Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Gretel's musings on women and food through the ages

Gretel Hallet, came on our Chocolate Fairy Training last year and is running workshops in East Anglia.  If you live in the area and would like to attend a Beyond Chocolate course, Gretel would love to hear from you!  Meet Gretel.

Imagine (if you would) a society where women don’t have any political status. In this society a woman belongs to her father from the moment she’s born until she dies, and that she marries at around the age of 15 a man who is double her age, chosen by her father, and who is often a blood relative. Imagine that these women are almost completely confined to their homes (unless they are poor enough to have to work for a living); they have to stay in the allocated women’s rooms, not allowed to see any visitors unless they are close family and not allowed out to do shopping either (that’s done by the husband and/or slaves). They are allowed out of the house for major religious festivals, maybe twice or three times a year. In this society, women are given far less food than men to eat; very little protein and no wine, unless it’s mixed with a lot of water. Imagine that healthcare is rudimentary and that many women die in childbirth.

By now I expect you’re hoping that such a place doesn’t exist and I will admit I have misled you a bit by using the present tense. This place did exist; it was the birthplace of Democracy, Ancient Athens (about 25 centuries ago). I have been studying this time period and was surprised by frequent references (by male writers of the time) to women stealing food and wine from their own homes! One writer in around 600BC (step forward Hesiod) wrote a very bitter account of women’s various failings, including that they will steal food, thus depriving their husbands. When this same theme cropped up again, around 200 years later, in a play by the Greek Playwright, Aristophanes, I became intrigued. Why was there this emphasis on women stealing food?

I suppose part of Hesiod’s complaint might stem from his very real fear of famine. I don’t know how competent the farming industry was in 600BC, but I can’t imagine it produced the quality and quantity of food available to us nowadays. But 5th Century Athens had a sophisticated culture, and agriculture and farming methods were advanced enough for famine not to be a constant threat; certainly there’s no mention of it in any of the writings I’ve seen. So if Aristophanes was writing in an age where food wasn’t scarce; why is this accusation of theft of food and wine still being made against women?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the fact that they were kept on short rations. The reason for this isn’t clear to me currently. They were kept off wine because their men-folk believed drinking would lead women instantly into adultery with the nearest available man (although how they were supposed to meet him is a bit more uncertain!), but I don’t understand the rationale behind depriving them of food. Not all ancient Greek writers agreed that women should be kept on short rations, however. Some pointed out that the women in Sparta were stronger and better able to survive childbirth because they exercised out in the open and ate the same food as the men. Unfortunately this radical idea didn’t catch on in ancient Athens.

I imagine those women were stealing food precisely because they were deprived of it. I know from my own experience that as soon as I start even thinking about cutting particular foods out of my intake (for whatever reason), those are the foods I instantly start craving. It’s possibly a survival mechanism in our bodies; to ‘stock up’ on foods that are about to become scarce. Our bodies don’t know that all foods are constantly available these days; we still have deep rooted subconscious fears of famine. Going on a diet puts our bodies into famine mode, and the body will strike back by forcing us to eat compulsively the moment food is available again. We call it ‘yo-yo dieting’ and ‘bingeing’ but it’s essentially a survival strategy. If we deprive the body, it’ll fight back.

So the Beyond Chocolate principles of Eat When You are Hungry and Eat Whatever You Want would be distant dreams to the poor women of ancient Athens, but they are available to us now and I, for one, am extremely grateful. I am working with my body (instead of against it) to arrive at a point that’s right for us both – and it’s the Beyond Chocolate Principles that are helping me every step of the way.

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