When was the last time you ordered a side of fries to enjoy yourself? When have you last relished treating yourself to something that wasn’t on your birthday, around the holidays or earned in some way?
These were questions I pondered with a friend recently. We were chuckling over a post by Questlove on Instagram, which sparked a longer conversation about permission. The permission we give or do not give ourselves as women.
I am not a total rule follower. I have left lucrative jobs to follow my passion, which included backpacking across Asia solo without a job to return to or a plan. I got married at 30, which, by some standards, is late. I also got divorced. Oddly, however, I do not have it in me to rebel so much as to order fries at a restaurant for myself. This is what I explored over lunch recently with a girlfriend:
“When was the last time you ordered fries for yourself,” my friend asked.
“2002 maybe? Likely at a diner at 4am in New York City,” I reminisced.
“Me, too. Why?”
It isn’t that I haven’t eaten fries in decades. Probably like you, and Questlove’s girlfriend, I graze them off of plates around me. In fact, I had a few over the weekend, when my kids ate at In-N-Out. I haven’t ordered something for myself at In-N-Out in years, either. It is mostly driven by how I feel after I eat fast food now – like garbage – but not entirely. In my lunch conversation, I was hit by the subtle rules I hold about food, indulgence and permission.
A small box of fries reveals this deep, troubling programming.
I asked, “What would it take for you to order fries?”
“Running 5 miles, a good week of eating or a serious hangover” she added with a laugh.
“Me, too. I have to earn it. That kinda messed up, right?”
“Yeah. It is,” she sighed.
Where did we get our programming?
We pick up these subtle rules from many places – family values, cultural norms, perceived notions of gender roles, societal imprint and the media, to start. As much as I hate comparisons to outdated, gender-biased lessons in Disney fairy tales like Cinderella, I cannot recall seeing images of her or other princesses eating in those books.
Despite our degrees, self understanding and personal evolution, my friend and I did not give ourselves permission to order fries because of our perception of “the rules” around doing so. Frankly, we haven’t haven’t given permission for decades.
Yes, turning down the plate of fries was also driven by a desire to preserve our health. Yes, our perseverance and discipline has helped us in many ways, whether in our careers, as partners or as attractive women. Yet, these are not the only factor at play for us.
Looking deeply, the rigidity around fries was a tiny ripple stemming from the larger waves of perfectionism and inflexibility we held in other parts of our lives. We shared that, as women, we feel we often need to act in ways that in accordance with outside rules. We may feel we have to earn things to feel deserved of new shoes, a promotion or even love. These rules may not be reflective of our personal truth. We explored over lunch how this disjuncture follows, for example, in how we manage conflict with men and even in how I rationalize purchasing that nice handbag I desire. We operate with a playbook not always designed by us.
Are the rules we hold reflective of our truth?
Up until now, my rule breaking has largely been based on the screaming of my intuition on major life decisions. When things are drastically “off,” my body, my emotions and my nervous system screams it to me. Eventually, I honor it. Often, my personal struggle in doing so is tied to my notion of what I should be doing: staying at a job until a get a new one because that’s responsible; ensuring my house is tidy because it is a reflection of me as woman or mother; and not ordering fries because of…all those complex reasons mentioned.
Going through my divorce and passing across the threshold of 40 years of age have given me catalysts – and permission – to explore the rules by which I live by in life, love and work. Implicit in this has been my desire to question the rules and break them – thoroughly and often. Now with fries.
Exploring the operating system I’m running is something I have been deeply exploring in my personal work. It is also something I have been sharing in talks with women’s groups, including one at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.
What struck me about this particular event was that these young women were successful, smart and seemed to have it all. I wondered what I could speak to this group about, assuming they had already rewritten so many rules to get to a top business school. What I learned surprised me. In our breakout discussion, a theme emerged across the group: a struggle with upholding the implicit rules of femininity – struggling with saying “no” to family or with pursuing a career based on passion. This was just one of many groups I have spoken to over the last year. I have witnessed how many of us are questioning the rules we uphold for ourselves as women, wanting to evolve them to sync with our own values.
This evolution is playing out with french fries in my life.
Back at my lunch, my girlfriend and I became saddened and increasingly angry at our harsh approaches as we looked over the menu. She slammed her menu on the table and declared to the universe, “F&*k that.” She waived the waiter over.
When he arrived, she gave her order without hesitation. “I’ll have the kale salad with chicken and the fries on the side. For me,” she triumphantly declared.
“I’ll have a little different. The kale salad with salmon AND fries for me, as well,” I finished with a playful eyebrow raise. We closed our menus with conviction, swiftly handed them to the waiter and sat smugly with our small triumph.
After a few moments, I back pedaled. “We don’t have to eat ALL the fries, do we?” wondering how far our rebellion would have to go and whether it would involve the consumption of 1500 calories to support feminism.
“Who cares how many we eat! We ordered them for ourselves. And for once, our kids can eat OUR leftovers.”
Brilliant, I thought. The idea that my kids – and not me – would eat picked over, tepid fries out of a box was a vision worthy of the calories. Envisioning their bewilderment and questions over my ordering fries without them brought a smile to my face.
Both visions an unexpected gift in our small attempt at rewriting the rules for our lives…one french fry at a time.