Appetites, a memoir by Caroline Knapp, is an astute observation on the late-20th century female experience.
In Knapp’s view, the emergence of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction in the U.S. coincided with the end of the second-wave Feminist movement in the late 1970’s. Knapp writes, “The second wave, after all, was in so many respects about appetite, about demanding the freedom to take in … the freedom to hunger and to satisfy hunger in all its varied forms.*” Coming of age as feminist activism quieted, Knapp describes feeling the movement intellectually -- and yet its transformative potential, its radicalizing power, did not have the time to reach “gut level.”
There you have it: intellectual belief without the corollary emotional roots; feminist power understood in the mind but not known, somehow, in the body. (p. 124)
As feminist momentum slowed, the rise of an externalizing consumer mindset occurred in lockstep: “A powerful combination, and also a powerful loss," writes Knapp. During the Feminist movement, the female ‘appetite’ was one to feel entitled and to be heard; as consumer culture took hold however, appetite began to center around the right product or substance. At once, the pursuit of happiness and wholeness reduced--to the pursuit of “things.”
If something was missing in the air back then, if something’s missing still, it was a sense of broad alternative vision, a language that might have encouraged women to talk not about new things to want but about new ways to want. (p. 153)
For many women, a significant part of consumerism was directed toward outward appearance and image--in essence toward ”fixing” the body. In a paragraph that really struck me, Knapp writes of the seduction of taking such vast and varied forms of hunger (e.g., one’s desire to feel connected, or competent) and distilling these to a single hunger to be managed: One’s hunger for food.
Throughout Appetites, Knapp writes candidly of a time in her life when she wanted more than she knew how to ask for. She lends compassion to her younger self by setting the historical context--depicting decades that many readers may only know through books or parent’s stories. Knapp walks us through her recovery: A gradual, nonlinear process of satisfying an appetite for life, a recognition of the less literal forms of hunger.
For there is no unequivocal answer, no final resting place, no pinnacle reached, all appetites understood and sated at last. Instead, there are moments of contentment, moments of sudden alignment between body and mind and spirit, moments of feeling fed that arrive unexpectedly, like gifts from the universe. (p. 192)
*at the time, a hunger for economic, legal and/or sexual freedom among other forms.
[Note: After any good book, I find myself researching its author... Having felt Caroline Knapp’s aliveness in each written word, I was shocked and saddened to learn that she passed away from lung cancer in 2002 (age 42), one year before Appetites was published. Above, I felt compelled to share Knapp's words, which no doubt have touched many individuals across gender and generation.]