June 14, 2016

I was asked a simple question the other day that I found enormously difficult to answer. What do you want?

I found myself qualifying, unable to commit to anything much, dissociating myself from any statement— if it works out, I said, we’ll see. My unease with the question was surprising to me, mostly because I am a person who wants a lot. The problem was not in having desires, but rather, confronting and committing to them.

The topic of want, and the strange feeling that my carefully analysed views on feminism and womanhood were being challenged (by this question and many others), was on my mind when I came across a passage of Appetites: What Women Want. I bought the book, a feminist memoir written in the early 2000s, and read it the day it came, battered, in the mail.

The book’s author, Caroline Knapp, argues that a woman’s desire for a full life is often, at least for a certain group of privileged women, diminished by obsessions and restrictions — for food, for sex, for material things. Women’s recent increased freedom, which Knapp points out is not the same as power, has been accompanied by increased anxieties, guilt and self-disgust. In her case, these anxieties manifested in an eating disorder.

Knapp writes all sorts of things about anorexia, about the power and pride it can bring, how it is all-consuming and isolating. But mostly she talks about its protective powers, how it can distract us from bigger questions of ourselves and our place in the world. “Unnamed anxieties are replaced with tangible ones…” she writes. “You can’t worry about Appetite (joy, passion, lust, hunger) when you’re worrying about appetite (frosting, fat grams.)”

Even at its most crushing, an eating disorder can feel safer than unattached, floating anxiety and sorrow. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the all-consuming force of anorexia or bulimia. But I remember, vividly, how it felt to have such a singular focus on food-deprivation, how powerful denial could me feel. My initial reaction to extreme stress or sadness or confusion is always the same: don’t eat, throw up. I don’t follow the impulse anymore, but I understand its soothing power. I understand that it is easy to throw all your anxiety and fear and even ambition on to the body.

To Knapp, a women’s hunger and her accompanying guilt and restriction, is intimately tied to other desires. Sexual desires must also be managed, contained and served up for others. Even ambition, in career or school, feels unwieldy. All of these desires, left unchecked, could ruin us.

It’s a theory I’ve felt personally, seen in the lives of the women around me, and echoed in other feminist writing, such as Sinister Wisdom — “Almost every woman I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.”

Still, Knapp’s reflections seemed a little outdated, stuck in the days before Nicki Minaj and Girls, before sexual empowerment and reclaiming our bodies went mainstream. My female friends, mostly, talk openly about sex and their bodies. We speak explicitly, rooted in the physical, about our experiences and our desires. I want, we can say now, I want.

Reading Appetites, however, I realized how fragile, how limited, our discussions and apparent openness really is. I was raised to believe relationships with boys (or later, men) were to be avoided. I was supposed to focus on my friendships, my family, my schoolwork, and most crucially, my relationship with God. Until, it was always made clear, I reached a marriage-able age. Then all of those things, except for spirituality, must go on the backburner. Wife and mother was to be my most important role.

This message was altered in my adolescent and college friendships. I was part of a smart, over-achieving and opinionated group of women. Relationships with boys, later men, were an intrusion, and hardly tolerated — unless they were kept strictly sexual. Allowing deeper feelings was to let go of control, to risk putting our ambitions on hold.

I still struggle with my friends to talk about my relationships in the language of emotion, affection or intimacy. There is still some shame, even though we have tried to fight against it, in admitting that you have given away control. Knapp describes women feeling shame about their sexual drives, but I’ve found something different — women I know feel shame about loving. Sex, it seems, can be contained. But all of it together— sex, love, intimacy — is terrifying, unmanageable.

Power, sex and our bodies are hopelessly intertwined, even when we don’t want them to be. One friend of mine openly equates feeling light and toned with feeling powerful, and therefore, wanting to have sex. Another friend talks about how she likes certain sexual acts because the blind pleasure it creates for the man — not because she enjoys pleasing, necessarily, but because it makes her feel powerful, in control.

Sex and the body, when kept in the realm of the physical, can be sources of uncomplicated pleasure. But sex and the body are often attached to something heavier, and maybe it should always be. Allowing this heaviness, however, is allowing yourself to lose control — a sensation that, just like with food, causes anxiety. Sexuality, in some small and gnawing part of us, is still an offering, a way to please someone else, to placate, to smooth an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation.

Knapp writes about this small and gnawing part — “We did not learn how to feel or experience our bodies, how to appreciate our own strength, how to value or respect or understand the packages we came in. Instead, we learned how to look at them, to pair sexuality with desirability, to measure the worth of our bodies by their capacity to elicit admiration from others. In a word, we learned to dissociate, which is what such an experience of the body requires: Sexuality in this construction is located not within the self–within one’s own body and bodily sensations–but within someone else; the ignition must be turned with a key. To be sexy is to be found sexy, to be permitted to want, you must first be wanted.”

What is it, then, to desire, to hunger — without restriction, shame or fear? It’s not, I don’t think, a deep dive into hedonism or empowerment. Maybe it’s to accept the discomfort of full appetite, one that comes with vulnerability and uncertainty. To want, without entitlement or shame.