Most – if not all – women do have this intense fear of extra weight. The percentage of fat content in their bodies scares most of them that they go the extra mile to achieve the so-called perfect body. This fear of fat – as Caroline Knapp calls it – may either be just a pure individual anxiety or a reflection of a deeper circumstance about the place of women in society. To move further away from this fear, women immediately sought the powers of dieting.
Dieting usually refers to the cutback of the usual food intake to be able to reduce body weight. It has been performed by millions of women of this generation where it came to the point of being obsessive. Dieting is not just a mere reduction of food consumption. As this generation of women became extremely fearful of accumulating body fat, dieting can either be their savior or their repentance.
In her work Add Cake, Subtract Self-Esteem, Caroline Knapp considered how eating, hunger, and dieting can serve as a path to guilt-trip of quenching one’s appetite and adding a dreaded pound. She sees this culture of women’s hunger for food as equal with the new freedom but limited power that modern women have. In the following discussion, this culture of hunger will be looked at in ways to analyze its relation as the main cause for women’s eating disorders. That these eating disorders are beyond the desires not to eat more than what the body asks, rather it is a mirror of women’s place in society.
Irrational Eater: Roots of Self Criticism and Socio-Cultural Influences
What should be considered a blessing and an enjoyable everyday act becomes a fearful battle of conscience for women. Eating is depicted as a rocky horror picture as Knapp described her personal brunch with a buffet spread openly for her to devour. A buffet which seems to offer an unlimited array of options but somehow, all a woman can do is stand in front of it and internally debate whether to indulge in the one-time ‘greed’ or just stick to the suppression of gaining weight and eating too much. At times like this, a body-conscious woman will have to think rather carefully so she could avoid being an irrational eater.
Caroline Knapp regarded the buffet as the kind of freedom that women have within the society, but having to take or choose between the massive variations of options can inflict a certain wave of anxiety rooted from the very depths of self-esteem. In this light, it can be seen that the eating disorder is a psychological circumstance. Here, Knapp stated that fear of fat exists on the “deep reservoirs of personal anxiety.” It merely exists on the rippled surface of that reservoir; mass market images are mere reflections on it (Knapp 225). The self is the worst critique when it comes to food and hunger which led to eating disorders – whether excessively or scarcely.
Over the years the standard of beauty has changed. From the voluptuous sculpture figure of Venus de Milo to the skinny bodies of supermodels such as Kate Moss, the beauty that the world perceived has drastically became tinier and thinner. First of all, cultural perception has an impact on these standards.
Today, eating behavior is reflected to the person’s lifestyle and motivation. According to Carolyn Costin, binge eating which results to getting fat is closely associated with greed, laziness, and no direction in life; while being thin represents a body which is in control of oneself, has virtue and most likely to succeed (53).
As seen in the media, fat people are mostly typified to be slacking off in front of the television with a large bucket of popcorn at hand. Perhaps this has been associated as well with the fact that people who are fat experience difficulty in terms of moving around in a long period of time. The laziness attributed to fat people may have been referred to their short endurance because of their body weight.
On the contrary, a thinner figure exudes fluidity in motion since they are as light as feather. Thus, this particular aspect is being closely related to people’s success and subsequently, people’s tendency to become successful. Women have taken high regard for this one because to be able to get to the ladder of power and success, one must have the ‘right weight’ to climb the steps or else, the ‘excess weight’ will continuously push someone down and become exhausted even before they can see the top. This is just a mere scientific or even a general metaphor but Knapp saw this as an essential attribute on women’s obsession with dieting and hunger.
Hunger: Beyond the Craving
In obvious terms, hunger is a natural need which should be fulfilled. In the world of women, hunger is a debatable subject of whether to eat or not to eat. This state of being hungry – as previously mentioned – is a metaphor of women’s gate to freedom. This is the type of hunger where women are free to experience, given the choices that a buffet table can offer but in the end, women constantly fear the consequences of succumbing to the freedom of hunger.
It’s about what happened when hunger is not quite paired with power, when the license to hunger is new and unfamiliar, when a woman is teased with freedom – to define herself as she sees fit, to attend to her own needs and wishes, to fully explore her own desires – but may not quite feel that freedom in her bones or believe that it will last. (Knapp 225)
In this perspective, hunger becomes a separate experience which is beyond the cravings of the physical body for food. To succumb to hunger by indulging too much or even the right amount would mean to lose that sense of ‘liberation’ – though limited – that women enjoy. The state of hunger is divorced from the body and becomes loaded with alternative meanings (McMahon).
Hunger can be pinpointed as the main instigator of irrational eating. It ignites the need for women to think carefully and make more evaluations than necessary to assess if it is indeed fine to succumb to it willfully and sumptuously. The simple idea of eating in a buffet extends to every aspect of a woman’s life where food indulgence will lead to gaining weight, which subsequently means getting fat. Subsequently, getting fat may cause unattractiveness thus, exposing women into the vulnerable state of loneliness and self-hate. Stripped off of their confidence, their self-esteem will spiral down together with their personal relationships and dreams. Hunger is a vicious web of cycle which most women already foresee and struggle hard to avoid it.
In today’s time, the problem of the body is the problem of social dynamics where women’s role is scrutinize in an aesthetic perspective. Eating disorders are caused by different elements of social pressure which in turn, inflicts a self-destructive attitude towards the state of hunger. Caroline Knapp has described how a small ordinary event of a buffet can traumatize a woman drowned in her internal debates of liberation and uncertainties. She used this as a metaphor to show why there are so women engaged in irrational eating. This metaphor also conveys the current time where women are publicly offered freedom but the apprehensions in indulging in that freedom are strong enough to still limit them.
It transcends into the sociopolitical realm wherein no matter how modern women are, their roles are still limited amidst the growing options. The fear of the tendency to eat much, just like what Knapp felt during her eat-all-you-can buffet brunch, reflects women’s dread of being rejected, despised, and ending up as a fat failure in society. This issue is not just an issue of constraining the hungry stomach and fighting off the craving for carbohydrate intake, it is more of the consistent hunger for women’s acceptance – socially or privately.
Costin, Carolyn. The Eating Disorder Sourcebook. USA: Lowell House, 1999.
Knapp, Caroline. “Add Cake, Subtract Self-Esteem.” Acting Out Culture. Ed. James Miller. Boston, USA: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2008. 217-230.
Mcmahon. “Commentary on ‘Add Cake, Subtract Self-Esteem’ by Caroline Knapp. Breakthrough Writer. 31 March 2009 <http://herculodge.typepad.com/breakthrough_writer/2008/10/mcmahons-commentary-on-add-cake-subtract-self-esteem-by-caroline-knapp.html>.