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Chapter OneSUBTRACT SELF-ESTEEM
The lure of starving-the baffling, seductive hook-was that it soothed, a balm of safety and containment that seemed to remove me from the ordinary, fraught world of human hunger and place me high above it, in a private kingdom of calm.
This didn't happen immediately, this sense of transcendent solace, and there certainly wasn't anything blissful or even long-lived about the state; starving is a painful, relentless experience, and also a throbbingly dull one, an entire life boiled down to a singular sensation (physical hunger) and a singular obsession (food). But when I think back on those years, which lasted through my mid-twenties, and when I try to get underneath the myriad meanings and purposes of such a bizarre fixation, that's what I remember most pointedly-the calm, the relief from an anxiety that felt both oceanic and nameless. For years, I ate the same foods every day, in exactly the same manner, at exactly the same times. I devoted a monumental amount of energy to this endeavor-thinking about food, resisting food, observing other people's relationships with food, anticipating my own paltry indulgences in food-and this narrowed, specific, driven rigidity made me feel supremely safe: one concern, one feeling, everything else just background noise.
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. It is a way of co-opting the traditional female preoccupation with food and weight by turning the obsession upside down, directing the energy not toward the preparation and provision and ingestion of food but toward the shunning of it, and all that it represents: abundance, plenitude, caretaking. Anorexia is this, anorexia is that. Volumes have been written about such symbolic expressions, and there's truth to all of them, and they are oddly comforting truths: They help to decipher this puzzle; they help to explain why eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness among females in the United States, and why fifteen percent of young women have substantially disordered attitudes and behaviors toward food and eating, and why the incidence of eating disorders has increased by thirty-six percent every five years since the 1950s. They offer some hope-if we can understand this particularly devastating form of self-inflicted cruelty, maybe we can find a way to stop it.
I, too, am tempted to comfort and explain, to look back with the cool detachment of twenty years and offer a crisp critique: a little cultural commentary here, a little metaphorical analysis there. 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'ts 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. Last spring, a group of women gathered in my living room to talk about appetite, all of them teachers and administrators at a local school and all of them adamant that this whole business-weight, food, managing hunger-troubles them not at all. "Weight," said one, "is not really an issue for me." "No," said another, "not for me, either." And a third: "I don't really think about what I'm going to eat from day to day. Basically, I just eat what I want."
This was a cheerful and attractive group, ages twenty-two to forty-one, and they were all so insistent about their normalcy around food that, were it not for the subtle strain of caveat that ran beneath their descriptions, I might have believed them.
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. The woman who insisted that weight is "not really an issue," for instance, also noted that she only allows herself to eat dessert, or second helpings at dinner, if she's gone to the gym that day. No workout, no dessert. The woman who agreed with her (no, not an issue for her, either) echoed that sentiment. "Yeah," she nodded, "if I don't work out, I start to feel really gross about food and I'll try to cut back." A third said she eats "normally" but noted that she always makes a point of leaving at least one bite of food on her plate, every meal, no exceptions. And the woman who said she "basically just eats what she wants" added, "I mean, if someone brings a cake into the office, I'll have a tiny slice, and I might not eat the frosting, but it's not like a big deal or anything. I just scrape the frosting off."
Tiny slices, no frosting, forty-five minutes on the StairMaster: These are the conditions, variations on a theme of vigilance and self-restraint that I've watched women dance to all my life, that I've danced to myself instinctively and still have to work to resist. I walk into a health club locker room and feel an immediate impulse toward scrutiny, the kneejerk measuring of self against other: That one has great thighs, this one's gained weight, who's thin, who's fat, how do I compare? I overhear snippets of conversation, constraints unwittingly articulated and upheld in a dollop of lavish praise here (You look fabulous, have you lost weight?), a whisper of recriminating judgment there (She looks awful, has she gained weight?), and I automatically turn to look: Who looks fabulous, who looks awful? I go to a restaurant with a group of women and pray that we can order lunch without falling into the semi-covert business of collective monitoring, in which levels of intake and restraint are aired, compared, noticed: What are you getting? Is that all you're having? A salad? Oh, please. There's a persistent awareness of self in relation to other behind this kind of behavior, and also a tacit nod to the idea that there are codes to adhere to, and self-effacing apologies to be made if those codes are broken. I'm such a hog, says the woman who breaks rank, ordering a cheeseburger when everyone else has salad.
Can't, shouldn't, I'm a moose. So much of this is waved away as female vanity-this tedious nattering about calories and fat, this whining, shallow preoccupation with surfaces-but I find it poignant, and painful in a low-level but chronic way, and also quite revealing. One of the lingering cultural myths about gender is that women are bad at math-they lack confidence for it, they have poor visual-spatial skills, they simply don't excel at numbers the way boys do. This theory has been widely challenged over the years, and there's scant evidence to suggest that girls are in any way neurologically ill-equipped to deal with algebra or calculus. But I'd challenge the myth on different grounds: Women are actually superb at math; they just happen to engage in their own variety of it, an intricate personal math in which desires are split off from one another, weighed, balance, traded, assessed. These are the mathematics of desire, a system of self-limitation and monitoring based on the fundamental premise that appetites are at best risky, at worst impermissible, that indulgence must be bought and paid for. Hence the rules and caveats: Before you open the lunch menu or order that cheese-burger or consider eating the cake with the frosting intact, haul out the psychic calculator and start tinkering with the budget. Why shouldn't you? I asked a woman that question not long ago while she was demurring about whether to order dessert at a restaurant. Immediate answer: "Because I'll feel gross." Why gross?
