Book Review: Appetites: Why Women Want


by Caroline Knapp
In Caroline Knapp’s last book before her death, Appetites: Why Women Want, she explores the thought-provoking and often heart wrenching questions about bodily, spiritual and psychological desires women grapple with in our everyday lives.

Throughout the book, Knapp chronicles her descent into anorexia nervosa, describing how she used food, or the absence of it, to control her desires. She writes “Food, over time, became a terrible, powerful symbol- of how much I wanted on the one hand and how certain I was that I’d never get enough on the other- and my denial of food thus became the most masterful solution.”

Throughout her autobiographical account, we witness the author’s fierce desires to have– to have a more socially-acceptable body, to have men, to have academic and professional success, and ultimately her profound wish to have strength again after years of starving her very self, body and mind.

For those of us living with invisible illnesses, including the harrowing depression that accompanies so many medical problems, we are all too aware of the mental and emotional civil war that wages for us constantly: Should we give in to the way we are feeling and allow ourselves to stay in bed all day, despite the consequent guilt of missing work, of not being a “good” mother or “productive”?

Should we forge on, forcing ourselves to do more than our bodies and minds can reasonably
allow, and deal with the exhaustion later? These daily decisions end up leaving us feeling that we exist in a lose-lose world. It is difficult to be sick, yet women are taught that nothing is too difficult and that we must be the very best at everything in our domains. This self-induced pressure can often result in our uncovering anger, even rage, that we have suppressed for a multitude of reasons (it’s not “ladylike” to be angry, we should just shut up
and deal with it, our feelings aren’t really important.) Knapp comments on this too, writing, “Anger is an important ingredient here; directed outward instead of inward, it’s what breaks the connections between size and entitlement, size and dignity, size and value.” The author is, of course, referring to her anorexia and the deliberate
give and take of starving and eating, in order to wrestle out the critical issues of self-worth. But we can all relate to the idea of locating our anger and directing it outside ourselves in order to take back the control of our lives, that illness has stolen from us. It’s our birthright to be angry. That women are systematically taught to suppress this inevitable emotion calls for a revolution.

Reading Appetites made me, at once, feel at home and queasy. I related (too) much to the author s account of using starvation and other forms of self-punishment to (unconsciously, at least in the beginning) congeal all her appetites into one. I felt at ease, knowing someone else knew the fear of wanting- of craving Krispy Kreme donuts, sex on my own terms, rest from the being-the-best game. But I also felt uneasy at moments during Appetites, for the book forced me to take an ever harder, more honest look at how much I really do desire. I felt anxious, agitated, overwhelmed.

There is so much, and I truly do want it all. And the clenching fear I felt rested in the faint reminders that all of this is cyclical, that we can t eat just once and be done with it or filled and have the need met – it’s always time for another meal. We can t buy just one pair of jeans and expect them to fit for the rest of our lives. And despite an extremely complex and traumatic sexual past, I still want sex. We are never full.

The hope that Appetites inspires is that women can (re)learn to be witnesses to our own bodies, minds, souls and to give ourselves back what we need and, g-d help us, what we want. We are deserving, simply because we are. Knapp reminds us of the power of language, of using our voices to express what we need and want. “Pain festers in isolation, it thrives in secrecy. Words are its nemesis, naming anguish the first step in defusing it, talking about the muck a woman slogs through the squirms of self-hatred and guilt, the echoes of
emptiness and need- a prerequisite for moving beyond it.” My hope is that these words, both my own and those so eloquently written by the late Caroline Knapp, will challenge you to continue to grapple with what it means to be a woman full of desires and to resist thwarting those desires when, often, it can be life-saving to express them.

Title: Appetites: Why Women Want
Author: Caroline Knapp
Publisher: Counterpoint
ISBN: 1-58243-225-2
Review written by: Robyn L. Hunter