What is this drive to be thinner, prettier, better dressed, other? Who exactly is this other and what does she look like beyond the jacket she's wearing or the food she's not eating? What might we be doing, thinking, feeling about if we didn't think about body image, ever? These are the questions that pain me when I think of myself at twenty-one and twenty-two and twenty-three, a set of bones hunkered over a tiny saucer, nibbling at those miniature squares of apple and cheese. What was I feeling? What was I trying, so desperately, not to feel?
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I have probably grappled with the matter of appetite my whole life -- a lot of women do; we're taught to do battle with our own desires from a tender age, and reinforcements are called in over time on virtually every front -- but if I had to pinpoint a defining moment in my own history, I'd go back twenty-three years, to an otherwise unmemorable November evening when I made an otherwise unmemorable purchase: a container of cottage cheese.
Innocuous as it sounds, this would actually turn out to be a life-altering event, but the kind that's so seemingly ordinary you can't consider it as such for many years. Certainly, I didn't see anything remarkable happening at the time. I was nineteen years old, a junior at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, vaguely anxious, vaguely depressed. I was also, less vaguely, hungry. This was 1979, Thanksgiving weekend. I'd gone home to see my family, then returned to campus the next day to write a paper. My roommates and most of my friends were still away, I didn't especially feel like slogging over to the campus cafeteria to eat by myself, and so I put on my coat and walked up the block to a corner grocery store, and that's what I bought: a small plastic tub of Hood's cottage cheese and a solitary package of rice cakes.
Cottage cheese, of course, is the food God developed specifically to torture women, to make them keen with yearning. Picture it on a plate, lumpy and bland atop a limp lettuce leaf and half a canned peach. Consider the taste and feel of it: wet, bitter little curds. Now compare it to the real thing: a thick, oozing slab of brie, or a dense and silky smear of cream cheese. Cottage cheese is one of our culture's most visible symbols of self-denial; marketed honestly, it would appear in dairy cases with warning labels: this substance is self-punitive; ingest with caution.
I didn't know this back then, which is important to note. Naturally thin, I'd never given my weight much thought before, and although I knew plenty of women who obsessed about their thighs and fretted over calories, I'd always regarded them as a rather alien species, their battles against fat usually unnecessary and invariably tedious, barely a blip on my own radar. I, in turn, had very little personal experience with cottage cheese. I'd never bought cottage cheese before, I'm not sure I'd even eaten cottage cheese before, but on some semiconscious level, I knew the essential truth about cottage cheese -- it was a diet food -- and on some even less conscious level, I was drawn to it, compelled to buy it and to put it in the mini-refrigerator in my dorm room and then to eat it and nothing else -- just cottage cheese and rice cakes -- for three consecutive days.
And a seed, long present perhaps but dormant until then, began to blossom. A path was laid, one that ultimately had less to do with food than it did with emotion, less to do with hunger than it did with the mindset required to satisfy hunger: the sense of entitlement and agency and initiative that leads one to say, first, I want, and then, more critically, I deserve. So as inconsequential as that purchase may have seemed, it in fact represented a turning point, the passage of a woman at a crossroads, one road marked Empty, the other Full. Not believing at the core that fullness -- satiety, gratification, pleasure -- was within my grasp, I chose the other road.
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One of the lingering cultural myths about gender is that women are bad at math -- they lack the confidence for it, they have poor visual-spatial skills, they simply don't excel at numbers the way boys do. This theory has been widely challenged over the years, and there's scant evidence to suggest that girls are in any way neurologically ill-equipped to deal with algebra or calculus. But I'd challenge the myth on different grounds: Women are actually superb at math; they just happen to engage in their own variety of it, an intricate personal math in which desires are split off from one another, weighed, balance, traded, assessed. These are the mathematics of desire, a system of self-limitation and monitoring based on the fundamental premise that appetites are at best risky, at worst impermissible, that indulgence must be bought and paid for. Hence the rules and caveats: Before you open the lunch menu or order that cheeseburger or consider eating the cake with the frosting intact, haul out the psychic calculator and start tinkering with the budget.
Why shouldn't you? I asked a woman that question not long ago while she was demurring about whether to order dessert at a restaurant.
Immediate answer: "Because I'll feel gross."
"Because I'll feel fat."
And what would happen if you felt fat?
"I hate myself when I feel fat. I feel ugly and out of control. I feel really un-sexy. I feel unlovable."
And if you deny yourself the dessert?
"I may feel a little deprived, but I'll also feel pious," she said.
So it's worth the cost?
These are big trade-offs for a simple piece of cake -- add five hundred calories, subtract well-being, allure, and self-esteem -- and the feelings behind them are anything but vain or shallow. Hidden within that thirty-second exchange is an entire set of mathematical principles, equations that can dictate a woman's most fundamental approach to hunger. Mastery over the body -- its impulses, its needs, its size -- is paramount; to lose control is to risk beauty, and to risk beauty is to risk desirability, and to risk desirability is to risk entitlement to sexuality and love and self-esteem. Desires collide, the wish to eat bumping up against the wish to be thin, the desire to indulge conflicting with the injunction to restrain. Small wonder food makes a woman nervous. The experience of appetite in this equation is an experience of anxiety, a burden and a risk; yielding to hunger may be permissible under certain conditions, but mostly it's something to be Earned or Monitored and Controlled. e = mc2.
