Here’s Why Elizabeth Warren’s Eating Habits Made It into the Debate
At the conclusion of Monday night’s debate, Elizabeth Warren made a statement that was puzzling even in the context of the evening’s debauchery.
The moderators’ final question for the candidates was two-fold: “What is your motto? and What is the biggest misconception people have about you?”
To answer part two of the fluffy question, many of the candidates used humor — Mike Bloomberg said the biggest misconception people have of him is that he’s six feet tall (he rather notoriously stands at 5’7”); Joe Biden said “the biggest misconception is that I have more hair than I think I do,” which, sure, we get where he’s going with that — while Pete Buttigieg said people think he’s not “passionate,” which is the Democratic debate equivalent of telling a job interviewer that your biggest flaw is that you “care too much.” We’re sure Tom Steyer said something.
Warren, also attempting to lighten the mood with humor, told the moderators with a smile that the biggest misconception about her was that “I don’t eat very much,” adding, “in fact, I eat all the time.” Her jovial demeanor conveyed that the statement was a joke, perhaps something to lighten the mood before she hit us with a surprise Bible verse. But the moment was uncomfortable not just because the joke didn’t land, but because Warren, for the first time that I can recall, made a comment about her body — one that wasn’t the politically correct version of “fuck off, it’s none of your business.” Her insistence that she, like the rest of humans, eats, was powerful because of the message that lies underneath the surface.
In a recent NBC News interview, Warren noted that former candidates and fellow senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand regularly check in on her by asking to see if she’s taking care of herself. "Kamala and Kirsten, in particular, ask me am I getting rest? Am I eating? And am I having some fun out there?" Warren said. A lack of appetite is a common symptom of stress, and these women understand the stress of running a presidential campaign. But comments like this, said in a different context, or lobbed as judgments by strangers online, are something other than genuine concern.
Though they’re often disguised as concerns about a woman’s health, these kind of comments about whether a woman is eating enough (or too much) are rooted in society’s expectations of what a women’s body should look like. Who’s to say, besides a medical professional, what’s “too skinny” for one woman? Or what’s too fat? And why do we still feel like it’s OK to comment on a woman’s body at all?
Although in her answer she did not explicitly address who, in particular, had mentioned she didn’t eat enough, she has been labeled “skinny” in the past by none other than President Trump himself. On social media, too, her weight has been held against her.
Warren previously expressed that critiques of her weight is something she’s dealt with for longer than just the time she’s been on the campaign trail. “I was skinny and young (I’d skipped a grade) and so sure everyone else had something I didn’t have and didn’t understand,” she said of being underestimated as a slight high school sophomore.
Even her response, that she does eat, was criticized, proving it really, truly is impossible for women to win.
It’s these expectations of what is “acceptable” and what is not that can be particularly damaging to women. Inquiring about a person’s eating habits is a slippery workaround that has been invented for the sole purpose of commenting on a woman’s weight, or shape, or general appearance. Insisting to people that you do, in fact, eat, and that you eat “enough,” at that, is a familiar line for those of us recovering from disordered eating, who have answered the call of concerned parents or friends with a defensive, “I’m fine. I eat, I eat enough.” But it’s also familiar to healthy women, who may be caught off guard when an acquaintance or even a friend slides an “are you eating enough?” into a casual conversation. In an ideal world, sure, this conversation might be par for the course in discussing the stresses of everyday life. But we don’t yet live in that world where simply noting out loud that a teenage girl is going for a second helping of mashed potatoes isn’t seared into her brain as an comment about her thighs, or where skipping dessert is interpreted as anything but a woman “watching her figure.”
Throughout her campaign, Warren has spoken of her candidacy as a woman countless times — of overcoming sexism, of uplifting fellow women, and making sure their voices are heard. It was just last week that she wiped the debate stage floor with Bloomberg’s lifeless body while discussing his disgusting comments about women and the multiple NDAs that are currently silencing those women who have accused him of wrongdoing in the past. She often uses female pronouns when speaking of the responsibilities of the future president, and took on the sexist question of a woman’s “electability” head on without making it her campaign’s central theme. Though she and Amy Klobuchar have little in common save for their sex and their love of the color purple, she has repeatedly lifted her up, celebrating the fact that she has never lost an election (they both haven’t) and fighting off the men (Biden, Buttigieg) when they mansplain her own policies to her, or repeatedly cut her off.
But hearing Warren’s words on stage in South Carolina last night was one of the first instances in which it seemed Warren had to defend her womanhood in a way that went beyond the empowering, T-shirt worthy messages she uses to disarm misogynistic critiques. It was a reflexive answer only a woman would feel the need to give, and relatable for that fact. What woman among us hasn’t, at some point in her life, answered a judgment about her body?
Warren’s comment, however quick, however inconsequential in the larger frame of a debate that’s been called a dumpster fire by voters and news outlets alike, is not the thing that people will take away from the chaotic evening, if they even made it to the end without smashing the power button in anger when Biden yelled “I wrote that Bill!” for the umpteenth time. But, as much as the strength of the women in the race serves to inspire young girls, showing them that they can be powerful, that they can be the boss, that they can overcome the billionaires, Warren’s note about her eating habits, and the subsequent discomfort that I and others watching felt, serve to remind that as far as we’ve come, we’ve still got farther to go.
And not that it’s our business, but if she is hungry, may we suggest she eat the rich?