Though writer Caroline Knapp's pen was stilled with her death last June, her incisive and vigorous words speak out in an eloquent final work, Appetites: Why Women Want. This skillful blend of memoir and social commentary mines the author's personal struggles with anorexia and alcohol while probing deeply into the roots of female hunger and its perversions in modern American culture.
Knapp begins her exploration of women's appetites with a painful contrast of opposites: she describes a famous Renoir canvas a sensual, painterly snapshot of voluptuous women lounging along a lush riverbank conjuring an image of satisfaction and bounty, of female hunger fulfilled. Her focus then shifts quickly to a stark, angular picture: "Once upon a time, in a land as different from Renoir's world as Earth is from Jupiter, I weighed eighty-three pounds. I was twenty-one years old, five-foot-four, and my knees were wider than my thighs." Admittedly, the tensions created by human hunger and its appeasement defy gender and reach across world history and culture. But Knapp charts a female-specific journey, one that becomes more telescopic and intense with each succeeding chapter. She examines the contortions of women's appetites in full, from their natural, human beginnings at birth through their eventual suppression and distortion in a culture that remains dominantly attuned to the rights and fulfillment of males.
We travel first into labyrinthine terrain Knapp calls it "The Land of No" a geography shaped by "the idea that there's something inherently shameful and flawed about the female form, something that requires constant monitoring and control." In this place, there are psychic paths with uniformly repressive signposts, directives that the author believes most modern-day women have heard constantly since girlhood: "Don't eat too much, don't get too big, don't reach too far, don't climb too high, don't want too much. No, no, no." For many women, reports Knapp, life lived in this landscape leads to tragic, numbing extremes of body-loathing: self-starvation, morbid obesity, excessive cosmetic alteration. "What," she asks, "is this drive to be thinner, prettier, better dressed, other? Who exactly is this other . . .what might we be doing, thinking, feeling . . . if we didn't think about body image, ever?"
With laser-like focus, Knapp traces the complex physiology of thwarted female hunger in chapters on how women's appetites are influenced by the mother-daughter relationship, and how they are undermined by a confusing zeitgeist of relentless image advertising. Her own salvation from a crippled hunger comes, ironically, through the physical activity of sculling. She forces herself to learn this "aquatic version of tight-rope walking" and, after years of rowing practice, reconnects to her body. From that corporeal foundation, she takes a leap toward freedom.
So, though questions remain what are my hungers? what really feeds me? how much is too much? how much is enough? Appetites is an inspirational, soul-shaking field guide through the wilds of these wonderings. The author's insight recalls writer Gertrude Stein's "there isn't any answer, that's the answer" musings on life: "For there is no unequivocal answer," Knapp writes, "no pinnacle reached, all appetites understood and satiated at last. Instead, there are moments of contentment . . . of sudden alignment between body and mind and spirit . . .gifts from the universe. . .fleeting moments that you have to relish and eat up like pie." Yes, preferably ˆ la mode. Bravo, Caroline Knapp.
Alison Hood is a writer who lives in San Rafael, California.