During the acute phases of my starving years, I took a perverse kind of pleasure in these exhibitions of personal calculus, the anxious little jigs that women would do around food. Every day at lunchtime, I'd stand in line at a cafe in downtown Providence clutching my 200-calorie yogurt, and while I waited, I'd watch the other women deliberate. I'd see a woman mince edgily around the glass case that held muffins and cookies, and I'd recognize the look in her eye, the longing for something sweet or gooey, the sudden flicker of No. I'd overhear fragments of conversation: debates between women (I can't eat that, I'll feel huge), and cajolings (Oh, c'mon, have the fries), and collaborations in surrender (I will if you will). I listened for these, I paid attention, and I always felt a little stab of superiority when someone yielded (Okay, fuck it, fries, onion rings, PIE). I would not yield -- to do so, I understood, would imply lack of restraint, an unseemly, indulgent female greed -- and in my stern resistance I got to feel coolly superior while they felt, or so it seemed to me, anxious.
But I knew that anxiety. I know it still, and I know how stubbornly pressing it can feel, the niggling worry about food and calories and size and heft cutting to the quick somehow, as though to fully surrender to hunger might lead to mayhem, the appetite proven unstoppable. If you plotted my food intake on a graph from that initial cottage cheese purchase onward, you wouldn't see anything very dramatic at first: a slight decline in consumption over my junior and senior years, and an increasing though not yet excessive pattern of rigidity, that edgy whir about food and weight at only the edges of consciousness at first. I lived off campus my senior year with a boyfriend, studied enormously hard, ate normal dinners at home with him, but permitted myself only a single plain donut in the morning, coffee all day, not a calorie more. The concept of "permission" was new to me -- it heralded the introduction of rules and by-laws, a nascent internal tyrant issuing commands -- but I didn't question it. I just ate the donut, drank the coffee, obeyed the rules, aware on some level that the rigidity and restraint served a purpose, reinforced those first heady feelings of will and determination, a proud sensation that I was somehow beyond ordinary need. I wrote a prize-winning honors thesis on two hundred calories a day. The following year, my first out of college, the line on the graph would begin to waver, slowly at first, then peaking and dipping more erratically: five pounds up, five pounds down, six hundred calories here, six thousand there, the dieting female's private NASDAQ, a personal index of self-torture.
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Who has the best features? This was a little game, conducted several times and always with the same results, in seventh grade, the time when so many of life's little horrors begin. A very pretty and popular girl named Jill, a leader of the in-crowd, organized the event during recess, gathering seven or eight of us around her on the steps by the school's entrance and beginning the scrutiny. My friend Jen always got best skin, rosy and smooth. My friend Nina got best hair, thick and blond. Jill gave herself best eyes, I think, but I may just be guessing (she did have beautiful eyes, large and dark and framed with the most naturally thick lashes). Me, I got prettiest hands, which felt bitterly disappointing at the time. Hands? Hands didn't matter. Who cared about hands?
If you could change any one thing about your looks, what would it be? We played this, too, frequently: Oh, I'd have Jen's skin, we'd say. I'd have Nina's hair, I'd get rid of these freckles. Once, I mentioned something about wanting curly hair instead of straight hair, and a girl looked at me and said, "If I were you, I'd get rid of those little nostril veins." I didn't even know I had little nostril veins, but as soon as I got home from school that day, I looked in the mirror and sure enough, there they were: several tiny distinct red squiggles, horrifyingly visible, creeping down the skin from inside my nose to the base of each nostril.
These were early exercises in gaze-training, a way of coaxing the eye outward instead of inward, of learning to experience the body as a thing outside the self, something a woman has rather than something she is. From seventh grade on, we would hone this skill, breaking the body down into increasingly scrutinized parts, learning to see legs and arms, belly and breasts, hips and hair as separate entities, most of which generated some degree of distress, all of which were cast in hierarchical and comparative terms, viewed in relation to others: my hair versus Nina's hair, my eyes versus Jill's eyes; this needs fixing, that needs hiding. Pore by pore, we learned to take ourselves apart.
There's no question that this way of thinking is reinforced in the world beyond seventh-grade school yards, that the art of self-dissection receives constant visual support, that it's part of consumer culture's lifeblood. Thick auburn tresses cascade across a magazine page, shiny and rich with Pantene shampoo. An enormous Maybellined eye stares out from a TV screen, each lash glossy and distinct. A calf stretches across a billboard, lean and taut in an $800 Jimmy Choo pump. American companies spend more than $200 billion each year hacking women's bodies into bits and pieces, urging comparisons between self and other, linking value to air-brushed ideals, and as the girls in my seventh-grade class graduated to high school and beyond, the imagery around us would only grow more specific, more pummeling, more insidious. Models would become more thoroughly eroticized, presented in more states of obvious arousal, with more full-out nudity and more undertones of violence; the ideals they presented would become more specific and out of reach, with more and more body parts exposed and subject to critique (butt, arms, hips, and abs as well as the traditional breasts and legs) and ever more Byzantine configurations of beauty presented (bodies with no fat but huge breasts; delicate bodies with muscular limbs; fifty-year-old bodies that still look twenty-five).
Even more dramatic would be a shift in the pitch of imagery, the level and nature of the bombardment. Around the time I began starving, in the early eighties, the visual image had begun to supplant text as culture's primary mode of communication, a radical change because images work so differently than words: They're immediate, they hit you at levels way beneath intellect, they come fast and furious. When televisions first appeared in the 1950s, the image on the screen used to change every twelve to fifteen seconds. By the eighties, the speed of change had increased to about seven seconds. Today, the image on the average TV commercial can change as quickly as once every 1.5 seconds, an assaulting speed, one that's impossible to thoroughly process or integrate. When images strike you at that rate, there's no time to register the split-second reactions they generate, no time to analyze them or put them in their proper place; they get wedged inside, insidious little kernels that come to feel like truth.