Down with the cutesy-shamey industrial complex.

By Margaret Eby
Updated July 30, 2019
Photo by Gerenme via Getty Images

It’s not unusual for there to be messages encoded on our plates. What we eat signals so much about who we are—our identities, tastes, and interests. But those messages generally require some interpretation. Less so in the case of a set of dinner plates, sold at Macy’s, that raised a furor on the internet recently thanks to podcast host Alie Ward, who spotted them at the department store and duly posted a photo on Twitter. The plates, meant to encourage portion control, are marked with concentric circles. On one, the inner, smaller circle reads “skinny jeans,” the middle, “favorite jeans,” and the outer, largest circle, “mom jeans.” On another, the smaller circle reads “foodie” and the outer one reads “food coma.”

You get the picture. The picture is: food-shaming. The picture is: ingraining judgement about your food choices upon the very surface from which you are eating the food. Never mind that it actually doesn’t make sense—”foodie” and “food coma” don’t exist on a spectrum, and “mom jeans” are in vogue now, thanks so much—the plate inscribes very literally what is usually an unspoken, fatphobic, eating disorder-encouraging cultural norm, that eating less is inherently more virtuous than eating more. Never mind that the plate has no idea if you’re eating salad or casserole, cake or raw kiwi, or if you, as a person, have specific dietary needs. The logic is clear: Fat is bad, skinny is good, encoding this into twee plate settings makes it somehow fine to shame people for the contours of their human bodies.

Macy’s responded to Ward’s tweet after it went viral, with a promise to remove the plates from their stores. But the plates are still available via the website of the company that made them, Pourtions, and online orders for the company reportedly tripled after the whole dust-up. Pourtions has other portion-encouraging glassware and coasters that have dubious messages—a wine glass that reads “under the influence” at one level and “under the host” on another is particularly not great—but, as Eater’s Jaya Saxena points out, they’re far from the only company to capitalize on societal norms that encourage fatphobia and disordered eating. With their feminization of dieting, they also play into what Saxena terms “our national pastime of critiquing women’s bodies.”

But more than that, the plates and wine glasses and other novelty partyware play into a phenomenon that I’ll call the “cutesy-shamey industrial complex.” This is the series of messages that exist on coasters, napkins, glasses, water bottles, plates, and other eating and drinking implements that subtly and not-so-subtly enforce misogynist, fatphobic, and otherwise questionable ideals of wellness. But because they do so in a loopy font, and with a sassy lilt, it escapes under the rubric of “kicky decor” instead of “ruthless, destructive policing of other people’s behaviors and bodies.”

Aesthetically, the cutesy-shamey complex is adjacent to the passive-aggressive signage frequently found in vacation homes or on coffee cups. It’s two clicks away from novelty t-shirts, bumper stickers, and cross-stitch pillows. You’re likely to find cutesy-shamey objects at seashore souvenir shops, but also at Bed Bath & Beyond, T.J. Maxx, and Century 21. They include things like this glass container storage container from Urban Outfitters, reminding you, via the cover, that “Health is Wealth,” or this water bottle encouraging you to “drink your effing water.”

The twee drill sergeant routine is so ubiquitous in a certain kind of decor that it’s barely remarkable. Some of it falls into sort of broad, legible humor that’s just fine. I’m not trying to pry your "wine o’clock somewhere” coffee mug out of your hands. But, ironically, what the Pourtions plates point out is what’s at stake here. We should be watching what we’re consuming. We should be careful to avoid the casual reinforcement of ideas that privilege some bodies over other bodies. And if your plate is smugly inviting you to feel ashamed for your food intake, you should feel free to scrub that plate from your life.