The representation of unrestrained appetite as inappropriate for women, the depiction of female eating as a private, transgressive act, make restriction and denial of hunger central features of the construction of femininity and set up the compensatory binge as a virtual inevitability. Such restrictions on appetite, moreover, are not merely about food intake. Rather, the social control of female hunger operates as a practical ‘discipline’ (to use Foucault‘s term) that trains female bodies in the knowledge of their limits and their possibilities. Denying oneself food becomes the central micro-practice in the education of feminine self-restraint and containment of impulse.
–Susan Bordo, “Hunger as Ideology” (from Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body)
I first encountered Susan Bordo’s work during my first stint in grad school, when I was 23 and teaching composition to first-year undergrads. Her essay “Hunger as Ideology” was included in the composition reader I used, and I assigned it to my students. Bordo, a feminist philosopher, analyzes numerous food advertisements in close detail (reproducing the print ads in the essay) to show the cultural messages that underpin the selling of food. Given that ads rely on pre-existing cultural tropes to get their messages across, they can tell us about the ideological underpinnings of our culture. Some of Bordo’s findings:
-Voracious hunger is considered a sign of manliness.
-Hunger for food and desire for sexuality are constructed as analogous, but this is a gendered analogy. When women are targeted, “their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite.” When men are targeted, the metaphor goes in reverse: eating delicious food is depicted as a sexual conquest. (The examples for this include hilariously awful ads of men whispering sweet nothings to their Betty Crocker desserts.)
-Female hunger is represented in terms of misogynistic fear: sex is imagined as a form of eating in which the woman consumes and destroys a male object of desire.
-The only acceptable female desire in ads is the desire to provide food for others.
-Women are depicted eating in private, secretly, and this act is explicitly represented as a “substitute for human love.”
I can’t speak for my undergraduate students, but this essay blew my fucking mind the first time I read it. The reason it was so affecting was that these messages were so obvious once Bordo pointed them out, glaring even, but I had not even seen them as “messages” until then. That’s just what ads do! Even as a committed feminist who had been through periods of fat and thin throughout my life, and who had experienced both self-loathing and self-acceptance to some extent, I hadn’t yet taken the blinkers off. The connection between hunger and desire, especially, can be subterranean: the ideal of thinness, of course, depends on you having the goal of a certain kind of fuckability — but even eating itself is depicted as an act of sensual abandon instead of a necessity for every living thing on earth. As such, men are commended for having hearty appetites — boys will be boys — and women are told to keep their mouths (and their knees) shut.
The quote I highlighted above is the one that was most illuminating to me, because it says (in my non-theory translation) that dieting is the ultimate act of repressive femininity. Essentially, what Bordo argues is that not eating when your body needs food is participating in your own marginalization — but it’s marginalization dressed up as a sexual ideal. This, I think, is why trolls and anti-FA jerkwads are so obsessed with the idea that we want them all to have sex with fatties: fat is, on some unacknowledged level, about sex in our culture.
Not incidentally, this is one of the reasons I suggested on the stop dieting thread that buying a new dress is one way to keep yourself from dieting. As I said there: because part of “feeling fat” for me is really about feeling unfeminine, it often helps me to remember that femininity is an act — and it’s an act I can access in ways that don’t require me to be thinner… even though you don’t have to be pretty, it’s okay to want to be pretty. If part of wanting to diet is feeling like you’re ugly and unfeminine, then putting on a dress and heels and a bright red lipstick can remind you that femininity is an act that you choose whether to perform, and not an intrinsic quality that you desperately lack.
I didn’t know it at the time, but teaching “Hunger as Ideology” was my first step toward FA. It hasn’t always been a smooth road between that moment and this, and I needed to examine a lot more of my own assumptions and start paying a hell of a lot more attention to the rhetoric of beauty culture and the obesity epidemic, but that essay is what got me started. To borrow from Liss borrowing from The Matrix, it’s when I took the red pill. It’s when I started to see “the social control of female hunger” as something that was more than just personal, about more than just my one unshrinkable body. It made me angry. And it made me hungry.