My Aunt Lily once said that theory is like the backbone of fish swimming down the river of life. I quite agree and I, like a strong willed Tench, have vertebrae packed full with the goodness of precocious thought. Indeed the other day I started thinking the prejudice attached to women consuming greasy food. The result was the mistresspiece below, which would make even Baudrillard blush.
I include the hefty essay 'Women and Kebabs: An Orientalist Perspective' below for your viewing pleasure. After reading it I'm sure you'll be puzzled as I was upon discovering that it was rejected by the Feminist Review. Philistines!
Women and Kebabs: An Orientalist Perspective
Although it was dark at the time, the other night I started to see the world in a whole new light. I was out with some friends and after several rounds of very strong lychee martinis and a bop around the Groucho club I felt it was time for my ceremonious Saturday night kebab.
I have always loved kebabs. At university ‘The Kebab King’ van was permanently parked outside my halls of residence, and even when I once found a little piece of blue plastic in the meat, I kept on eating the stuff; just grateful in the knowledge that I hadn’t choked to death. But on said night, and of mildly discombobulated mind, my decision to order a large lamb doner was not met with mutual adoration.
“Are you seriously going to get a kebab? That’s gross!” my male friends preached, (and these are heterosexual alpha male type men). “We’re just going for the burgers.”
I had to ask myself the question: what’s so wrong with women eating kebabs? In fact the more I thought about it kebabs have become a kind of self-defence mechanism for me. I don’t mean in terms of binge eating or bulimia, lord no, but as a weapon to ward off over-enthusiastic males. I often find that an awkward moment at the end of an evening can quickly be distilled with the words “Cor I could murder a kebab!” Men just don’t like it, and quick to follow male dislike comes the rest of society.
Information in the press about the unhealthy properties of kebabs is all too often framed in references to women’s health. Of course they aren’t good for you. They can contain up to 140g of fat, which is twice the maximum daily allowance for women, and the calorific equivalent of a wine glass of cooking oil. Yet women in particular are penalised for eating them. For instance Kerrie Catona was recently lambasted for eating (quote) ‘a mammoth kebab laden with lashings of mayo after a night out with a female pal in Blackpool’. The Daily Mail was disgusted when the ‘mum-of-four happily scoffed down the unhealthy feast, despite vowing to shed weight after unflattering pictures of her on holiday were printed recently’. Similarly when Jacqui Smith was criticized for announcing that she would not feel safe ordering a kebab in Peckham, one has to ask whether she was disliked for her dismal inappropriateness, or for the fact she likes kebabs?
Okay, so kebabs aren’t good for us and that’s why they’re frowned upon, right? Wrong. If Foucault has taught us anything it is that life’s just not that simple. My friends don’t grimace when I order chips or a jumbo box of chicken wings. In fact when I (occasionally) smoke a Vogue cigarette they think I’m the coolest lady in London N1. From Eve onwards a woman’s relationship with food has been riddled with complications and this is just another far too complex rant about what they might be.
Feminists teach us that one reason women are scorned for indulging in unhealthy foods is because piling on the pounds directly interferes with their so called ‘bodily maintenance’. Shows like You Are What You Eat (C4) starring the witch-like
Scot, Dr. Gillian McKeith, are perfect examples of how the media regulate the female body and force subjects to abide by the rules of dietary control. What’s more, these programs are often violent in their regulation and frequently televise white working class mums being shamed by their middle class rivals (think Trinny and Susanna) for their obesity and for pushing the disease upon their children. In short they are blamed for not understanding the basic principles of nutrition. Now I don’t approve of obesity, but I understand that being fat is rarely a straightforward question of ‘choice’. I was lucky enough to have been raised by an Auntie who was a marvellous cook and grew her own vegetables, so from a young age I was taught how to maintain a healthy balanced lifestyle. However, there are some who are just not so fortunate.
In fact ‘make over’ programs such as these are distinctly post-feminist in their outlook, purporting a view of femininity that depends upon women having consumer power, i.e. enough money to buy their organic apples and free range chickens from M&S. In this respect eating bad foods not only demonstrates an inability to regulate ones body, but also implies a lack of education and consumer capital. One could argue that the kind of food you eat symbolizes your degree of social privilege. For instance: Grouse / upper class; Sushi / middle class; Burger / working class. But what of the kebab? It is a dish so badly frowned upon that it must represent more than simply being working class. But what?
In order to understand the stigma of a woman eating a kebab we must first consider its history. The word ‘kebab’ refers to a number of meat dishes in Arabian and Eastern cuisines. Do these eastern origins have something to do with the disdain surrounding its consumption? In his seminal study Orientalism, Edward Siad taught us that images of the east are social constructions that reflect the values of the voyeur as much as the viewed. A long line of feminists have traced links between western concepts of femininity and Orientalism and I believe that understanding the relationship between them could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of Kebab Stigma.
In a fascinating study called Beyond the Frame Deborah Cherry explores the relationship between orientalism and female subjectification in the 19th century. Cherry makes the persuasive argument that the expansion of the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria introduced alternate cultures into Britain and this new ‘imperialism’ from overseas provided a physical and refreshing open space for British women to develop alternate modes of femininity. The introduction of Orientalism, Cherry argues, offered 19th century feminists an opportunity to redefine themselves by allowing women to depict their emancipated modernityin contrast to the subservience of ‘native’ women. In fact the occidental trend to dress in Ottoman-inspired clothes became so popular amongst ladies of London that they started stocking them in Liberty's. The juxtaposition between the occidental ‘Other’ and the Western woman allowed feminists to express their independence and defiance. It granted them a social and artistic space within which to act by flouting convention without being improper.
“So what does all this have to do with kebabs?” I hear you ask.
According to my argument, eating a kebab isn’t just about eating a fatty piece of (very tasty) meat in between two slabs of pitta, nor is it’s condemnation based simply upon its high calorie content. Rather the eastern promise of the hearty kebab, which makes it an explicitly non-western food type, means that it acquires a symbolic value that challenges norms within our own society. It is the ‘Other’ of takeaway food types. Yet at the same time the kebab is not only ‘Othered’ simply because it is from abroad, but because, as I have previously mentioned, it is a means of flouting bodily regulation. Scoffing one down also challenges the post-feminist ‘norm’ of the white middle class woman by associating its eater with the working classes. In this respect its condemnation resides in its symbolic status as a food type that functions as a deliberate means of flouting social convention. Think about it: is eating a kebab that different to donning an Ottoman dress and walking round London in the 19th century? They are both foreign and, at times, shocking. But more importantly they are both statements that challenge preconceived notions of western femininity.
It is precisely the foreign Otherness of the kebab, its Orientalism, which makes it the most self-conscious type of fast food. Unlike its American cousins the burger and southern fried chicken, the Otherness of the kebab make its unhealthiness function as a symbolic expression of defiance, as women consciously indulge in corporeal deregulation. Kebabs are self-functioning symbols of her choice to defy these norms. In other words when I get a kebab I am not only associating myself with the malpractice of poor bodily regulation (and subsequently of being working class / poorly educated), but I am positioning myself as a free agent openly ascribing to its means of social defiance. Eating a kebab is like sticking a finger up at society; filming it and then playing it back to society with you in the audience (and if you don’t get post-modernism after that metaphor then you probably never will).
We must take this time to honour the kebab. For it is Othered as women like us are also Othered by the media, by misogyny and even by other women. The kebab represents all of this and more. In eating it we are consciously swallowing down all that is frowned upon. It is the martyr of food types, and so we must show it respect. Go forth, eat, and when you do eat with pride (but don’t have too many because you will die from high cholesterol).