Eating to Secure Status
by Hannah Williams
Diets and restrictive behavior are very popular amongst women and especially so among high-schoolers in the United States. Mean Girls (2004) demonstrates some of the behaviors adolescent women exhibit and even pressure their peers to participate in. In Mean Girls, food becomes a weapon used to separate in-groups and out-groups. By means of manipulation, food destroys the status of the most popular girl in school, Regina George, showing the important role food consumption has on our perceptions of others.
As Cady is introduced to a group of girls called “the plastics,” she quickly discovers that there are a lot of things young women find to criticize themselves over beyond just being “fat” or “skinny.” In a place where body-criticism is normal and even expected, these young women feel they can’t be content with their own self-image, as Cady is in the start of the film. Throughout the film Cady becomes more and more aware of her outward appearance and the outward appearances of others, realizing the power their physical forms have over their popularity. Ultimately, Cady is consumed by the concept of social appearances and becomes a negative character in the film.
Food becomes another way to define in-groups and out-groups as the film progresses. The school cafeteria is the center for several scenes that establish who is cool and who is not, declaring that food and the arenas in which we consume food area at the center of popularity. Several scenes connect teenagers in America with wild African animals, that are literally willing to kill one another for their food. The line between human and animal becomes blurred when humans act out of hatred and instinctual competitiveness, which often comes out when students are all crammed in a lunch room together.
Food becomes a means of kicking Regina out of the in-group and pushing her into an out-group of sorts. One of Regina’s sources of power is her body and physical fitness. Once this is stripped away (along with other aspects of Regina that make her so popular) she loses most of her power.
Cady Heron manipulates Regina’s understanding of the nutrition bars stored in Cady’s kitchen that her mother used to help undernourished African children gain weight. By tricking Regina of their purpose, Regina gains unwanted weight. Food becomes a weapon and ultimately the final straw that replaces Cady as the leader of the plastics over Regina no longer receives the respect and recognition she desires from others once her “hot body” is gone.
At the climax of Regina’s defeat, Regina and the “plastics” are preparing to eat lunch together in the school cafeteria. Each plastic has a lunch consisting of a small salad, diet coke, and small piece of fruit. Once Regina no longer follows this “rule” and instead indulges in large amounts of junk food at lunch, she is excluded from the group. When Regina can no longer fit into her group-approved clothing because of her weight, she must be excluded from the lunch table, a rule she implemented herself that is used against her. Cady feels triumphant in her defeat of Regina, but also feels guilt in the way she treated another person.
Mean Girls illustrates how food, a necessity to human life, can be at the center of popularity and status. Restriction, dieting, and weight gain can be game-changers for the way young women (or men) feel about themselves and their sense of security. Mean Girls is a film that explores American popularity and how destructive behaviors, such as calorie restriction tied to vanity, can often be at the center of the “popular” crowd.
Waters, Mark, director. Mean Girls. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2004.