"Because I'll feel fat."
And what would happen if you felt fat?
"I hate myself when I feel fat. I feel ugly and out of control. I feel really un-sexy. I feel unlovable."
And if you deny yourself the dessert?
"I may feel a little deprived, but I'll also feel pious," she said.
So it's worth the cost?
These are big trade-offs for a simple piece of cake-add five hundred calories, subtract well-being, allure, and self-esteem-and the feelings behind them are anything but vain or shallow. Hidden within that thirty-second exchange is an entire set of mathematical principles, equations that can dictate a woman's most fundamental approach to hunger. 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. Small wonder food makes a woman nervous. The experience of appetite in this equation is an experience of anxiety, a burden and a risk; yielding to hunger may be permissible under certain conditions, but mostly it's something to be Earned or Monitored and Controlled. e = mc².
During the acute phases of my starving years, I took a perverse kind of pleasure in these exhibitions of personal calculus, the anxious little jigs that women would do around food. Every day at lunchtime, I'd stand in line at a café in downtown Providence clutching my 200-calorie yogurt, and while I waited, I'd watch the other women deliberate. I'd see a woman mince edgily around the glass case that held muffins and cookies, and I'd recognize the look in her eye, the longing for something sweet or gooey, the sudden flicker of No. I'd overhear fragments of conversation: debates between women (I can't eat that, I'll feel huge), and cajolings (Oh, c'mon, have the fries), and collaborations in surrender (I will if you will). I listened for these, I paid attention, and I always felt a little stab of superiority when someone yielded (Okay, fuck it, fries, onion rings, PIE). I would not yield-to do so, I understood, would imply lack of restraint, an unseemly, indulgent female greed-and in my stem resistance I got to feel coolly superior while they felt, or so it seemed to me, anxious. But I knew that anxiety. I know it still, and I know how stubbornly pressing it can feel, the niggling worry about food and calories and size and heft cutting to the quick somehow, as though to fully surrender to hunger might lead to mayhem, the appetite proven unstoppable. If you plotted my food intake on a graph from that initial cottage cheese purchase onward, you wouldn't see anything very dramatic at first: a slight decline in consumption over my junior and senior years, and an increasing though not yet excessive pattern of rigidity, that edgy whir about food and weight at only the edges of consciousness at first. I lived off campus my senior year with a boyfriend, studied enormously hard, ate normal dinners at home with him, but permitted myself only a single plain donut in the morning, coffee all day, not a calorie more. The concept of "permission" was new to me-it heralded the introduction of rules and by-laws, a nascent internal tyrant issuing commands-but I didn't question it. I just ate the donut, drank the coffee, obeyed the rules, aware on some level that the rigidity and restraint served a purpose, reinforced those first heady feelings of will and determination, a proud sensation that I was somehow beyond ordinary need. I wrote a prize-winning honors thesis on two hundred calories a day. The following year, my first out of college, the line on the graph would begin to waver, slowly at first, then peaking and dipping more erratically: five pounds up, five pounds down, six hundred calories here, six thousand there, the dieting female's private NASDAQ, a personal index of self-torture.
This was not a happy time. I'd taken a job in a university news bureau, an ostensible entree into writing and a fairly hefty disappointment (I was an editorial assistant in title, a glorified secretary in fact, bored nearly senseless from day one). The boyfriend had left for graduate school in California, and I was living alone for the first time, missing him with the particularly consuming brand of desperation afforded by long-distance love. I was restless and lonely and full of self-doubt, and the low-level tampering I'd been doing with my appetite began to intensify, my relationship with food thrown increasingly out of whack. This is familiar territory to anyone with a long history of dieting: a fundamental severing between need and want begins to take place, eating gradually loses its basic associations with nourishment and physical satisfaction and veers onto a more complex emotional plane in which the whole notion of hunger grows loaded and confusing. Sometimes I was very rigid with my diet during this period, resolving to consume nothing but coffee all day, only cheese and crackers at night. Other times I ate for comfort, or because I was bored, or because I felt empty, all reasons that frightened and confused me. I'd make huge salads at night, filled with nuts and cubes of cheese and slathered in creamy dressings; I'd eat big bowls of salty soups, enormous tuna melts, hideously sweet oversized chocolate chip cookies, purchased in little frenzies of preservation (should I? shouldn't I?) from a local bakery. I started drinking heavily during this period, too, which weakened my restraint; I'd wake up feeling bloated and hungover and I'd try to compensate by eating nothing, or next to nothing, during the day.
For a year, I gained weight, lost weight, gained the weight back, and I found this deeply unnerving, as though some critical sense of bodily integrity were at risk, my sense of limits and proportion eroding.
Excerpted from APPETITES by CAROLINE KNAPP Copyright ©2003 by Caroline Knapp. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|Add Cake, Subtract Self-Esteem||22|
|The Mother Connection||54|
|I Hate My Stomach, I Hate My Thighs||83|
|From Bra Burning to Binge Shopping||119|
|Body As Voice||162|
|Swimming Toward Hope||179|
Posted June 12, 2003
This is a fantastic book for women. You don't need to be an anorexic to gain a lot of insight from it. It made me think a lot, and I came to some profound conclusions about myself and my life because of it. I recommend it to everyone, if you read it carefully and think about it deeply - it will change your life, I swear.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 26, 2009
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