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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“There is an authenticity and feeling with Nigella,” Simmons said. “And that’s why she’s had such a success. There’s a sensual seductiveness to her, but you know that she has eaten every bite of that dessert. So it’s okay if I do, too.”

It’s worth noting, however, that Lawson lost a significant amount of weight before “The Taste” aired in January. She declined to comment for this story.

Lady in Red: Nigella Lawson 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.
ABC/Disney
Lady in Red: Nigella Lawson 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.

Despite Simmons’s popularity and expertise in food, the question she receives most from fans and journalists alike is about how she stays slim while constantly eating. Adding insult to injury, she said that for many years, anytime you typed her name into Google, the first two auto-fills were “Gail Simmons pregnant” and “Gail Simmons weight.”

“I have never been pregnant! And for the last 15 years of my life, my weight has never fluctuated more than five to six pounds. But I consume calories for a living. At the same time, I am on TV for a living, so I have people staring at me and scrutinizing me for a living.” (For the record, “Gail Simmons latkes” is now one of the top three auto-fills in Google.)

How does she handle the pressure? She puts her food where her mouth is. “I am not afraid… that if I eat that cake I will be fat and no one will love me,” she said. “I am not defined by how I look.”

Simmons has her parents to thank for her levelheaded outlook. Growing up in a traditional Jewish household in Toronto, “we had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, without fail. There was always challah and my mother’s outstanding chicken soup,” she told the Forward in a previous interview.

Simmons’s family — especially her mother, a chef and food writer — prioritized positive attitudes towards cooking and women; food was about enjoyment and health, not anxiety. And that’s the message she strives to convey to women today.

Despite the examples Simmons and Lawson set for the masses, there is a reason why De Laurentiis — whose beauty is as important to her fame as her Italian cooking — is one of the Food Network’s biggest stars.

“Why is there a cleavage shot when she’s trying to teach us about a pasta sauce? It’s part of her image and it’s helping to sell her product,” cookbook author and food writer Kathy Gunst told the Forward.

If you aren’t a bombshell, you’re something else that’s equally as definable. Rachael Ray’s cute look, perky attitude and healthy physique reflect the food she cooks. (It’s a better fit than the one she tried in 2003, when she famously posed for a provocative FHM shoot.) Ina Garten’s appeal is that she looks and dresses like the average American woman, but she knows how to create elegant eating experiences. Still, heavier chefs don’t necessarily have it easier: Southerner Paula Deen weathered a very public scandal last year for pushing fatty, butter-laden food that was secretly killing her with diabetes.

Simmons and Lawson represent the coveted middle ground — two stunning, sophisticated women who are so beautiful they belong in Hollywood and so accessibly real that they could almost be your friend (albeit the prettiest one you know) you call for cooking wisdom.

It’s hard to find a solution to a problem that isn’t going anywhere. Fat or thin, punk or preppy, appearance will always be critical to success for aspiring food stars. But as Katherine Alford, head of the Food Network Test Kitchen, explained, “To be in the food media you have to be attractive, definitely, but if it’s too threatening it’s a problem.… In food, people are much more real.” Lawson and Simmons would toast to that.

Abigail Jones is the Digital Features Editor of the Forward. Email her at jones@forward.com or follow her on twitter @abigaildj


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