At a buzzing new Italian restaurant in Toronto, I’m sitting across from Jackie Pal, a hyper-articulate 28-year-old who owns an event-planning business and eats out four to five times a week. “I’m a bread whore,” she laughs over oven-fresh focaccia knots flecked with garlic, and a tiny casserole of Parmesan-crusted peperonata. “To me, going out to eat is a full-body experience. It’s about the room, the people—the whole experience,” she continues between bites. “I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but my friends love eating out with me because of the energy I bring to a restaurant.” I’ve invited her to lunch because she’s a diehard food lover, and she also happens to be willow thin.
From 2010 to 2013, I was a food editor at a Toronto magazine, which means I tracked dining trends, read about food all day and ate out a lot. Over those years, a food bubble emerged in the city, filled with artisanal tacos, tattooed chefs and iPhone food photographers. With it, I saw increasing numbers of women like Pal: 20-something encyclopedias of dining-world knowledge, passionate eaters of everything from gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches to 12-course tasting menus, scrupulous documenters of their experiences and seemingly immune to caloric consequences. Given that I gained 15 pounds within three months of taking the job (as you do when family-style platters are trending), I always wondered what genetic gifts or closet disorders kept them thin. That question burned in the back of my brain again recently when I started seeing gratuitous food pics on models’ social media feeds.
Chrissy Teigen of Sports Illustrated cover renown routinely photographs decadent dinners; my favourite shots include one of her holding an ice pop in front of a row of dangling ibérico ham hocks, and another of her spraying canned cheese into her mouth. Moneymaker Jourdan Dunn has her own online cooking series, Well Dunn, in which she pals around in the kitchen with fellow models. In a popular episode, Dunn tempura-fries shrimp with Cara Delevingne, who, incidentally, has a bacon fetish so fervent she recently had the word tattooed on her foot. Then there’s the video top model Karlie Kloss made with Momofuku Milk Bar to launch her Perfect 10 Kookie back in 2013. In it, she does step aerobics in a Jane Fonda leotard before loading a tray of cookies into an oven, the veins in her sinewy arms bulging under its weight. (Despite the gluten- and sugar-freeness of her famous Perfect 10 recipe, each cookie still packs around 280 calories, on par with its sugar-filled counterparts.) The phenomenon has become so pervasive, last spring an anonymous New York fashion insider launched the Instagram account You Did Not Eat That, regramming photos of women flaunting skinny bods while holding towering soft-serve cones and greasy pizza slices.
These images raise a new question: not simply how they are doing this (that question can never seriously be asked of models), but why? If models are celebrating appetite, and if that encourages young women to eat well, huzzah! That’s preferable to the disconcerting “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” ethos defined by the cigarette-and-champagne subsistence of Kate Moss a generation ago. But I’m also reminded of the feminist rant from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, in which she unpacks the persona of the “cool girl,” 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 maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.” Amy Dunne, the character who utters these words, may be psychotic, but she’s also correct in pointing out that consumption—I-don’t-give-a-f-ck-about-my-figure-level consumption—has become an integral part of being cool. Yet so is being thin. The sex appeal of a fit, no-percent-body-fat physique endures, creating a paradoxical new ideal that’s near impossible for all but the genetically blessed: the skinny glutton.
So when did devouring monogrammed macarons become an indicator on the cool index? Like so many modern phenomena, it’s a byproduct of the 2008 recession, Apple and Goop. When the economy tanked, dining in Toronto, New York and many other major cities went lo-fi. Twenty-something chefs couldn’t find jobs in vaunted kitchens and opened their own spots in cheaper, up-and-coming neighbourhoods, like Dundas West in Toronto and Williamsburg in New York City, thereby letting a younger, hipper crowd in on the dining scene. Meanwhile, Apple unleashed the camera phone, turning every meal into an opportunity for image creation, and Gwyneth Paltrow launched Goop, showing stylish women how to leverage everything from lamb ribs to green juice as part of a personal brand that’s aspirational and decidedly un-Martha. (Blake Lively, with her highly publicized love of baking—“My husband has coined [our home] the ‘Blakery’”—is a direct descendant.)
Since then, food has become a form of social currency, with young people name-dropping chefs, new restaurants and cookbooks in a spirit of competitiveness once applied to snagging the latest Alexander Wang bag before it hit racks. Where and what you eat have become markers of good taste, quite literally, and powerful tools for defining who you are.
