Women who eat on the tube
In the 18th century (don’t have to remember the date – benefits of writing on your own tumblr), Jonathan Swift wrote a poem called The Lady’s Dressing Room. It’s about a grubby little pervert called Strephon who sneaks into a posh bird called Celia’s bedroom and is horrified to discover evidence that she isn’t the delicate nymph she appears to be, but a sweating, smelling, defecating human being. Swift writes:
Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
I’m quite the Swiftophile, so perhaps I’m being generous when I say I think that poem is a satire on patriarchy above anything else (though perhaps Swift, a Church of Ireland minister, wouldn’t have used the word ‘patriarchy’). I like to think Swift is mocking the incongruity of a woman’s public appearance with her private body, rather than being misogynistic towards Celia herself. The joke is on society, for producing a situation where Strephon could legitimately be so shocked at the banal discovery that women do, in fact, shit.
Fast forward three hundred years, and after a few waves of feminism, you’d think we’d have made some advances. Alas, the tumblr “Women who eat on the tube” is here to correct us. This time, shitting has been replaced by eating as the non-consensual window into a woman’s bodily functions. When Strephon sneaks into Celia’s room, he expects to find fairy dust or fallen blossom, not excrement. He exposes her bodily functions by accident. For the men posting photos of women eating on the tube, the exposure is on purpose. In either case, the result is the same: the spell is broken, and no longer is the female subject an ephemeral beauty, but a slovenly, shitty thing. Swift concludes the poem with a comment on Celia’s artifice: “such gaudy tulips made from dung.”
Whatever Heston Blumenthal would have us believe, eating is ultimately just another bodily function. When we see someone eat, we are unconsciously reminded that they also shit. It’s not necessarily even that the end result of eating is shitting; just a reminder that the eater in question has a body which processes things. It removes us from high-minded images of ourselves and recalibrates us as functional, meaty machines. Pap a woman eating without her knowledge and you’re doing what Strephon does in Swift’s poem: you’re revealing the fact that her body eats and shits.
In a world where a lot of women’s social power is linked to how closely they emulate an inoffensive delicate, doll-like feminine ideal, this matters quite a lot. Of course it sucks that women should have pretend to be inhuman dolls the first place, but women need to address that fact themselves in a way that suits them. To have the façade yanked away from them by (mostly) men – without addressing any of the social structures that make it necessary – is humiliating, disempowering, and downright cruel. When you take a photo of a woman eating on the tube and put it up in a popular forum, you are capturing that woman at an intimate, vulnerable moment and making it public. You are saying to her “we know you’re not the inviolable angel you’re pretending to be. We know you’re dirty.” And if you don’t believe the tumblr has those undertones, just look at the comments beneath the photos, which refer to women as “fat pigs,” and talk of their “gaping orifices.” Once a woman has fallen from grace (or has been pulled from it by modern-day grubby Strephons), she forgoes the right to dignity.
Defenders of WWEOTT say the woman is in public anyway, but I think we all know these women are relying on the relative anonymity of London transport to allow them a private moment. These defenders might also say it’s all light-hearted fun, but given I’ve seen a lot women saying they’re too afraid to eat on the tube now, it doesn’t seem light-hearted. It seems shaming and embarrassing. It seems like another in the litany of ways in which women are not allowed to be human in public.