Food is a fraught thing. What people eat, when they eat it, how much they eat—all of it is subject to scrutiny, both social and scientific. Little wonder, then, that who people eat with seems to influence what they eat. And adding gender to the mix just makes it worse.
There’s a whole body of research suggesting that in cultures where female thinness is prized, disordered eating among women can be at least partially attributed to competition for mates. Some studies say that women may eat less in front of men to, I guess, signal their commitment to having a desirably shaped body.
Researchers at Cornell University wanted to see if the reverse was true—if men’s eating habits would be different in front of women. So, naturally, they staked out an all-you-can-eat pizza place. There they watched people chow down on pizza and salad, then sneakily measured and subtracted their uneaten food out of view of the customers. It turns out that for men, “all they could eat” was more when they were eating with women than when they were eating with other men. Like, a lot more. We’re talking 93 percent more pizza and 86 percent more salad. (Which, at least they had some salad?)
From an evolutionary-psychology perspective, the researchers suggested that men might have been packing it away in order to impress the women they were with. “Our observation of men ‘eating heavily’ is sensibly viewed in an evolutionary perspective as men ‘showing off,’” the study reads.
“How could this possibly be impressive?” was my question. When I see a man scarfing down a leaning tower of pizza, is my subconscious thinking, “Hm, yes, this man is storing as much energy as possible for the coming winter hibernation, a skill I want him to pass down to all the gluttonous children we will soon have together”?
Not quite, says Kevin Kniffin, the lead study author and a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University. “There is recent work that explores the possibility that eating spicy food might be a way that people ‘show off’ since it (arguably) signals a higher tolerance for something that others would consider painful,” he wrote to me in an email. “The new research article examines the question of whether overeating might function as a comparable kind of signal that a person is healthy enough that they can engage in unhealthful behavior of excessive eating (and still end up okay).”
This idea that it’s attractive to be healthy enough to do unhealthy things reminds me of the pop-cultural trope of the “cool girl.” As Gillian Flynn infamously described in her novel Gone Girl, the “cool girl” is “a hot, brilliant funny woman,” who, among other things, “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow still maintaining a size two.”
In this study, at least, men were the ones jamming food in their mouths. Women ate the same amount whether they were dining with men or with other women. (But when women had male lunch companions, they felt like they had overeaten, and like they had rushed through their meals.)
“The new article focuses attention on disordered eating among men,” Kniffin writes, “and we include excessive eating as a kind of disordered eating.” Health and body size are a big part of how people judge each other as dating prospects, and this research shows that eating is a way to conspicuously signal to those prospects.