Sometimes I get this feeling that the main shared experience of womanhood is all those little things we do without ever questioning why. Remember all those 'feminine urge' tweets and memes from last year? Those kinds of things. Responding to a compliment on our outfit by saying it was a bargain instead of just saying thank you. Signing off an email with 'no worries if not though!' Telling a woman she’s pretty too if she just told us we’re pretty (again, instead of just saying thank you). Saying 'if that makes sense' when it definitely did make sense. The cute finger-hook eating thing. You know what this is, even if you don’t realise you know it.
You’ve seen it on food influencers' blogs, in TikToks and IG reels, at bottomless brunch with your friends and across a McDonald's at 2am. It’s that hook we make with our first finger in front of our mouth after taking a bite of our food. The gesture that seems to say, This is yummy, let me take a moment of careful female contemplation to consider the yumminess of this dainty bite. But in a cute way. A polite way. A quiet, low-key way.
It’s the feminine urge to cover our mouths when we eat. More than that, to eat coyly, as though we’re a bit embarrassed to be seen eating, actually. Have you ever struggled to eat a sloppy burger with the decorum of a woman in a period drama? I know I have. Sometimes it goes even further – perhaps ducking below our office divider to take furtive bites of a sandwich, or ordering a salad on a date when we’d rather have the spaghetti.
This has been the case for generations. But the finger hook, and the fact we all somehow recognise it, is its own special brand of messed up. It’s become so ubiquitous and relatable that it’s now a running joke on TikTok. There’s something so apologetic about it. The finger hook is the eating equivalent of putting up a finger when somebody tries to speak to you while you’re on the phone. As if you’re saying, I’m sorry, bear with me one second while I chew and swallow. Food, then, becomes something that’s getting in the way, that’s inconveniencing someone else and therefore must be excused. It’s more than the basic politeness of chewing with your mouth closed. The finger hook is a non-verbal signifier that seems to say, Yes, I know I’m doing something not ideal here, just give me a second and I’ll be done.
It doesn’t only appear when our friend whips out their phone to share brunch on their Insta stories. We do it even when photos and videos of us aren’t being shared online, as the comments under TikTok and Instagram posts attest. Women say that they do this all the time, that they’re embarrassed to be seen eating and the finger hook is their go-to because of that. A way to make eating – a thing we all have to do literally to stay alive – more socially acceptable.
It’s not that difficult to see where this stems from. Growing up we were told not to chew with our mouths open, not to talk with our mouths full, to keep our elbows off the table. Perhaps these lessons were instilled in girls and boys in fundamentally different ways. While all children are (hopefully) taught table manners, it might be fair to say that women and girls put more stock in getting these things right, and feel more embarrassed than our male peers might at being perceived as rude or uncouth. We know from the National Institute of Mental Health that perfectionism is far more prevalent in girls, with 38% of teenage girls in the US suffering from anxiety. In the UK, the Fawcett Society reports that 45% of people feel that gender stereotyping has shaped their lives. And gendered expectations are carried into adulthood differently, too. Dr Laurie Mintz, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida and author of the manifesto for orgasm equality, Becoming Cliterate, suggests that gender stereotyping could be a factor in this trend. "Girls are taught to be quiet, to be demure," says Dr Mintz over the phone. "We’re told not to draw too much attention to ourselves, not to offend anyone."
Another aspect at play here (because when is anything ever simple when it comes to how women are expected to look and behave?) is society’s messed up attitude to women’s bodies and the role of diet culture. "Of course, women are also told to be thin, that we shouldn’t take up space," says Dr Mintz. "So we may feel we don’t want to be seen eating, and especially not to be seen eating with joy."
While it’s certainly true that men can also experience judgement and shame around eating, diet culture and internalised misogyny that can be found everywhere in society – from advertisements to movies to pop songs – push these messages much harder at women, and have done for generations.
Megan Ixim is one woman who has been saying, Fuck all of that. On her Instagram she posts selfies of herself eating burgers, hot dogs, pizzas and cake, all while looking totally glam and eating in an unapologetic way (you won’t find a finger hook on her grid). Megan has over 100k followers. I asked her why we don’t see more of this online. "For a lot of women, even getting to a neutral place where you can see food as fuel, as nourishment that we all need, is very difficult. Because even getting to that neutral place is hard, showing pleasure unashamedly can feel just so far beyond. It can feel impossible."
Megan recommends trying to change the way we see food, viewing it not as a guilty pleasure but as part of our self-care routine. Eating, enjoying eating (including in public, with friends in a restaurant, or getting a favourite sandwich for lunch at work) and generally treating ourselves to our favourite food should be no different from enjoying a hot bath, splurging on some internet shopping, or any other self-care ritual that, for whatever reason (looking at you, the patriarchy), society says is allowed. "Self-care [should be] encouraged but with food there’s something deeper that makes for a taboo. Diet culture and fatphobia creates an attitude of food being a chore or something to be ashamed of." Everyone should be able to eat in public without feeling shame but, unfortunately, fat women report finding it especially difficult, in part due to the fatphobic attitudes that Megan points out.
Dr Mintz points to activist and writer Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, a collection of essays on how women experience pleasure in a range of ways, from sex and drugs to working towards causes we care about. In all contexts we’re told to be quiet about it, not to shout too loudly about the things we love, especially if those things go against how a woman is taught to be (small, quiet, passive, agreeable, well behaved). Taking pleasure in our food, Dr Mintz says, is in the same ballpark. "Women’s pleasure just isn’t encouraged. This can mean our bodies, our joy, our sexuality and our joy of eating."
So how can we start to rebel? It’s easy to say we should all just stop being ashamed of our eating habits, especially in front of other people, and to collectively ditch the finger hook, but unlearning lifelong internalised biases takes work. Megan and Dr Mintz say it’s about baby steps. It took Megan a while to establish a good relationship with food, overcoming an eating disorder to get to where she is today. "Maybe start out by getting your favourite takeout and sitting on a park bench to eat," she suggests. "Somewhere where people are passing by, where you won’t feel that people are really focused on you. Or you could try making a reservation at a restaurant with close friends. Hopefully that’s an environment where you won’t feel judged. Think about the ways eating good food in good company brings you comfort and happiness."
"Maybe next time you’re eating something good, just say it out loud," suggests Dr Mintz. "Just go, 'Mmm this is SO good!' And the time after that, say it a couple of times. Why are we afraid to say so when something gives us pleasure? Why do we have to keep our joy hidden?"