For decades, there was a stigma around women eating out alone. In 1964 the New York Times published a piece about how single women were not always well received at restaurants and how other women were too self-conscious even to try it. Now many women are discovering that eating out alone isn’t shameful. It can even be a treat. Still, for those of us who are not men, an act as simple as going into a restaurant alone can be fraught. It raises questions about our identity and agency and whether we are allowed to be happy as unaccompanied beings.
For women in conservative religious cultures, there’s an added moral weight, a suspicion that we’re not allowed to enjoy things unless we’re enjoying them with others, creating them for others. Our gift to the world is service and sacrifice, so if we dare pursue them for ourselves, even the simplest pleasures become suspect.
Every conservative, Christian girl grows up with the story about Eve eating the forbidden fruit. Thanks to that unruly woman who, left alone and unattended, yielded to her appetites and ate something she shouldn’t, evil entered the world. Later, when the girl gets a little older, she hears from religious authorities, even from her parents, that the mess and pain associated with her reproductive biology are also due to Eve’s sin.
The kind of femininity acceptable in those cultures is represented in images of women who are slender, girlish, innocent-looking. The women in these images are almost always white, a trend connected with racist assumptions tying certain traits to ethnicity and skin color. They are always thin, sending the message that fat women are somehow less worthy, less virtuous. And the girls are usually young, suggesting innocence, inexperience and docility.
Original sin is supposed to affect all humanity, but from the early days of the church, Christian women have been hearing that the contagion of sin and death is especially concentrated in our bodies, our curiosity, our appetites. It makes it hard for us to experience our own physical pleasures or intellectual curiosity as anything other than dangerous. Even after I’d learned to read the creation stories in Genesis within their cultural context, I had a residual anxiety regarding this metaphysical complicity with evil.
And this spilled over into my approach to eating. As a teen and in my early twenties, I vacillated between overeating and undereating. Sometimes I didn’t want to be seen eating. It seemed somehow degrading or embarrassing. Sometimes, after refusing to eat in public, I would binge eat where no one could see me. Though I have left that subculture, I still carry that guilt and scrupulosity with me into social justice-oriented Christian spaces. It tells me that I am selfish to fixate on the desire for joy or comfort. It tells me that my words and actions are empty unless I am doing something big for the common good. Because I myself do not matter.
There has been a lot of discussion, in deconstructing circles, about how purity culture distorts Jesus’ Gospel, so our Christian identity becomes wrapped up, not with Jesus’ call to love and do justice but rather with debilitating feelings of shame around our bodies and sexuality and obsessive scrupulosity. Lately I have been thinking about how this distorts our approach to such basic human activities as eating and enjoying food, as well. Of course Christian women who have been trained to see our own desire to eat a peach as a portal for evil are going to have difficult relationships with food.
It is already hard to have a healthy relationship with food in a society that bombards us with messages about the importance of being thin and beautiful but also bombards us with advertisements for food. Though we are experiencing a cultural shift toward body positivity, we still have a long way to go. It doesn’t help when our faith tradition has taught us that our simple desire to enjoy a meal for ourselves makes us selfish and sinful.
Theologian Matthew Fox has stressed that we should look at the story of creation with an emphasis on “original blessing” as more foundational than that of original sin, pointing out that the notion of original sin is present neither in Hebrew scriptures nor in the teachings of Jesus. For years I resisted this idea because I find, in a broken world where so much suffering goes unabated, that the concept of original sin, if not the official teachings surrounding it, to be valuable. Also, in light of evolution, connecting original sin with a primordial act of disobedience doesn’t work very well. But clearly something is poisoned in humanity. Our history of war, oppression, slavery and genocide shows it. Our relationships with one another, and with the Earth, show it. And the suffering of animals suggests that this poison, whatever it is, runs through all of the natural world.
In this world where suffering and joy are often so intimately connected and innocent choices bring on unintended catastrophe, it’s no wonder that the art of tragedy has been so powerful and meaningful across cultures for centuries. It is true that our curiosity or desire can sometimes lead us into danger. This doesn’t mean they are evil or sinful but that, if we want to live ethical lives, we have to remain mindful in our actions. It also means that those of us who are more vulnerable learn habits of self-protection early on. Women carry pepper spray when walking after dark or hesitate to dine alone in restaurants. Black parents teach their children how to respond in a confrontation with cops. LGBTQ+ people learn how to disguise their identities in unsafe places.
I don’t think we should reject beliefs about shame and guilt wholesale. I think we need to readjust our moral disposition so we learn to feel guilt for things that are actually unethical, not about things that are innocent and human. We may still be carrying residual feelings of shame and anxiety about being embodied, about having physical appetites and the desire for knowledge and experience. So happy, chirpy messages telling us to “love our bodies” or “just enjoy things” may not be useful for us. But I think it is important, sometimes even healing, for us to allow ourselves that space simply to exist, on our own, without needing to be creating or fixing things for others. This is especially important for those who have been engaged in activism or justice work, or who spend much of their lives caring for others. But basic rest and enjoyment shouldn’t be seen as a reward for good behavior, either. They are just human.
With this in mind, I like to read the story of Eve not as an act of shameful evil nor as a triumphant vindication. I think of her as a person full of questions, yearning for knowledge and experience. I think of her choice to eat the forbidden fruit as something tentative, a little daring, a little scared, a little heedless, as so many of us are when we are young. I don’t blame her, nor do I praise her. I see myself in her with, however, a kind of rueful tenderness.
You make one little mistake, and everything comes crashing down. You wonder why one little good and wise deed never seems to have the same potency. You are still filled with questions and curiosity, a little older now, a little more weary.
For those of us still carrying baggage from years of conditioning to feel shame around our physical existence in the world, we may not be ready for body positivity. Our inability to love ourselves and our bodies may provoke added shame. But it can be helpful to reframe our perspective on the story of Eve so that it is true to the reality we experience. We don’t need to blame her. We don’t need to praise her. Her story is a truthful myth about how easily our choices go awry and bring on tragedy. It should not warn us away from the desire for experience or shame us for simple things like eating alone. But Eve’s story, paradoxically, affirms that it’s okay for us to be a little bit of a mess, imperfectly joyful, in a world where happiness can be so fragile and fleeting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer and academic residing in rural Ohio. She is the digital editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and can be found at rebeccabrattenweiss.com.