You’ve seen it played out in a hundred restaurants and pastry shops and Starbucks, and if you’re a woman, chances are good that you’ve participated in it: “I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t.” “I’d be a pig if I had two.” “You’re only having salad? Come on, you look fine.” “I’m only having dessert if I do extra time at the gym.” It’s most obvious around food, this dance of appetite — what are women allowed, encouraged, permitted to want? — but it exists in other arenas, too: sex, professional ambition, shopping.
In Appetites, Caroline Knapp tackles the question of why so many women get into trouble with understanding and honoring their appetites. She uses herself as an example — the book is partially a memoir of her own battle with anorexia — but mere body image or self-esteem is not the point. She uses her own hunger, her own inability to feed herself or even believe she could be fed, as a jumping-off point to talk about the yearnings, insecurities, burnout, alienation and sorrow that seem to be an inevitable part of female experience in the modern world.
In the end, her conclusion is that culture is only part of the problem. Yes, we’re being fed a steadily poisonous diet of images that tell us what to want and what to be; yes, television and magazines and films throw femininity at us in indigestible packages. But Knapp says that the trouble with appetite, the disjunction between hunger and satiety, goes further. She hypothesizes that the first feminists fought a public, external battle with institutions for hard-won freedoms, and got their satisfaction from that. Our generation is one of the first that must discover for itself how to live with those freedoms. It’s a quieter, more internal, more isolated job, one without a user manual, one that gets a lot of conflicting advice: you can be anything you want to be versus don’t let it go to your head; reach out for the stars versus don’t take up too much space. These jarring conflicts can cause women to succeed professionally while they starve themselves, raise happy families while they rack up credit card debt, start their own businesses while they cut their arms in private.
Knapp has a few ideas about integrating the self. She offers a tantalizing glimpse of a woman with a real prayer life; another who accepts that she’s fat and — gasp — has a life beyond that idea; another who adopted a child and suddenly found that shopping took second place. But for the most part, she seems not quite able to grasp the idea of being truly sated, truly fed by the things and people in your life. While I think she nailed some of the essentially isolating cultural and societal things about being a Western middle-class woman, her conclusions feel like she is describing something on the other side of a tall fence — occasional glimpses, but mostly fence. I would have loved to see some ideas about the ways technology, education, and service to others can connect people, just for a start.
Caroline Knapp died just before this book was published. She had great hopes of seeing her own life unfold its mysteries to greater connection, greater fulfillment. She speaks in the last chapter of seeing her niece born, and hoping for better things for her. I wish the same for my own daughter, and for us all.