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Should Dictionary.com's "Girl Dinner" definition worry us?

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LA Post: Should Dictionary.com's
April 19, 2024
Mia Wallace - LA Post

Spreading rapidly across the internet like wildfire, the 'girl dinner' trend has captured the imagination of food enthusiasts from all walks of life, sparking widespread discussion and interest. This seemingly lighthearted concept started as a viral TikTok trend before being officially cemented in Dictionary.com's hallowed pages. 

The popular online reference bestowed lexical legitimacy on 'girl dinner' by formally defining it as "an attractively presented collection of snacks that involve little preparation, such as small quantities of cold cuts, cheese, fruit, cherry tomatoes, etc., deemed sufficient to constitute a meal for one." This dictionary induction signifies the trend's transition from ephemeral social media novelty to a recognized cultural phenomenon, solidifying its place in the modern vernacular. 

However, beneath this newly minted dictionary ratification of its trendy lifestyle status, has ignited a raging cross-platform debate over far deeper socio-cultural issues.

It all started innocuously enough last May when lifestyle creator Olivia Maher offered a candid peek into her solo dining habits with the original #GirlDinner video. Casually piecing together an inviting medley of cheeses, grapes, cornichons, and crusty bread on a plate, she lightheartedly dubbed it her personal "dinner" for one. That spontaneous, seemingly relatable share kicked off a global obsession, with over 400,000 TikToks recreating or remixing Maher's low-key plating aesthetic.

While just meant as an entertaining, relatable lark, Maher's clip inadvertently tapped into something much bigger. Perhaps it was the giddy sense of freedom in ditching antiquated notions of what officially constitutes a socially sanctioned "proper meal." Or the back-to-basics simplicity of throwing together whatever snacks strike your fancy without fussing over recipes. Maybe it was the casual indulgence of it all - giving yourself full permission to graze uninhibited.

Whatever that special sauce, the 'girl dinner' instantly resonated far beyond Maher's expectations, striking an effortless aspirational chord. "We've all done this privately for ourselves, just not called it 'dinner,'" she later reflected on those spur-of-the-moment fridge forages and Franken plates born of cravings or convenience when eating solo. For many, that's precisely the appeal—having a casual, pressure-free alternative when you don't feel like fussing over an involved recipe or clean-up routine.  

That breezy, indulgent, self-caring spirit charmed legions seeking an antidote to socially constructed "food rules." "It permits you to embrace different tastes and textures outside traditional meal confines," notes dietitian Brenna O'Malley. The playful mix of crunchy, savory, and sweet can feel decadently unfussy and intuitive."  

However, as 'girl dinner's' trendiness mainstreamed, a vocal contingent raised concerns over more insidious undertones festering beneath the breezy concept's flawlessly staged surface. Did these deliberately tiny, meticulously curated "plates" subtly reinforce oppressive diet culture narratives by glamorizing deprivation? After all, toxic societal forces are constantly repackaging thinly veiled restrictive eating in trendier, more euphemistic forms to stay culturally relevant.

"For some it does inspire exciting creativity around intuitive eating," O'Malley acknowledges. "But for those with existing food struggles or disordered patterns, seeing these hyper-styled 'meals' can feel very triggering and damaging." How we ultimately internalize viral food trends is deeply personal, inevitably filtered through individual lenses and past experiences.

We've seen this nuanced dialectic play out across countless buzz-worthy food moments of late, from mustard plates and renaissance snack revivals to cottage cheese obsession cycles. What starts as a quirky culinary indulgence relatable to some inevitably gets toxically distorted and reinterpreted through the disordered mindsets, body image struggles, and calorie fixations afflicting many others.

Maher, for her part, remains adamant that her original 'dinner' was never intended as lifestyle inspiration or dietary dogma but simply putting a lighthearted label on something innately human and universally relatable. Calling it 'dinner' was her personal worldview and lived reality, not a prescriptive edict.

"You can't judge someone's overall habits or health status from one static video post. We don't know what the rest of their day looked like in terms of nutrition and portions," she argues. "Maybe they had a huge, balanced lunch, so they just wanted a snacky pre-bedtime bite. Or maybe they'd been crazy busy and didn't properly fuel up earlier."

At its core, she frames the 'girl dinner' as a joyful celebration of intuitive eating - indulging cravings and nourishing yourself in the moment without overthinking it through a binging/restricting cycle. "Food is so beautifully satiating and should be enthusiastically appreciated," Maher effuses. "That women and folks of all backgrounds are finding community and empowerment in rediscovering that simple joy and sensory appreciation for flavors without rules or strict narratives is special."

Viewed through that more holistic, self-attuned lens, the heated 'girl dinner' blowback symbolizes deeper societal biases dictating how different groups – especially women – are "supposed" to perceive, consume consciously, and openly discuss food. We're so conditioned to pathologize it through an oppressively narrow weight/aesthetic lens. Is this food "good" or "bad?" Will it make me deficiently "look fat" based on punishingly reductive physique standards?

Rarely are women and other marginalized voices encouraged to approach the deeply personal experience of nurturing ourselves through an impartial mindset divorced from moral evaluations and self-judgment. That's perhaps the most low-key radical aspect of the 'girl dinner'—freely giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat what and how we innately want without catering to anyone else's arbitrary expectations or thinly veiled misogyny.

As the 'girl dinner' proliferates from viral origin story to mainstream lifestyle brand complete with dedicated dinnerware lines, its ultimate cultural legacy may simply be sparking more nuanced intergenerational dialogues around society's still profoundly fraught relationships with food, self-perception and inclusively defining "health" for ourselves.   

Did this casual, intimate food sharing start as harmless artistic exhibitionism and storytelling, only to be problematically distorted into reifying toxic scarcity and body terror mindsets? Or did it gradually unmask more insidious cultural biases we have left to dismantle collectively? Like the perfect self-styled 'girl dinner' plate, the answer likely contains a balanced smorgasbord of truths both nourishing and unpalatable for different lived experiences—all to be consumed through our own carefully curated individual lenses.

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