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Amber Paulen

Appetites - Caroline Knapp.

Caroline Knapp


Why Women Want

13 July 2009


The confessed struggles of Caroline Knapp are eerily familiar; not merely familiar to me but for gross percentages of half of our Western populations. Female desire, sexuality, the female body, personhood repressed or skewed or obscured in a society where seemingly nothing is held back. The staggering chasm between what I have felt and what I have been told it is OK to feel, such willful efforts self-imposed to suppress the truth of those feelings. Whole oceans of woman locked within.

On the cover, Appetites is claimed as an ‘anorexia memoir.’ Caroline Knapp’s experiences with starvation serve at best a skeletal frame, another extreme women put themselves through in the confusion between all we can and cannot become.

…[appetites] exist in a very murky context, and an inherently unstable one, consistently pulled between the opposing poles of possibility and constraint, power and powerlessness.

Each manifestation of thwarted appetites and self begs notice of the tenuous ground women yet walk on. Binge shopping, bad relationships, drunken sex, stealing and hunger in all its myriad of disorders and non-disorders, diet and weight and thighs and stomachs. If women have come a long way from Betty Friedan—or since Mary Wollstonecraft—it doesn’t really feel like it and I know it certainly doesn’t look like it.

…the gospel of femininity, which is essentially self-negating may explain why a quality of guilt and murkiness can so easily leak into a woman’s experience of appetite, a profound uncertainty about entitlement, even a sense that desire itself is indefinable or inappropriate.

The question of female desire. (Steer clear of Freud, no doubt.) To me, this question feels like a very tall and a very thick wall that surrounds in every direction. Unreachable, unscalable, unfathomable. To “inhabit” my body has the sound of a farce. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the feeling that everything about the world and everything in myself is opposed to this single knowledge. Disconnection. To walk outside is to force separation. My body has nothing to do with me: I have longed for invisibility.

Reading Appetites was a lesson in my own thoughts. The similarity at times took my breath away, I was forced to set the book down and think. To force myself: Think what this means. Because the struggle with my body is a heavy one. Just to work up the nerve to feel like you “deserve” to “inhabit” the body is a mammoth one. And then you’ve got to inhabit it, whatever that means.

Starving, like all disorders of appetite, is a solution to a wide variety of conflicts and fears, or at least it starts out resembling a solution: Something feels perversely good, or right, or gratifying about it, some key seems to slide into place, some distress is assuaged, and the benefits of this are strong enough to outweigh whatever negative or painful feelings are aroused, such as shame, confusion or physical hunger.

When I look back on my starving years I am almost envious of myself and how I was able to just slip through. I am not envious because I know I shouldn’t be, but I am because of all starvation seemed to solve. It is like I am fifteen years too late, trying to figure out now what I should have started figuring out then, instead of burying it under flesh and bone. I get the feeling that’s what this book is: that which gets pared away to become flesh and bone, that’s what takes my breath away.

Rightly so, as Caroline Knapp so aptly illustrates. How do I know what it is like to inhabit my body when there are no examples anywhere? Instead we are inundated with lessons on how not to: how to be someone else for anybody other than yourself. All those damn advertisements get me angry enough to almost climb the wall, almost as angry as I get about the limitations of our alloted expression: BODY: clothes, make-up, pleasure and performance for man. To put ourselves on the other side, to wipe that damn word “sexy” from our name would take more bulldozers than women can be rallied to drive. I get very angry and that was only a bit of what used to eat me up inside.

Hunger gnawing at the stomach’s wall. Hunger and the unexpressed, the silence of our voice. If I wouldn’t have gotten any ideas, if I wouldn’t have thought there was some power somewhere that I could exercise, I wouldn’t have starved myself—experienced as power, powerless none-the-less—but I certainly would have died.

Near the end of Appetites came this quote:

I care about women and their thighs for precisely this reason: because so many women care, and because that care is so devastatingly blinding.

Appetites is an attempt to define our slumber, to give words to how and why and what is preventing women from reaching a more fluid way of life. The proportions are epidemic, the statistics Caroline Knapp quotes are staggering. Women blinded by the white flash in the mirror; who we shape ourselves to be is strewn with the same blind spots that have always been there. So much for liberation!

We need new words, we need new definitions, we need viable options. Women’s bodies have been the dirge of history, have been the receptacle into which all myth, blame for eating the apple, all wants, temptations, desires of men have been thrown. That we would want to take ownership, need to take ownership of our own bodies shouldn’t come as such a great surprise. But yet the way is still narrow, the disconnection between body and soul still fostered, the dissatisfaction within our own life-giving flesh, incredible. Should it be so surprising that I have no hope?

It is necessary that a book such as Appetites ends on a hopeful note. Caroline Knapp, after fifteen years of therapy found herself cured enough. Though it is very sad, reading the end, knowing that soon after this book’s publication she died.

The hope she offers is no bristling utopia but the illumination of some singular women’s experience: breaks above the surface. It has to do with basic happiness, the ability of feeling joy, of taking pleasure, all of which felt so distant to the author before. Moments that consist of opportunities for small joyousness, sparks of a complex sexuality, inhales with a multi-sensual sensuality, such is goodness and getting closer. To satisfy one’s self on as many levels as possible is the key to woman’s abundance.

The great lack and absence in our society is that which has been kept underground and that which cannot possibly stay underground forever: women. Our rising visibility must demand that more of ourselves will be heard. So goes, my hopefulness.

But the other day in Rome, I saw her. She walked down the street with headphones in. I saw her skeletal frame under her too big clothes, those elbows and knees the size of gulf clubs, those arms and legs just flesh-bone. And I knew like a punch in my gut, recognizing her grimace as she passed our happy table of beer and snacks by, her restraint. The hunger and pain and sadness of all that she would not allow herself to have, because if she decided to have fun and joy and eat and be merry, she would want more, she would begin to look whole and who wants a whole woman anyway. Towards Renoir’s Bathers we have a hell of a long way to go.



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