Writing a woman who eats what she wants without being shamed (Spiritwalker Monday 2)

The fourth giveaway winner is bee-ww-oh-bee. She asked:

Why did you choose to elaborate on Cat’s love of food? I thought it was interesting that we have a heroine who actually appreciates food. Was this in response to societies view on female bodies or did you just write it as part of her character?


Have a story:

When I was a sophomore in high school I was asked out by a senior.

You have to understand that I was a geeky girl before the word was in common use. I had spent my childhood playing outdoors, climbing trees, mowing my family’s vast lawn (we lived in the country), moving irrigation pipe, swimming in the river, making up maps of places that didn’t exist, and so on. I desperately wanted to walk through a portal into another world, one where I could be an adventurer. I was not date material. In fact I have to tell you quite honestly that this was (I believe) the only date I went on in high school. I don’t even remember the guy’s name, but — wow! — date! Back in the day when I was in high school a girl’s worth could be measured in whether or not she was considered date-able.

So understand this context.

It was a double date. He had a friend and his friend’s girlfriend (also a senior) was on dance team with me. The four of us went to see a movie.

First we got pizza.

There we sat in the pizza parlor (I can still see the scene in my mind’s eye even though I can’t remember any of their names). And the pizza arrived.

I know American pizza is considered an abomination by some but I remain fond of it. We each took a piece of pizza and ate it, and the the guys took a second piece of pizza and so did I.

They all stared at me. Truly stared, because they were shocked. Genuinely shocked.

One of them said, “Wow! You really eat a lot!

I thought (but did not say), “A second piece of pizza is not eating a lot. Eating a lot is four pieces of pizza which I could certainly manage on a good day.”

There I sat, fifteen years old, an active young person being shamed into not eating as much as I wanted to simply because having a hearty appetite wasn’t considered feminine.

I understood exactly what was happening, and I didn’t like it that girls’ appetites were being policed, that my companions thoughtlessly believed in and by their actions supported this cultural narrative about femininity which I was meant to also adhere to. They weren’t being malicious. They had never thought to examine the narrative. He and I never went on another date. As much as I hated being the girl no one wanted to go out with, I hated more having to cut out my own heart and deny my own stomach.

This stuff is pernicious. And it’s wrong.

I actually walked backward into the business with Cat and food.

(mild spoilers for anyone who has not read Cold Magic and Cold Fire)


In Cold Magic when Andevai takes Cat away from her home, they travel partway through the city and halt at a mage House inn for the night. There they are offered a sumptuous supper but he (in a scene cribbed from The Taming of the Shrew) rejects almost all the food as unfit. As it happens, he is rejecting it not to be an asshole to her but because he is involved in a status competition with the people who run the inn, and Cat is collateral damage (so to speak) to his need to put those other people in their place.

She hadn’t yet had her supper when she was taken away from her home earlier that evening, and she gets barely anything to eat at the inn, which means she goes to bed hungry and thinking about food. That was how the scene played out as I wrote it.

Cat stays hungry for much of Cold Magic, and she thinks about food frequently, and when she gets food, she eats it with relish and appreciation. Somehow Cat’s hunger triggered the memory of the disastrous pizza parlor evening, the anger I felt then that I was meant to feel shame for loving to eat, that I would have to choose between social acceptance and enjoying food.

In other societies and eras, eating and weight will have different cultural meanings than they do in modern USA culture. I don’t want to go into that here except to note that I did not do any research into the history of eating as a social phenomenon.

Somehow, in the middle of writing Cold Magic, the thing with Cat and food became settled in her character:

Cat loves food. She is often (always!) hungry and can eat an impressive amount (I think of her as having an astoundingly fast metabolism). She never apologizes for or feels shame about how much she likes to eat. Never.

In fact, Andevai never remarks on how much she eats but later, in Cold Fire, he deliberately uses food to court her because he is observant enough to realize that she loves food and because he is trying to make up a little for what he now recognizes as his awful behavior when they first met.

There are also a number of asides in Cold Fire equating appetite for food with appetite for sex, and it is no coincidence that sex is another way in which women are policed and shamed and that I am also making the point that just as there is nothing shameful about loving food there is nothing shameful about loving sex.

So, yes: Partly Cat loves to eat because it became part of her character as I wrote the first draft.

But I very much deliberately elaborated on her love for food as a response to the way   women can be shamed about food and eating. For Cat, food is a joyful and happy thing. It matters to me that she be an example of a female character who loves to eat, who eats a lot, and who is never shamed or policed for it.

6 thoughts on “Writing a woman who eats what she wants without being shamed (Spiritwalker Monday 2)

  1. That’s interesting. I’m so immersed in my own cultural biases that I didn’t notice that much in Cold Magic how much you kept Cat in a state of perpetual hunger. I missed the connection to food.

    Cold Fire, though, was different–since by that point I had gotten the clue stick–and there were whole new cuisines for Cat to explore. And, as you said above, Andevai’s attempts to court Cat via food.

  2. How much has changed in just a generation or two. My parents were kids in the Depression. I was raised not only to “clean my plate” but to be praised for asking for second and third helpings. (But also “no between-meals snacks” because for some reason a single candy bar would make you unable to eat an entire dinner two hours later! 😉 In my case anyway, that didn’t work.) As well, I grew up in a city full of recent immigrants from Cuba. They also believed in eating well and heartily, and also that a proper woman was a little more substantial than a coat rack.

    In 1981 my mother and I went to Europe for my high school graduation present. It was like my parents and grandparents squared: everywhere we went we heard the refrain “American woman are too skinny!” and had scrumptious desserts pressed on us from every side. At that time the Cold War was still going on, and also the memory of World War 2 and its deprivations were not so distant. I gained 20 pounds.

    Anyway, what’s with kids these days, says the old fogey.

  3. Once I realized just how uncomfortable women are made to feel eating in front of men–and even in front of each other–I was pretty appalled. Still don’t know what to do with the fact, really. But would love to one day see our society in a place where women going out and simply enjoying food for its own sake is -normal- and women don’t have to pretend to be thrilled about scant portions or else guilty about daring to take larger ones.

  4. I had actually started a paragraph addressing how variant attitudes toward food and women’s bodies are but then it got too long and complicated so I cut it! 🙂

    The pizza parlor incident took place in the 1970s, I should note.

  5. There is a lot of variety in people’s attitudes. But the recent fashion for extremely thin actresses kind of scares me.

  6. Here’s another subtle thing to look for: While it is true that Andevai courts Cat with food in Cold Fire, and he does go out and buy fruit, notice how he always expects women will cook for him.

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