to eat steamed broccoli?

Whether it’s a mid-week lunch in the office or a fabulous bottomless brunch with your mates, choosing what to eat can be fraught with decisions. The biggest one, usually, is making the right choice so that you don’t eat up with food FOMO. There’s nothing worse than ordering something mildly interesting, only to find your friend has ordered something far tastier.

But for some of us, eating in public has a different significance. When you’re known for being ‘the fitness one’, it’s easy to allow that idea of you to translate into what you eat or what you’re seen eating. It’s then that you might decide to buy a salad or choose the raw pizza option, because that’s what you think is expected of you. 

It doesn’t have to be linked to your current fitness; perhaps you’ve spoken about ‘getting healthy’ or you feel the need to show that you’re trying to make ‘better’ life decisions than having a burger (when sometimes a burger is the best decision of the day). Whatever the reason, this concept is something many of us are all too familiar with, and it’s been given a name: performative eating.

Nutritionist Izzy (@itsahealthylifestyle) posted a guide to ‘letting go of performative eating’, which she defined as “eating in a way I thought I was expected to (as) my intently was the ‘fit girl’, ‘the gym bunny’ and ‘the healthy one’.” That manifested in wanting to eat ‘perfectly’, whether that was on a date or with friends.

It’s almost as if some of us people-please with our food choices and Izzy goes on to draw a link between performative eating and perfectionism. The need to make the ‘right’ food choice can be overwhelming.

As the only vegan and only runner of my friendship group, I know that feeling only too well. We might start off carving out our own identities but it doesn’t take long for that identity to control our eating habits. If I suddenly decide one day to stop being vegan, what happens then? If I didn’t eat healthily, what right would I have to be in my job? Would letting go of my food identity make me feel less secure?

Morgan Fargo, Stylist’s beauty writer, knows that conundrum only too well: “I would often take lunches of salmon with spinach and avocado into work (I was doing shift work at the time) because a. I truly believed this was what healthy food was meant to look like and b. there was always a conversation in the work kitchen about health, healthy food, what was best, what new trends or research people had heard and I never wanted to feel as if I wasn’t somehow ahead of these things and wasn’t taking care of myself in the best, healthiest most modern way possible,” she explains.

“I also posted a lot of my food on Instagram at the time and found connection with people trying the recipes or foods I uploaded. This made me feel as if I had to be eating super ‘clean’ 24/7 or I’d be found to be a fraud. I would often eat avocado toast for dinner because I knew that was a healthy safe option, rather than something that would fill me up (and now can’t eat eggs or avocado without feeling extremely nauseous).”

Food is social – and therefore subject to social pressures

Morgan’s situation isn’t unique. Nutritionist Kimberley Neve explains that food is naturally very social, and that it’s common for societal pressures to influence food intake. “Women in particularly tend to be very aware of how others perceive them, and the crossover of appearance and identity is a really important consideration.”

Eventually, Morgan let go of her fitness identity because ‘the net only gets smaller’ – the list of ‘good’ foods becomes ever more restricted. “I wanted to feel confident and comfortable around all different types of foods and eat in a way that made me feel satiated, energised and strong – most of which came about by stopping thinking so much about it. I now naturally operate at a good balance and eat a really varied fun healthy diet – not because I feel I should, but because I want to and my body likes it.”

Redefining what ‘healthy eating’ looks like

The thing about performative eating is that, in my experience, it tends to involve eating ‘healthy foods’. All of those fruit and vegetables, all the non-alcoholic drinks… that has to have some health pay-off, even if it’s not ‘fun’… right? Well, Neve is quick to point out that food isn’t just about nutrition: “It’s about comfort, happiness, social occasions and much more. A healthy way to eat is one that makes you feel good, both physically and mentally, and eating anything because of a fear of others’ perceptions is not a happy or healthy way to live.”

Social media also doesn’t help. For years, we’ve been subjected to influencers sharing what they eat in a day and contending with those who used to be ‘clean eating’ now shoving intuitive eating down our throats – and shaming anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that way of living. Surely all nutrition and food on the ‘gram is ‘performative’ for these people, because it all adds to their brand? Ultimately, to break the cycle, it might require taking a proper break from social media and the pressure to catalog our lives. 

How can we recognise if we’re performatively eating, and how can we overcome it?

“A good way to recognise it is if you’re planning what you eat based on where you will be when you’re eating and, most importantly, who you’re with,” explains Neve. “If you would choose something different if you were to eat alone, that’s a sign that you may be trying to ‘impress’ or fit in with expectations of you (that are very likely not even really there). Feeling tense when you eat, as if you’re being watched, may also be a sign that you’re worried about what others will think about your food choices.”

To overcome that pattern, there’s only one thing you can do: face your insecurities. We feel pressure to eat a certain way because we’ve got low body confidence or we’re worried about feeling ‘less’ than someone else. As ever, it’s not about the food but food being something we can control. Neve suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I feel this way because I don’t feel confident with my body?
  • If I think my friends would genuinely judge me for my lunch, are they really friends?
  • Am I worried people will think I’m fat or greedy for eating carbs/ chocolate/ crisps? (If so, you might want to consider getting some help with these thoughts.)
  • Do I have a tendency to binge eat foods when I am alone because of eating in a restricted way around others? (“This is a red flag for disordered eating patterns,” Neve says. “Again, I’d consider getting some help from a professional for this.”)

“A healthy, balanced diet will include all foods – and no-one knows your genes, food history, what you ate for breakfast, how much activity you’ve done,” says Neve. “Take confidence in knowing that you nourish your body the way you need to, and people will only ever see a snapshot of that. Let them judge.” 

For more nutrition news, first-person pieces and healthy recipes, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.