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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

“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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.