Emma Alyana Collins
At seven, I would pass the time by watching my mother prepare dinner. She would be curled over the kitchen counter, with a large-sharpened knife in her hand, slicing onions and smashing garlic. She would never let me handle the knife – I was too young. The knife became a symbol of womanhood, something that felt so out of reach to a girl who was barely the height of the tabletop. It was something I could only glance at in the glow of the refrigerator light.
Sometimes, when my mother left the kitchen to speak to my siblings, I would secretly practice chopping the vegetables she left behind. One time, the blade of the knife caught the edge of my fingertip. From that moment, when pain and blood took over my body, I realised the risks and thrills that came with the knife. And more so, womanhood. But lessons like that didn’t stick with seven-year-old me. When I turned old enough to hold a knife, I was no longer interested. I had cracked the first stage of womanhood and I needed more. So, I sped through all the firsts – my first bra, my first nude, my first kiss, my first time. With the ending of each first, it felt like the knife all over again. Once I was able to hold it in my hand, I was confused about all the fuss. My own haste had betrayed me, until there were no more firsts left to do. I had snuck my way into womanhood, through sleepless nights and bottles of wine, and surprisingly womanhood welcomed me. As years past, I soon realised that womanhood bore none of the promises it had made me in the folds of women’s magazines and romantic literature. I soon realised that sneaking into the gates of womanhood led me to grabbing buttered handled knifes. Ones that would slip right out of my fist and slice me all over again. Simone de Beauvoir writes, ‘if I want to define myself, I first have to say, “I am a woman.”’ She argues that, unlike men, women must always define their gender – femininity is an identity that is worked on throughout the course of a woman’s life. Womanhood did have a place for me, but I travelled to it in wrong ways with maps given to me by people who did not know the terrain. And how could they? With a terrain that changes every season, from desert to frozen lakes, we cannot see the forest for the trees.
‘Girl Dinner’ becomes a basket which we throw ourselves into, hoping it might rock us back and forth to sleep.
It becomes unsurprising that social media platforms like TikTok are bright in the colours of what makes girls, girls. With the ability to curate and construct, I can come across as anything – from clean girl to granola girl. All I have to do is post a photo of the ribbons in my hair or the cigarette in my fist. But where the clean girl or granola girl aesthetic categorises women into different feminine identities, the ‘girl dinner’ trend shifts completely. Perhaps, ‘girl dinner’ has withdrawn the curtain of the theatre of womanhood. Behind the curtain, the audience finds depictions of the currents that pull women into the tide of childhood, into feeling like girls again. ‘Girl Dinner’ becomes a basket which we throw ourselves into, hoping it might rock us back and forth to sleep.
Girl Dinner – a meal idly put together as if your parents are out for the weekend, and you have to fend for yourself for once. It could be a few slices of cheese, some torn off bits of bread, and some scattered pieces of fruit that all come together on one plate and then finished with a diet coke. Girl dinner invites us to question: what is womanhood then? Is it marked by the ability to properly take care of oneself? Is womanhood something that can be switched on and off? Or is it a flickering light at the end of a tunnel, going back and forth between existence and virtuality?
Perhaps, girl dinner has set women apart from girls and girls apart from women.
In Foucault’s Use of Pleasure, he explores the Ancient Greek diet. He argues that man has set himself apart from the animal life by dietary regulations. Food becomes ‘a whole art of living.’ Perhaps, girl dinner has set women apart from girls and girls apart from women. Or maybe, every woman is guilty of a girl dinner, and we are all existing between these two states at once.
The chaos behind girl dinner becomes a form of art, a colourful concoction of tiny snacks splattered all over a plate. However, this chaos could be interpreted in two ways. You could romanticise the idea of girl dinner and repackage yourself as a cool girl who does not care about the meals she eats. Or you could lean into the absurdity of womanhood, specifically the absurdity that you must know everything all the time – how to properly organise your time and how to take care of your body. Simultaneously, there is a confusing intersection that occurs: does girl dinner reinforce or denounce gendered expectations? Are traditional expectations of how women and girls should appear shattered by the widespread emphasis on aesthetics within the digital platform? Or do aesthetics ultimately direct the way women and girls experience the world?
The current cultural landscape is a fast-paced arena where individuals are constantly changing aspects of themselves to keep up with trends. I think of it as a conveyor belt where new products are being pushed out and we must grab all that we can while dropping things we already have in our hands. Ultimately, the products we are sold become the only avenue we have to express ourselves so we become reduced to walking talking commodity consumers; and this is the only self-reflecting prism in which we can see and be seen by others. There is a sense of alienation that comes along with this – alienation from our bodies, from other women and from our own creativity. No product coming towards you on the conveyor belt is the last; there seems to be no escape from the never-ending barrage without short circuiting the machine entirely. TikTok’s relevance hinges itself on both consumer culture and aesthetics, where lines are blurred between everyday life and art. In this digital realm, posting aesthetic images becomes a virtual possession that ironically offers real value to us. Participating in trends such as girl dinner enables users (like myself) to acquire more and more virtual possessions which, in turn, builds up the specific identity I want to make of myself to the outside world.
The recklessness and child-like state of the dinner is heightened by its aesthetical value and then eaten by eyes behind a screen.
Guy Debord describes the role of mass media whereby, ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people mediated by images.’ All facets of human life such as the dinners we make ourselves when we don’t want to cook are now mediated by an online platform where others can watch our every move and everything we post can take on a life of its own. Much like art, girl dinner is a spectacle. We are drawn more into the representation of girl dinner than the realities that the dinner presents. The recklessness and child-like state of the dinner is heightened by its aesthetical value and then eaten by eyes behind a screen. But this is also a double-edged sword; arguably, the trend of girl dinner has built a sense of community amongst women. The exchanging of images of frenzied dinners ties women together by similarities of chaos or, more so, the need for a reprieve from the expected composure all women must possess.
Growing up, my mother used to say, ‘you are what you eat.’ If she could see my dinner right now, she might even call me a girl.
Emma Alyana Collins
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