I’d just started working at Charlotte magazine in late 2018 when my editor asked if I wanted to lead our food and drink coverage. Getting paid to eat at trendy restaurants and write about it is the stuff dream jobs are made of. But I hesitated to say yes. I was afraid I would get fat.
I’m ashamed to admit that in writing. I know how obnoxious it sounds. Eating for pleasure is a privilege, and reporting on my epicurean adventures in these pages isn’t something I ever take for granted. But I’m also a woman in 21st-century America. We’ve been conditioned to hate our bodies and obsess over our “problem areas.” I came of age at a time when Kate Moss’ and Calista Flockhart’s waifish frames dominated billboards and magazine covers. From the moment I understood the amount of food I ate determined my dress size, I kept a mental tally of every calorie I consumed.
For years, I feigned disinterest in eating. I’d spent most of my 20s starving myself into submission while an adrenal tumor went undetected, causing my body to produce dangerously high levels of cortisol. Among a rap sheet of other symptoms, it left me powerless to control my weight. For more than two years, doctors dismissed me or encouraged me to eat less and exercise more.
Eventually I got the correct diagnosis, had the surgery, got on the right medications, and shed the weight. But the habits of the previous years hung on. I had to relearn how to listen to my body’s hunger cues—and silence a life’s worth of messaging about keeping my weight in check. How could I do that in this new job when I wasn’t in control of preparing what I ate?
I was also coming off a five-year mommy sabbatical, and the rules of food and drink coverage had changed. Influencers now dominated media events, and Instagram posts were expected in exchange for comped meals. Foodie culture had made it socially acceptable for women to enjoy high-dollar dishes and share the experience on social media. But one ironclad social contract remained: The world still expects you to show up looking pretty.
Female food influencers of above-average weight and below-average attractiveness are a rarity. (There. I said it.) The more media events I attended, the more I noticed this. Gone are the days when good writing and smart criticism was enough. Now the writing is secondary—optional, even—because the images are everything. You’re building a brand! You’ve got to capture your best angle when you pose with that cookies-and-cream popcorn sundae.
To keep up in this field, you must know how to take a bomb selfie, even if it takes 72 bad shots to get one good one. If you post a shot of yourself taking a giant bite out of a double-stack burger, you had better look cute doing it. Your manicure should be on point, and good on you if the craft cocktail coordinates with your outfit! You can enjoy eating—but not too much, because you still owe the world a thin, toned body. This is expected—not asked—of women in ways it will never be expected or asked of men. You’re in charge of your image, its upkeep, and making sure it pleases followers.
As a print journalist, I’ve never been required to post sexy food shots to my social media platforms, and I have complete freedom to write honest reviews of the restaurants I visit. My employers and co-workers never once put pressure on me to maintain my weight. The pressure to look good comes from a much larger, omnipresent rule that most women in the media seem to heed: This is a visual medium, and we must look beautiful in every sphere.
I’ve picked up what this industry has put down. I’ve met some gorgeous, media-savvy food writers and bloggers who know how to show up in the world. I’ve watched in awe as they whip out their selfie sticks, tripods, and portable fluorescent lamps to snap close-ups of the meal and take shots of each other posing with their food. I’ve learned that we wait until everyone has gotten their money shot before we can touch anything on the table.
Occasionally, I’ll ask the woman next to me how they do this job and stay thin. Some tell me about their workout routine or intermittent fasting. Others eat half of their meals and bring the rest home for their spouse or children. Anyone who anchors the morning news will tell you they avoid alcohol and too much salt at a media dinner so their face won’t look puffy on camera the next day.
Kathleen Purvis, my favorite veteran food writer in Charlotte, takes a different approach. She says the food world wants you to be one of two things: Lovely, thin, and glamorous or frumpy, old, and grumpy. “I usually had 25 pounds of work weight strapped to my ass,” she says. “But past age 60, you just learn to let go and laugh at the rest of it.” Early in her career, an editor told her people don’t want to read stories about healthy eating. They want to read about decadent desserts, deep-fried food, and barbecue. So how do you report on calorie-laden food and look like someone who only eats kale salads? You can’t. Not if you want to give an honest assessment of a meal and become an authority on the subject.
It’s taken me awhile to give myself permission to lean in and eat without guilt or shame. But now, at 40, I’m not trying to keep up with 20-something influencers anymore. I aspire to be more like the dwindling pool of 60-something food writers who’ve embraced this job and have a respected body of work to show for it. So I never pass up red velvet bread pudding or a Key lime martini, and I go all in when I attend a 16-course omakase experience. I’ll sip a sake I’ve never heard of with the person next to me because I want to take a cue from Anthony Bourdain and be open to a world I may not understand yet. That’s where the good stuff happens.
I’ve gotten to eat meals that I can only describe as transcendent. (If you’re rolling your eyes right now, I get it. Stay with me.) Wagyu Sliders. Wild Yellowtail Sashimi. Duck L’Orange. Calabrian Chili Pappardelle. And the drinks! Italian wines, gin-and-lavender cocktails, tamarind margaritas. Some nights it’s hard not to post a sexy food pic because it’s beyond anything I could describe the morning after, and moments like these need to be memorialized on the interwebs. (Food porn has its own hashtag for a reason.)
The most surprising part of this whole experience (for me, anyway) is that my weight hasn’t fluctuated more than 5 or 6 pounds since this job began. When we wrap the Best Restaurants issue in the fall, it’s always up. But then I eat really clean for a few weeks, and it comes back down.
I still have urges to punish myself with starvation. I ride my stationary bike (OK, fine, my Peloton) four or five days a week so my jeans still fit. But I’ve learned that when you eat good food and really taste it, when you allow yourself to absorb all of those flavor profiles, you’re less inclined to overeat. And as a food writer, that’s allowed me to be more authentic on the page.
Women have enough restrictions on our bodies already. But as of this writing, we’re still free to eat and drink as we please. We don’t owe the world a smile, a flat stomach, or a perfect Instagram post. Eating is a basic human right, and it doesn’t need to be cloaked in shame. Food is the universal human experience and a facilitator of stories. It’s there to be enjoyed.
This job is about so much more than food, and it’s completely changed how I perceive it. Food isn’t just a decorative thing, and it’s not a vehicle to boost my personal brand. It’s about the chefs and the restaurants behind it, but even more than that, it’s the culture that surrounds it. I’m writing about this city through the lens of food, and I get to eat some pretty incredible dishes along the way. It’s the luckiest break I ever got, and if it means I have a few extra pounds of work weight strapped to my ass, so be it.
TAYLOR BOWLER is the lifestyle editor.