So, grab your favourite beverage and sit a spell. Let's see if we can make sense of this shit.
Chapter 1: "Add Cake, Subtract Self-Esteem: Anxiety and the Mathematics of Desire." from Caroline Knapp, Appetites.
While it may seem that Knapp is primarily interested in issues of food and hunger, Appetites will expand to look at female desire in several different spheres. Chapter one, however, is about food, and so what follows are Knapps's words in italics, with my comments marked "lb." Hyblaean will also distinguish her remarks by putting them in bold.
Once again, I'll present a brief synopsis of the chapter, our reactions, and then ask you all to join us in a discussion of this book.
(And not to make excuses, but I'll just say I'm dizzy as hell from a cluster headache and the meds I took to control it, so who knows what may come out of my unfiltered fingertips?)
Knapp. Pg. 23
Disorders of appetite—food addictions, compulsive shopping, promiscuous sex—have a kind of semiotic brilliance, expressing in symbol and metaphor what women themselves may not be able to express in words, and I can deconstruct anorexia with the best of them. Anorexia is a response to cultural images of the female body—waiflike, angular—that both capitulates to the ideal and also mocks it, strips away all the ancillary signs of sexuality, strips away breasts and hips and butt and leaves in their place a garish caricature, a cruel cartoon of flesh and bone. It is a form of silent protest, a hunger strike that expresses some deep discomfort with the experience of inhabiting an adult female body…."
…."But what recedes into the background amid such explanations—and what's harder to talk about because it's intangible and stubborn and vast—is the core, the underlying drive, the sensation that not only made anorexia feel so seductively viable for me some two decades ago but that also informs the central experience of appetite for so many women, the first feeling we bring to the table of hunger: anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed.
There is a particular whir of agitation about female hunger, a low-level thrumming of shoulds and shouldn'ts and can't and wants that can be so chronic and familiar it becomes a kind of feminine Muzak, easy to dismiss, or to tune out altogether, even if you're actively participating in it."
LB: I can't balance my checkbook. Strike that. I probably could balance my checkbook if it struck me as important enough to know—to the dime—exactly how much money I have in my checking account at any one time. Instead, I've developed this rough idea system—I check the online bank statement every day—and then I project from there based on expenditures and bills and the occasional deposit.
System doesn't work perfectly. I've overdrawn my account more than once. And I've had more than one occasion why I think the bank and I are a couple hundreds' of dollars off in our calculations. Because Rob is slowly training me to write down what I spend, I'm beginning to get a handle on my finances. That's part of our plan this year—the year of living frugally—so that we may pursue some dreams next year.
What's funny, however, is that I keep a running total—at almost all times—of how many calories I've eaten in a day. My goal number is somewhere between 1200-1500 calories a day. I'm a small person, so I don't get to eat a lot of calories, and you start realizing how careful you need to be when you figure out that a hamburger and French fries at some restaurants come in at over a thousand calories. My day's allotment all in one fell swoop.
For a while, I cheated. If I wanted something sweet, or a second helping of food, or something that pushed me over the number, I cold resort to barfing. That way, I got to enjoy the taste of the food, but I didn't have to worry about it being caloric. Of course, we all know that being bulimic is dangerous—damages so many different parts of your body—but I didn't care for a long time because I could get away with it. It was guilt-free eating. And the only person I was hurting was myself.
I've once again managed to put the bulimia in the closet. I've been "clean" for several weeks now. But it's not quiet in my head. Almost from the moment I get up, I'm anxious. Anxious to go get some exercise. Or anxious about how much I'm eating. I've been this way for months now. Ever since I started gaining weight from the various meds I was on, I have felt a return to my "out of control" days. Staying thin requires discipline—either daily exercise or a tight control of what I allow myself to eat—and because of my migraines/cluster headaches, I haven't been doing a very good job of monitoring anything.
My reflection shows it. I look round. I try to tell myself I'm voluptuous and soft and feminine. But what I see is weakness and laziness and someone who doesn't deserve to enjoy eating. To enjoy eating, you have to earn it. If I want to eat a big dinner, I better have gotten some serious exercise during the day, and if I didn't exercise, then I need to practice discipline when it comes to dinner and snacks.
I know how harsh I sound. I sound like some stern little taskmistress, and believe me, if this person spoke this way to a friend of mine, or to my daughters, I would kick her fucking ass. But for some reason that I still cannot explain, I stay in this abusive relationship with the fat monitor.
In describing a group of her (highly successful) friends, she notes:
The caveats had to do with rules, with attitudes as ingrained as reflexes, and with a particularly female sense of justified reward: They are at the center of this whir, an anxious jingle of mandate and restraint.
Why do we put ourselves through this? Why do so many of us—already juggling children, relationships, careers, avocations, errands, volunteer work, political activism—why do we devote even a moment of our day to the devil's arithmetic ( as I refer to it? If I really want that slice of chocolate cake, I will need to walk for 90 minutes, and I'll wipe out any weight loss benefit from walking, I'll really just break even and I am trying to lose weight so even though I have been moving all weekend and went for a five-mile walk, I'm still not entitled to that slice of cake. This is the kind of devil's arithmetic I'm talking about).
It's not because we're shallow. That's just such a dismissive way of not having to deal with body image issues that affect men and women. As my therapist used to say, certain issues are "taproots." It takes years and years to dig them out, and so many things grow off them. Certainly my relationship to food if big, but it’s not the taproot. Perhaps this is:
Mastery over the body—its impulses, its needs, its size—is paramount; to lose control is to risk beauty, and to risk beauty is to risk desirability, and to risk desirability is to risk entitlement to sexuality and love and self-esteem. Desires collide, the wish to eat bumping up against the wish to be thin, the desire to indulge conflicting with the injunction to restrain."
