Appetites: Why Women Want, by Caroline Knapp (2003)

Shortly after I got this book I read through the first few pages and placed it on my “read later” pile. I assumed I had nothing in common with a woman who nearly starved herself to death. I come from hearty Sicilian and German stock, too much food, and not daring to reject this form of love was more of my problem than self-denial. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This book was published posthumously. Caroline Knapp died at age 42 of lung cancer in 2002. An author and columnist, she is one of the best writers I have read. Her words are a sword, as finely crafted and precise as a samurai’s deadly weapon. Her meticulous words and excellent prose slice through the denial that one woman’s eating disorder is not directly related to another woman’s shopping addiction. Her parry is deadly. Be prepared to be dismembered from your most treasured belief system(s).

Much of the book details her love affair with anorexia. Unlike the stereotypical image of this disorder, she did not undertake this adventure because she felt she was fat/overweight or hated her body per se. She starved herself because she wanted control. She wanted power over her body… over something. At one point, she describes standing in front of the mirror meticulously counting her protruding ribs; satisfied that she had somehow proven a point. She later admits that food gained the upper hand; planned binges took on the pomp and circumstance of holiday gatherings, afterwards leaving her feeling helpless, hopeless and wrought with guilt. Yet, to say this book is only about one woman’s battle with anorexia is akin to saying the titanic was sunk by an ice cube.

Appetites is about women’s wants. Women often abnegate their own desires for the good of the other. Think about a fantastic Mom you know; likely she is best at self-neglect and places her priorities in the order of who needs her most… excluding herself. Husband, children, community, church and aging parents all take precedence over a woman’s time, energy and personal aspirations. To do less is to be less of a woman. Why is that?

I look at my own life and I realize I too followed the pre-set female formula. As a teen, I quickly fell in step with the feminine stereotype. I chose to participate in the pom-pom squad although I was a strong runner. I dropped woodshop because I was the only female in the class and was horribly intimidated even though the teacher was very encouraging and uber-excited that I was in his class. I loved creating things out of wood yet, shyness, teenage insecurity and the very real awareness that I didn’t belong there made me drop that class and join choir, (I can’t sing except in my car or shower.) Both decisions I regret to this day.

I always loved climbing trees, riding my bike, reading books and creating stories yet in high school having friends became more important than my satisfying solitary adventures. One could argue that I was simply following the normal arc of a teenage girl but hindsight tells me I sold out to fit in. The girls who were athletic were “dykes.” The girls who had no friends were freaks or outcasts. If the majority of your friends were guys, you were a slut. Somewhere along the road to adulthood I lost the courage to be myself and once lost it was very difficult to get back. For most of my life I followed the path of least resistance the one that would allow me to blend in and not rock the boat. I lived my life denying my true self (see my post “It’s Her Again”) all the while feeling the inner boiling anger of resentment towards those who suppressed me. In some respect, I should have been mad at myself. But maybe it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Knapp helps explain our common plight as modern women. One foot in the past and one in her future; the average woman unconsciously and guiltily competes with her mother’s legacy. Only a generation ago women were still expected to be in the home, June Cleaver being the model of perfection. Even the career woman was expected to work full time and then come home to clean, cook and care for the children. The tiresome images of what a woman should be still endure and those who break the mold pay dearly. Those who fall in step fare no better.

Knapp, in chapter two, tells of the many cocktail parties hosted by her parents; something her mother hated. “And I remember how tired she’d be the next morning, exhausted in the bone-deep way I now recognize as almost entirely emotional: it’s the rage-laced fatigue you feel after you’ve given and given and taken next to nothing for yourself.” I know that feeling all too well.

Appetites is not simply a call for equality, but a call for recognition. Recognizing ourselves as beings who have wants. We are beings who have desires no less important or powerful than our beloved male counterparts, yet we somehow fail to give ourselves permission to be who we are in our souls. No one is going to grant women consent to grab what they want, it needs to be taken by women and that is a terrifying prospect.

 

If you are interested in Knapp’s book it is available on Amazon. I will not receive any compensation if you use this link.

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