Inside London’s Underground, a blonde woman in a black coat settles on to a seat. It’s just past 6:30 p.m., and she’s hungry. So she pulls out a ham sandwich, and begins dinner. Across from her, a man named Jarrod Lewis surreptitiously takes two pictures of her and posts them to Facebook.
“Debut post,” writes Lewis, whose Facebook profile picture shows a dog wearing sunglasses and a sea captain’s hat. “Time: 18.32. Food: Hock ham Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference sandwich. Location: Bakerloo Line, Baker street.”
This is the bizarre, irreverent and vaguely misogynistic world of “Women who eat on tubes,” a three-year-old Facebook community that showcases — you guessed it — women eating on London’s Tube. Women are seen eating dinner, eating pens, eating their fingernails, eating everything and anything.
The community works like this: When someone sees a woman eating, they photograph it and plop it on the Facebook page, which has nearly 19,000 followers. The voyeurs then document the time, food and location of the women eating.
The group worked under less scrutiny until last month, when London writer Caitlin Moran, who has 491,000 followers on Twitter, stumbled across the cultural phenomenon and tweeted “it seems a bit…creepy.”
The tweet, plus mounting condemnation and umbrage, ignited a national debate pitting outraged feminists against the stalwart jokesters operating the page. Many on the sidelines didn’t know what to make of it. Was it offensive? Funny? Was there larger cultural relevance? And to what end are the photos posted?
“End humiliating game of taking photos of women eating on the Tube,” the London Evening Standard urged. “Women who eat on Tubes’ sticks in my throat,” said the Guardian. “It’s laugh out loud funny,” chuckled Huffington Post UK. “Well, it is unless you’re a Feminist apparently.”
Indeed, some perceived sinister undertones. They felt bullied, dehumanized, objectified. More troubling still, they say, the pictures often detail the women’s location and time of travel.
Officials with Transport for London say if passengers feel threatened they should call the police. “Taking photos on the Tube isn’t illegal,” director of enforcement Steve Burton told Agence France-Presse. “But we ask anyone doing so to ensure that they use common sense… If someone doesn’t want their photo taken, it is obviously inappropriate to do so.”
The group — post backlash — has now waded into the conflict between privacy and freedom of speech.
“Brothers and sisters,” one of the page’s leaders, Tony Burke wrote in this possibly satirical post. “Transport for London is encouraging police intervention and ‘pied piper’ public opinion will no doubt follow. I will defend this movement to the end. I will kneel in the dust of freedom, scrape up the ashes of truth with bleeding fingertips, whilst I burn in the toxic flames of censorship.”
Still, the group says it will monitor itself to ensure the page isn’t overrun by bullies. Another group leader, Sergio Battaner, whose profile picture shows Elvis dressed like Jesus, calls the group’s work “art.”
“Women are embraced and cherished,” he wrote in a group post Monday. “We celebrate and encourage women eating food on tubes. We do not marginalize them. We always look for the story in the picture.”