I just finished reading Caroline Knapp's memoir [APPETITES] in which she tries to analyze her struggle with anorexia. This book, though very well-written, I found difficult to read. It is not a straightforward account of her eating disorder and how she overcame it, though she does touch on this throughout the book. Instead it is a decidedly feminist critique on popular culture. First of all I had to confront whether I could call myself a feminist. The answer was a decided yes and a qualified no. Yes, in that I believe women should have the same rights and opportunities as men, yes in that I believe there should be equal representation of women in positions of influence (like the Congress and the Supreme Court) but no, in that I haven't participated in the feminist inclination to emulate successful men, that is have a family and a demanding career, and to transform into a sort of Super Woman. The truth is I've been too sick most of my life to even try.
Caroline Knapp did not get married and have children but she still had her career as a writer. She wanted to be attractive, to have a wonderful boyfriend, to be competent and competitive at work, to have a lovely home and many nice things. Like a young unmarried man, she wanted to have it all. These desires don't seem so unreasonable. What lacked reason on her part was the ingrained belief that in order to have the boyfriend, career and lovely home, she had to be attractive. This is a common misconception and is truly an anti-feminist sentiment to base your life on. It was just not within her realm of understanding that a woman could have it all and not be particularly attractive. But I agree with her that modern Western culture spoon feeds us this idea that above all you must be attractive or you will not succeed. It's not the truth but many people promote it as if it were.
For Ms. Knapp and so many others, being attractive meant being thin, no visible fat. The basic requirement became, above all, to stay thin. How to do this translated into a drastic reduction in food intake along with excessive exercise. Logical right? Actually yes it is all too logical but once engaged in as a way of life it becomes pathological. But the pathology starts with the belief that being thin is something more than just desirable but essential to human happiness. Not thin meant not fulfilled. One would be blind not to know that a substantial chunk of the media fosters this idea. Thin, especially for women, is stamped with cultural approval. Almost unconsciously I accept this too. I am overweight and I have no boyfriend, no career and my home is a mess. I say to mysef, "when I lose the weight then..." A part of me wants to starve for a few months just to see if I would lose the weight. But I don't really want to starve, not literally the way Ms. Knapp tried to do, I want to lose my appetite and not need to eat much. I've toyed with this by skipping meals but I've never taken it to the extreme, I always return to moderate eating. I don't obsess about my weight and closely control my behavior. But I could and many people do. Why? Because we fall for the trap of believing that what you weigh must be directly linked with your measure of happiness and your lot in life.
Ms. Knapp stresses that not only is fat, or the lack of it, a feminist issue, but all women's appetites, or rather the frustrations that accompany trying to satisfy those appetites. Even decades after the feminist movement of the 60's and 70's women want to be attractive, want to attract a mate often submerging their personal desires for the desires of their significant other. Sexually women are still more likely to try to please than to get pleasure. Women want to be loved but seek it vicariously through food, shopping and sex. But the addictive quality of all this seeking does not bring true satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from places that go deeper than the instant gratification encouraged by our consumer culture. True satisfaction has more to do with honest and caring relationships than with a piece of chocolate cake and a new pair of shoes and an excellent orgasm. I think most people would probably agree with this but the cake, the shoes, the orgasm are all so much quicker and easier. It's hard work culling meaning out of everyday experiences but it's work that ultimately has to be done by each of us.
How far have women come since the sexual revolution of the 1960's? After reading [APPETITES] I would say only parital progress. Eating disorders that fixate on appearance seem like a definite backlash against some of the freedoms garnered by those 60's and 70's feminists. Women, in some cases, have moved into positions of power while others, many single mothers, barely get by. But in both groups there are problems: addictions, stress, depression, eating disorders. Even the women who are paraded in feature articles as examples of success have their share of personal struggles. It's the human condition. But nothing will change unless women themselves change what they want and what they believe. If we continue to fall for the illusion that to be thin is to be powerful and loved, we miss the point. If we keep choosing appearance over substance, we sabotage our own happiness. Attractive appearance should be the by product of a useful, healthy and happy life and not a substitute for it. So why do so many of us still care so desperately about staying or getting thin? The definition of what's attractive has got to change. The truth, so selectively hidden for reasons I do not understand, is that there is a wide range of beauty all across the world. Beyond the stereotypes there lies a rich tapestry of humanity. So why do we settle for so little, when we could have so much choice?