“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 from one another, weighed, balanced, 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” (26).*
In Appetites, Caroline Knapp uses her experiences with anorexia to grapple with appetite as a gendered cultural issue. Aspects of her critique are outdated, i.e. addressing women as a homogeneous whole, and her analysis fails to account for the prevalence of eating disorders in men. But she does acknowledge her privilege and still provides insight that rings true today.
Knapp analyzes the cultural factors of weight beyond the media simply pressuring women to be thin. She believes that in a post-feminism world (she’s writing about her experiences in the 80s and 90s after second-wave feminism, whether the apathy towards feminism she describes continues would be debatable) the “heiresses of the women’s movement” are left to self-regulate their desires in lieu of outright external forces. Knapp believes much of this self-regulation stems from “the collision between self and culture, female desire unleashed in a world that’s still deeply ambivalent about female power” (19). Many women deal with this ambivalence by never taking too much. The risk of losing 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” (26). So, as Knapp puts it, women engage in appetite calculations, always wary of how much to be and when it comes to food, how much to eat. Knapp believes weight focus also simplifies the question of desire for women. Knapp says,
“The formidable social and personal questions that might plague a woman…are broken down into palatable bites: how the jeans look, what to order for lunch” (51).
Knapp’s ideas made me angry. I wouldn’t want another woman thinking her worth is based on her appearance or to trade pleasures for approval. I want badass women to take over the world, not run on a never ending treadmill. I hate how much of this appearance obsession is used to distract women. Yet, I think of the times my actions have not aligned with these beliefs. I wouldn’t want anyone to join me but something about this treadmill left me unwilling to get off. To increase the speed. To spend less money on food and more on clothes. To calorie count instead of read. I wanted to believe if I kept myself in control I’d be safe. What a rip-off.
I know eating disorders are illnesses and analyzing the political implications of your actions doesn’t instantly make the eating disorder go away or make you a bad person for following the eating disorder’s mandate. It is the eating disorder that is twisted, not you. This book just made me angry at my eating disorder, angry at diet culture, and angry that any woman has ever felt that she didn’t deserve food or sex or a job or that her dreams were ever too big. I think it is important to read cultural critiques like these because angry is a good place to start.
*Knapp notes in this section, and I’d like to note as well that this obviously isn’t the only type of math women are good at. There is little evidence supporting the stereotype that women are naturally worse at math than men. I hope this fact seems glaringly obvious and outdated and unnecessary to point out.