Real Beauty and Why Women Want

In my medical anthropology class last Thursday, three students led our discussion of Caroline Knapp’s Appetites: Why Women Want, a memoir of anorexia, desire, femininity and feminism, and women and their bodies. To break the ice, they broke the class up into small groups and had the other students work on imaginary magazine covers for Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, and Men’s Health (see also my previous post, Ethnography and the Everyday).

The startling thing, in retrospect, was not that it was a fun exercise, but that it was so easy to do. The students knew what each magazine aimed for, they got the stereotypical headlines down right, they mixed images and bodies and sex and fashion and pleasure into catchy titles. All those titles implied a need, and also a solution, an improvement. Even I got into the mix, adding some choice vernacular to the Men’s Health cover. The question lingers, why so easy…

Let me tell you first about the video that the student trio also showed, “Onslaught,” part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. It’s media. It gets its point across, and much more. Watch it. It’s short. It helps sets up my Randy Pausch head fake.

Knapp’s book Appetites dwells on the media, on men and women and sex, and on mother-daughter relations.

On men and women and sex, she writes, “[T]he dominant research bodies have relied overwhelmingly on the sexual behavior and interests of young, white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual men, a bias that ignores female bodies entirely and frames healthy sexuality in the narrowest possible genital terms, as an ability to achieve orgasm during intercourse… To be sexually ‘normal,’ many women learn, is to be as goal-oriented and genitally focused as a man—or, at least, to mirror and amplify his goal orientation and focus. In the prevailing view, writes Lenore Tiefer, a New York-based psychiatrist, urologist, and sex researcher, ‘normalcy can be easily summarized: men and women are the same and they’re all men’ (132).”

Knapp takes on the media’s recent turn to the seeming promotion of more positive, less commercial, less dependent messages to women. “Leafing through some women’s magazine’s not too long ago, I found a number of stories that seemed to be heralding a revival of vision, the beginnings of a new, more accepting view of self. In Shape: a feature called ‘How 25 Women Got Over Their Bad Body Images.’ In Oprah’s magazine, O: a piece called ‘Hey, Gorgeous! (Yes, We Mean You): The Art of Loving Your Looks.’ In Glamour: a story called ‘Love Your Butt, Chest Size & Belly Bulges. I flipped through. I read. My heart sank. Shape’s story turned out to be a feature on a four-day ‘Body Positive’ workshop held at the Canyon Ranch Spa, in Tuscon, Arizona—quite nice for the twenty-five women who could afford the $1650 price tag, but not exactly a ticket to self-esteem for the wider public. The subtext of O’s piece could be summed up in two words: new makeup. And Glamour’s presentation for body-love turned out to be a four-page spread exhorting women to act sexually enthusiastic no matter how they feel about their bodies, a piece that managed to be both ego-boosting and condemning in the same breath (149).”

On mothers and daughters Knapp relates, “Even in this time of more relaxed gender roles, where mothers work and fathers change diapers, the gospel of femininity lives on, echoing in memory for some, preached in daily life for others, its commandments about appetite passed on in accumulated lacks: lack of comfort with it, lack of reinforcement for it, lack of embrace. A mother who is tormented by diet and weight, who appears preoccupied with her appearance and disgusted by her own body, cannot easily teach her daughter to take delight in food, to feel carefree about weight or joyful about the female form. A mother who finds her own sexuality frightening or dangerous or dirty can’t easily revel in her daughter’s. And a mother whose experience of desire is based on taboo and self-denial, on feeding others and concealing her own pangs of unsatisfied hunger, can’t easily steer her daughter toward a wider landscape (64).”

I like Knapp’s analysis, and her writing. Though I haven’t conveyed it here, she uses interviews with other women and experiences from her own life to show us about gender and appetites and sexuality even as she eschews the easy answers, showing us the nuances but not driving forward some pet theory. And though she never says it, her writing is a place where her sensuality plays out, the same as with her rowing, in ways that are much freer than her struggles with anorexia or alcoholism. That’s my own lesson for myself, writing as bringing and demanding and giving its own sensuality… In any case, for those of you interested in more, here is the link to her obituary, including excerpts from the long-time column she wrote at The Boston Phoenix. Also, Laura Miller wrote a review of Appetites, which will give you a wider view of the book itself.

Still I didn’t answer my original question. Why was it so easy for us to make those magazine covers? Is it the onslaught of media? Is parents talking more with their children the answer?

Knapp lists a long line of motives and explanations for anorexia, posed as question after question about desire and appetite and choice and values. She wraps this section up by saying, “I can make either case, I can make both… The lines choice and mandate are thin because the lines between self and culture are thin, the internal and external entwined and difficult to separate.”

How to get beyond an either/or or even a both story? Is it just gender, male versus female? Knapp gives us the story of Lisa, filled with a sense of femininity that means serving others, her father who never gave Lisa the encouragement she needed. “This could be read as a fairly classic gender tale, a case study in the way in which female desire can be cauterized by mandates about femininity… The case-study reading would reach precisely this conclusion: a girl whose identification with her father is frustrated or compromised will fall back on her mother, identifying and absorbing the qualities associated with her, and in the process losing the sense that ‘male’ qualities—strength, entitlement, power—are truly available to her. Active versus passive, self-seeking versus self-sacrificing, hungry versus not hungry, man versus women. These were the rules when Lisa was a girl, distinctions still reinforced by culture and family; end of story (68-69).”

Then Knapp tells us, “And yet the story is not simple, in part because humans are not quite so malleable nor appetites so yielding.” So what conception of culture does she offer up instead?

Besides the complicated interaction of self and culture and the impact of gendered relationships within family and with lovers, aspects of life that are more multivocal than culture itself, Knapp settles on two ways that are useful for us.

Models of culture, an idea well developed within cognitive anthropology, is the first way. Everyone from Anthony Wallace and Clifford Geertz to recent figures like Bradd Shore and Claudia Strauss have spoken of models and schemas and the like. (Here’s links to a piece by Strauss and another by David Kronenfeld to give you more depth, in case you’re interested.) Models link patterns of culture with patterns of emotion and behavior. Knapp expresses this succinctly, “a model of appetite is not necessarily the same as a model of satiety.” She goes on to explain that these differing models come from “this data bank of images, these memories of unfulfilled or undervalued or strung-out mothers, this articulation of women as less entitled, less powerful, less sexual and ambitious, less supported and recognized in the wider world (73).” The model is both descriptive and proscriptive, as cultural models often are.

Knapp also takes us one step closer to everyday life, to the stuff that translates models and symbolism into the meaning we come to share among ourselves. “When you ask women what they learned about gender as kids, and how their sense of what it meant to be female was shaped by their mother, you don’t just hear black-and-white stories about muted maternal desire and the division of personality traits, mom as soft and self-sacrificing, dad as autonomous and strong. You also hear—and with much greater specificity—stories about divisions in value, stories about frustrated desire, dawning awareness about power and worth. You hear stories about conflicted mothers, depressed mothers, mothers perpetually tormented by the bathroom scale, mothers whose sense of competence emerged only in the kitchen or at Bloomingdale’s or in front of a vanity table, mothers who never had the time or opportunity to consider their own hungers and ambitions (71).”

These stories, the narratives we tell ourselves and others, that provide a flow of sense and sensibility to our lives, are one concrete place where cultural rubber meets the human road. In this case, mothers and daughters of a certain class and time in the northeast of the United States. Media does the same thing, just in a bastardized, truncated, image-filled stream…

It was easy to write those headlines. We’ve got the models, we’ve got the narrative flow. Culture runs out of us onto the shared tables of a classroom.

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