Based on that premise, I call Peter Naccarato, who co-authored a 2012 book called Culinary Capital about the role food plays in shaping identities. He lays down a basic idea: nutrition and healthful eating are mainstream values—people expect young women to have lean, fit bodies. That’s the norm. “I write about the way people use food to resist those mainstream ideals of health,” he says. By this theory, flaunting the pork belly bánh mì you killed at lunch becomes a way to rebel against expectations of youth and beauty.
As he tells me this, I think of Delevingne, the prototypical cool girl, and someone set on overturning preconceptions about conventionally feminine models. She recently posted this quote from the London poet Anthony Anaxagorou: “Rebellion is when you look society in the face and say, I understand who you want me to be, but I’m going to show you who I actually am.” In that same feed, you can find a dozen-odd bacon-themed posts, including a hilarious picture of her lying naked in a pool of water with crispy strips Photoshopped into her mouth. Delevingne, apparently, wants to show society her true, bacon-loving self.
I send Naccarato links of the Instagram feeds mentioned above, and he laughs. “On the one hand, these women get to show off their bodies, and, because we assume a beautiful body is a marker of health, they must therefore be beautiful, healthy people,” he says. “So they fulfill those expectations. But on the other hand, they get to play with and transgress them by taking photos with burgers. They get to have it both ways.” They’re exploiting the edgy appeal of opposites, I think, like so many fashion designers and punk bands—an old trick played out (perhaps subconsciously) on the body.
“But how would these images be different if these were a bunch of overweight people?” he asks, reminding me that we’re talking about flesh-and-blood organisms prone to weight gain and clogged arteries. “Then we have a very different phenomenon … We start to ask questions about their health.” When body matches bacon consumption, the cool factor fades.
Interested in how real women maintain the delicate juxtaposition of skinny bod and burger in hand, I call several lithe young foodies who, to be fair, seem to enjoy the social relevance of eating out more than the rebellion of it. Each of them preaches balance (ordering fish one night to make up for another night’s foie gras), but achieving said balance sounds exhausting.
Gizelle Lau, a 30-year-old digital content and social media strategist in Toronto who has taken more than 52,000 food photos since 2012, eats at restaurants three to five times a week. To offset the intake, she does cardio and weights six days a week. “Eating out all the time f-cks with your mind,” she says bluntly. “You have to think about portion size—restaurants serve larger portions than what you’d make at home—but you don’t want to waste food, so you inevitably end up eating it all. And you’re also thinking about what kind of fuel your body needs to recover from your previous workout, and on top of that, there’s alcohol … I remind myself on a daily basis (sometimes multiple times) that yesterday’s meals are in the past, today’s are what counts.” The mental and physical exertion sounds far more like the draining mathematical exercise of dieting than the unbridled indulgence I’d imagined.
Renee Suen, a 36-year-old cardiovascular science PhD student who parlayed her food photography hobby into a side gig blogging for local publications like TorontoLife.com, eats out 10 to 15 times a week. “Sometimes, after I do an early sitting”—her term for “dinner”—“I’ll do a second sitting, or I’ll stop at Popeye’s on the way home for a two-piece chicken meal.” I groan at her admission. She’s a 113-pound ball of energy, who I once saw put away 20 courses, plus wine pairings, while I fake-sipped and pushed food around my plate in a display of mock eating. “People hate me because my metabolism is so strong,” she laughs, “but I study how the heart works. I know I can’t just eat nonstop without moving.” Last year, she started teaching Body Combat, a mixed martial arts class, six days a week at GoodLife, and when she works out, she tells me, she works out hard.
Pal is less hardcore about exercise, though no less health-conscious. “I’m the worst person to ask about health. I try to go to the gym and walk to work, but I’m probably this thin because I don’t eat that much during the day. I’m just so busy I forget,”she says guiltily, suggesting she feels more shame in skipping a meal than indulging in one. But then, she continues with force, “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I feel great after eating a burger. If I eat fried chicken on a waffle, I feel like hell. I still have that inner voice that makes me feel guilty. I just don’t let it stop me from enjoying the experience of eating.” I look down at our half-eaten plate of deep-fried olives stuffed with anchovies and understand her mental tug of war well.
Listening to these women, I can’t help but think of a third element of cool-girldom: effortlessness. How many times have you heard “She’s effortlessly cool” applied to street-style stars wearing layers of slouchy nonchalance? But, as in fashion, the images that look the most effortless often turn out to be anything but.