"A controlled appetite, prerequisite for slenderness, connotes beauty, desirability, worthiness. An uncontrolled appetite—a fat woman—connotes the opposite, she is ugly, repulsive, and so fundamentally unworthy that, according to a New York Times report on cultural attitudes toward fat, sixteen percent of adults would choose to abort a child if they knew he or she would be untreatably obese.
Okay, I've been quoting from the chapter a lot, because I'm really trying to present a lot of different aspects of Knapp's argument. Here's the last bit I'll quote ( even thought there's a ton more to talk about).
Freedom, it is important to note, is not the same as power; the ability to make choices can feel unsettling and impermanent and thin if it's not girded somehow with the heft of real economic and political strength. …By all accounts, we ought to feel powerful, competent, and strong—and many women no doubt do, at least in some areas and at some times…
But it's also true that an overwhelming majority of women—estimates range from eighty to eighty-nine percent—wake up every morning aware of an anxious stirring of self-disgust, fixated on the feel of our thighs as we pull up our stockings, the feel of our bellies and hips as we zip up our pants and skirts. Women are three times as men to feel negatively about their bodies. .. but the sheer numbers, which indicate an unprecedented depth and breadth of anxiety about appearance in general and weight in particular, suggest that something more complex than imagery is at work, that our collective sense of power and competence and strength hasn't quite made it to the visceral level."
Last summer, Rob and I climbed to the top of a small mountain range in Montana. As I stood there at 8400 feet, having climbed the trail at a steady pace, I took pleasure in the power of my body. I have been stunned by my body's abilities: I grew two children inside me. Inside my body is my brain, my brain that has allowed me to accomplish things that I am proud of.
But, despite my happiness, my pride in my accomplishments, my love for other people and their love for me, my acceptance that I'm 46, my body is moving toward slowing down and eventually dying—I still sit on this couch and I can tell I'm fat by the way my thighs feel beneath me. I can touch certain parts of my body and they're my touchstones—if they're taut beneath my fingertips, I'm in good shape and pass for the day. But if they feel flabby, then the first thought that comes is that I'm a worthless piece of shit. Even if the second thought (after years of therapy) is to not beat myself up, to stop the tape, to embrace me. I'm terrified—not of getting old and dying—that doesn't scare me a whit. What scares me is that I will no longer be sexually attractive.
Staying thin allows me to put on my little red dresses or my little black dresses and my stiletto heels and play dress-up. I like that I can walk into a room when I'm in good shape and wearing the right thing and feel eyes turn toward me. I like that. If I'm feeling like a schlub, then I'm invisible.
If I reach an age or a shape where a man no longer wants to fuck me, what am I going to do? That terrifies me.
Somehow, if I control food, perhaps I can control enough of the aging process that I'm still fuckable.
Jesus. I sound pathetic. I'm not, though. It's just that when I get really honest with myself about my relationship with food, it really is about whether I'm fuckable. And how I'm desperately afraid that there's some magic number on the scale that I will hit where no one will want me anymore.
HYBLAEAN: I think the cultural message to women to limit their physical space is interesting, especially since the opposite message is given to men. I don’t think it’s a comment on our role in society; it seems to me to be more a reflection on secondary sexual characteristics. Although it is interesting to note, that the higher up you go in class, the more emphasis is put on female weight, which would be cultural.
She talks explicatively about the male/female difference in value to our culture and I appreciated it, but wondered (briefly) if she wasn’t alienating her male audience. This made me laugh, because I was surprised that was where my head immediately went. Sigh.
She wrote a paragraph about the difference in expectations, and allowances for ambition, between Hillary and Bill Clinton that rang true to me. I’d wanted Hillary to go in the ring back in the early 2000’s, but when she actually did I thought to myself “you know I just wish it were another woman, she’s too aggressive, and she doesn’t really represent us.” That quickly passed when I saw what she had to go through with the press. I became (perhaps vehemently) of the opposite opinion that she was the perfect person for the job. Who else could put up with what was being thrown at Hillary? Who the heck else would want it that bad? "shrill, nagging, hysterical, over-emotional, bitchy, emasculating" all were used to describe Hillary (by women and men) as an attempt to get people to see her as her negative female stereotype and not as a person who had done much in her own right and was worthy to have the ambition of trying for the presidency.
The author went on to describe how some women deal with success. (They clam up, and feel compelled to hide it) She’s right, but I’m not sure if women don’t have the best strategy there. No one likes a braggart- male or female. No one really likes others that they see as being successful, there is a large amount of jealousy in the human psyche) Women may be taught to hush about their successes early in life, but that’s not an all bad thing. Our focusing on the other’s successes and making other people feel good about their successes over honoring our own, may have stemmed from being the weaker member of society initially, but I do see it as a strength. That, or it could be that I’m just completely brainwashed- how do I know?
I loved the concept of “the tyranny of freedom” and wanted to hear what other’s thought about it.
The comment on the successful woman losing 10lbs and getting complimented by all her friends, for that as opposed to her book deal or other material successes made me feel funny. All I could think of was you know it shouldn’t really be about either, right? But, I guess she doesn’t, and the author doesn’t, and we aren’t to either.
Photos taken from This is Who I Am: Our beauty in all shapes and sizes by Roanne Olson, (2008: Artisan Press)