Navigating Curves in the Era of Food TV

Changing Beauty Standards for Women Who Eat for a Living

Out of the Kitchen: ‘Top Chef’ judge Gail Simmons, like many other food celebrities, has struggled with criticism of her body.
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Out of the Kitchen: ‘Top Chef’ judge Gail Simmons, like many other food celebrities, has struggled with criticism of her body.

By Abigail Jones

Published March 13, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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It’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off Nigella Lawson in the pilot episode of “The Taste,” ABC’s new reality cooking show that features 16 competitors racing to impress four of the world’s biggest names in food (of which Lawson is one). With her formfitting red dress cut tastefully down to there, soft brown curls, shapely body and creamy skin, she seduces you — not with her beauty alone, but with her charming personality and almost careless disregard for everything a female celebrity is supposed to look like.

“My dress is elastic; I’ve got lots of room!” Lawson quips in her proper British accent. “I love fat,” she adds, referring to fatty foods. And as viewers, we believe her.

The food world is having its Hollywood moment, which means it’s having its beauty moment, too. Talent and charisma are essential for any chef to make it big, but good looks remain a necessary, if not ironic, ingredient. Over the past decade — particularly since the arrival of the Internet, social media and HD televisions — a broad spectrum of manicured female celebrity chefs has emerged. Each one sells her own unique brand of food and femininity to viewers, but there is a difference between watching Giada De Laurentiis, who looks more like a model than a chef, and Ina Garten, who looks more like a mom than a model, teach you how to bake brownies.

“Attractiveness is still a plus on TV no matter who you are and what kind of TV you’re making,” explained food-world darling and “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons in a phone interview. “There’s always going to be a standard that’s somewhat unrealistic, as long as we have the media and pressure from it.”

Yet two of the most successful women in today’s celebrity food world — Simmons and Lawson — are expertly navigating the crawl space between celebrity, food, healthy living and relentless beauty standards. And, they are both Jewish.

In the Jewish tradition, kitchens have mostly been the domains of women, where older generations teach children and grandchildren how to prepare family recipes for matzo ball soup, brisket and kugel. Jewish food is steeped in memory and tradition, and we learn how to cook from our wiser, softer bubbes, not from celebrities talking at us through a TV. Even Julia Child, America’s first celebrity chef, was more like a Jewish grandmother than a modern-day swan. She arrived on TV sets in the 1960s, a 6’2” giant with an odd voice and dowdy outfits; her success was about content and character, not cleavage or beauty. By the 1980s, businesswoman-turned-homemaking-queen Martha Stewart arrived; she was elegant but decidedly not sexual.

The cookbook author Joan Nathan followed in the same vein. In her PBS series “Jewish Cooking in America,” she dressed in sophisticated, modest clothing and focused on food and culture. “When I’m cooking, I care about the way food looks on the table as much as the way it tastes,” said Nathan.

“In the late 1980s, image wasn’t as important,” Tanya Wenman Steel, editor-in-chief of Epicurious.com, told the Forward. “It didn’t really matter what you looked like. It mattered what you knew and what you created. With the advent of the Food Network [in 1993], image became more important.”

Lawson, a TV personality-meets-food evangelist, has systematically flaunted her curves and unabashedly eaten her way to the top. Recently, she went so far as to demand that her stomach not be retouched in the promotional photos for “The Taste.” As she explained on her blog, “that tum is the truth and is come by honestly, as my granny would have said.”

Although Lawson’s Jewishness is not central to her public persona, it has played an important role in her story — her family is Jewish, and she publicly traced her ancestors’ Ashkenazi Jewish roots on the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Ultimately, Lawson’s unfettered (and very Jewish) embrace of food helped solidify her as one of the industry’s most powerful and positive celebrities.


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