Ethnography and the Everyday: Knapp’s Appetites

In my medical anthropology class we are now reading Caroline Knapp’s Appetites, a memoir of her struggles with anorexia and a meditation on culture, gender, and being a woman. This book is flip side to Kolata’s Rethinking Thin, linking eating and weight to cultural meanings, social relationships, the media, and more. In the end, I hope that my students will realize that both biology and culture matter, and that one of the best ways to link those two is through a focus on experience and behavior. In turn, experience and behavior can be grasped as being the manifestation, concretization and direction of brain and body in context.

On Thursdays the students take charge of half the class, and yesterday was a great discussion. The group in charge began with Knapp’s discussion of the front cover of a Shape magazine featuring Elle Macpherson, perfectly recovered after giving birth just some months before. Then they put all of us to work on creating the covers for other magazines—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, and Men’s Health. We’re on deadline and have to sell, sell, sell

That broke the ice, and the students soon shared stories of gender, desire, image, and more in the class. It verged on the edge of the mundane at times, nothing academic about it. The story of male athletes weight lifting, putting in extra reps for their biceps, proclaiming them “guns for girls”. The shock of one girl, considering her Mom a natural beauty, when her mother spoke recently of cosmetic surgery, adding at the end, When you get to my age, you’ll understand. Discussions of beach bodies and the right bathing suit. A vaguely mystified girl, recounting the reactions of a group of guys when Jessica Alba appeared onscreen in Fantastic Four, oh she’s so hot!

Mundane. Gendered. Real. That’s culture.

That’s what I told them at the end. Our understandings and explanations of anorexia and obesity, of hunger and eating and all the other appetites, must build from this everyday life. It is where we live. But academic discourse is often at a remove from our own lives. Executive control, genes, self-esteem, these are the explanations tossed around.

Knapp gives us a telling story at the start of her second chapter. “On her way to the airport, this grown, self-aware woman—a paragon of reason and maturity—was overcome with the compulsion to pull her rental car into the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, walk in, and steal a bottle of water. She could not resist; she snagged eight ounces of Evian and fled, embarrassed and confused.”

I had just delivered my focus-on-the-everyday point, and suddenly I switched gears. I asked, Okay, how does Knapp explain this story? The room immediately went silent. Tension rose, eyes were averted from the teacher, hoping I wouldn’t call on them. One girl tentatively raised her hand, another dove back into the pages, looking for that particular passage.

I called off the question, and told them that their reaction was precisely the point. They went searching for some explanation. Knapp does not provide more detail on the woman stealing the water than that little clip. We don’t know, and we can’t know—we do not have the data. What were the everyday things going through her mind? What happened as she pulled her rental car off the road? What did she think afterwards? We don’t have enough description to even make an informed guess.

But a lot of academics will have their pet explanations. Knapp, to her credit, merely writes, “I love that story, it captures so perfectly the mysterious, changeable quality of appetite, the way it bumps up against a feeling and then molds itself into a new impulse, attaches itself to something seemingly so random.”

Examining the mysterious, changeable qualities of ourselves, that is where good ethnography starts for me. In the everyday, and building out our explanations from there through detailed, comparative work. People will probably find it surprising, but in the end, our mundane lives, they are as complex as our brains. But how else could it be?

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