Freud’s famous question — " What do women want? " — began as a portentous query, became a radical feminist slogan in the 1970s (the answer was: " Everything " ), and has since devolved into an Oprah-esque cliché of self-help. Its lengthy but narrow cultural shelf life was predetermined, in part, because it was the wrong question that pandered to male-oriented expectations. Not only was it presumptuous — the good doctor wasn’t actually asking women what they wanted — but it was far too general, viewing all women as a single group with identical needs and desires. Even more to the point, its contextual implication was that women had " want " because they were, in some way, incomplete.
Caroline Knapp’s Appetites — an impressive cross of cultural analysis and personal memoir — neatly turns Freud’s question inside out. Appropriately subtitled ÒWhy Women Want,Ó the book is far more interested in the subjective meaning of desire, or Òappetite,Ó than in an objective solution. Indeed, by the end, she’s come to the conclusion that the simple acknowledgment of women’s needs is the best, and most vital, first step we can take. Her thesis is that women desperately ÒwantÓ because their basic needs — their appetites — are profoundly denied by our culture. The mandated requirement to be thin, to be loved, and to be pretty inevitably twist women’s basic need for food, sex, and personal recognition into a triangular nightmare of eating disorders, destructive relationships, and compulsive shopping. Knapp’s persuasive argument — which makes this work both vital and unique — is that they are not distinct problems but the same problem: the problem of how women are proscribed from experiencing pleasure.
The spine of Appetites is Knapp’s own struggle with anorexia (a struggle she first documented in a piece she wrote for the Phoenix as an editor). At the age of 19, when she’s an A student at Brown, she begins to diet, almost by accident, eating nothing but cottage cheese and rice cakes for three days. In six years she drops from 120 to 80 pounds, stops menstruating, and is wearing the outgrown jeans of a 12-year-old boy. The memoir embedded in Appetites is judicious, just the author’s methodical chronicle of what it means to get thinner and thinner: ÒWhat if I skipped dinner? What if I didn’t eat anything during the day, drank only coffee? I wonder how that would feel.Ó But as frightening as Knapp’s clear-eyed remembrance is, she always returns to the analytical: ÒTo say that I ‘lost’ my appetite during those years would be a joke. On the contrary, I ate, slept, and breathed appetite. . . . I had appetites the size of Mack trucks — driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure — but I found their very power too daunting and fearsome to contend with.Ó
Eating-disorder literature usually categorizes the syndrome as an issue of personal control. What Knapp argues here is radically different — that eating disorders and compulsive shopping and the need to hold onto destructive relationships all center on the regulation of, and flight from, bodily and erotic pleasure. ÒI learned to be furtiveÓ she writes. ÒI took to snatching pleasure on the sly: cigarettes here, dollar bills there, squares of Hershey’s chocolate from the supply my mother kept hidden in her dresser drawer.Ó All of these pleasures have to be kept hidden and unnamed. ÒUnnamed hungers become frightening hungersÓ that need to be controlled. ÒWanting is a frightening thing,Ó she writes. ÒNot wanting, by contrast, can be far easier, at least in the short term.Ó
In her earlier works of cultural criticism — Drinking: A Love Story (Dial, 1996) and Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs (Dial, 1998) — Knapp began to explore a style that wedded memoir and sociology, the personal with the political. Although those books were successful, Appetites takes her idiosyncratic method to a new level. There are times when she can shock with the details of her research — who could have imagined that ÒAmerican women spend approximately $1 million every hour on cosmeticsÓ? — as with the minutiae of her own struggle with anorexia. Her talents as a writer and reporter are, unfortunately, often lost in a maze of careless organization. Her untimely death last year at the age of 42 makes Appetites all the more poignant, and it may account for some of the book’s structural flaws.
In the end, Knapp has a simple solution: ÒWhat we want, of course, . . . is connection, love: If the deepest source of human hunger has a name, that would be it; if the boxes of constraint in which so many women live could be smashed to bits, that would be the tool, the sledgehammer that shatters emptiness and uncovers the hope buried beneath it.Ó The love she’s speaking of here is not just the love of one person for another, but the love of self, and the ability to love pleasure without regret and without constraint.
There will be a tribute to Caroline Knapp, with readings from Appetites: Why Women Want, at the Sackler Museum, 485 Broadway in Harvard Square, this evening (May 15) at 6 p.m. Call (617) 661-1515.