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I found the phrase ‘I felt like a piece of meat’ (at a meeting),’ in the article of Washington Post (September 20) titled ‘In early Obama White House, female staffers felt frozen out.’ The article quotes the following episodes contained in the newly released book written by journalist, Ron Suskin:

"Christina Romer (former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers) is quoted by Suskind saying, after being excluded by Summers at a meeting, “I felt like a piece of meat.”

On Friday, Romer offered a softer denial than Dunn, saying, “I can’t imagine that I ever said this.” “I was told before I went to Washington that there has always been a lot of testosterone in the West Wing,” Romer said Friday

I understand “a piece of meat” implies here “almost nonexistent, like petty object.” But as I searched for the exact definition of “a piece of meat” in Google, I came across the different meaning of usage in AspireNow Blog;

“This is not to be confused with being treated like a piece of property, not to be confused with being treated with ... Consistent committed positive action is a definition of love. ... Again, that makes her feel like a sex object or piece of meat -What do women want?”

I’m curious to know how popular the phrase, “I feel like a piece of meat” is. Isn’t it liable to be misunderstood, particularly when a woman uses, or even politically incorrect to use before a woman?

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4 Answers 4

Oishi-san: This is a fairly standard expression used to indicate that someone feels useful only for physical characteristics: what the body can supply to other people. Hence the "meat".

Women are more likely to use this expression than men, I believe. At least I more often hear it from women, who complain that society leads them to being treated like a piece of meat. Men who say it are usually pulling "the old switcheroo," playing against gender stereotype, and therefore it is often said sarcastically for humorous effect by men.

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+1 I would add that they would use this expression when they have been embarrassed already, and not normally in a public forum. – JeffSahol Sep 21 '11 at 1:10
@Robusto-san. Ohisashiburi-desu! Thank you for your input. We don’t have “a piece of meat” allusion for almost insignificant presence / existence in Japanese. Ours is inorganic. Pahaps you may know that we call a lowkey or unimportant person “石ころ- ishikro” a stone on the roadside as “I was treated like ‘an ishikoro’ by my boss.” – Yoichi Oishi Sep 24 '11 at 0:05

I would assume that it originates from the 1970s description (which may predate that, of course) of e.g. nightclubs as "cattle markets" where the women danced and the man stood around the perimeter deciding which they would choose.

The phrase also crops up in "The Thoughts of Jefferson Galt" at where he says

"I'd rather view a woman as a work of art, Than as a piece of meat"

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There are at least two factors, here, and I think one of them is more cultural than strictly linguistic.

One, the implication of a human being "meat" meaning a sex object is not universal outside of context. There are many contexts in which "piece of meat" does carry a sexual connotation, but I think that is generally when the contrasting value is as an emotional being, in other words, sex versus love. In situations where there are other relevant values, such as the intellectual understanding of a complex political situation -- it's just valueless vs. valued.

The second point is to the embarrassment of the situation. To my eye, in American culture, her situation was denigrating in the moment, but not necessarily embarrassing after the fact. Not being valued when one should be valued is not one's own failing, but the failure of the judge. In this case, by speaking out about it, I think she is saying that she feels she should not be embarrassed by this (whether or not she is). In fact, by calling attention to it, I think she's indicating more that she's angry; as such, the admission of having been in that situation is doesn't really add to the embarrassment. I'm not an expert on Japanese culture, by any stretch, but my impression is that this would not all be true there. (In particular, I think admitting later to having been in a situation that was embarrassing in the moment but was no fault of one's own is less embarrassing in American culture than in Japanese culture.)

To sum up -- people are compared to and compare themselves to pieces of meat fairly often. It doesn't always have sexual connotations, but it is not a nice thing to say of someone. Someone saying they felt unvalued is generally considered to be an implicit assertion of a failure on the part of others to value them, rather than on themselves to be valuable; as such, the claim is not generally embarrassing even if the initial situation was.

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For a woman to be treated like a piece of meat means that she feels like she has been examined and judged purely for her body, with about the same the same level of respect you'd extend to a piece of meat for sale at a butcher's shop. The meat is something that is simply judged and maybe taken or left, it has no feelings or opinions on the matter that you need concern yourself with.

It's understood that this phrase implies a negative and insulting experience. Possibly a woman might be embarrassed to reveal that she was treated in way, but I doubt she would be embarrassed at the phrase itself.

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protected by Mitch May 30 at 2:21

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