Famine Mystique, The

Famine Mystique, The

Martin, Courtney

What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one is the terror of freedom to decide her own life, with no one to order which path she will take, the freedom and the necessity to take paths women before were not able to take? What if those who choose the path of “feminine adjustment”-evading this terror by marrying at eighteen, losing themselves in having babies and the details of housekeeping-are simply refusing to grow up, to face the question of their own identity?

-Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique


Starving, in its inimitably perverse way, gave me a way to address the anxiety I felt as a young, scared, ill-defined woman who was poised to enter the world and assume a new array of rights and privileges; it gave me a tiny, specific, manageable focus (popcorn kernels) instead of a monumental, vague, overwhelming one (work, love.)

-Caroline Knapp



The words written by landmark feminist and psychologist Betty Friedan were penned 50 years before Knapp articulated her own theory: that the epidemic of eating disorders in this country is largely a form of displacement. Young women, Knapp contends, are overwhelmed with life’s choices-which she describes as a sickening buffet of everything and anything-so they avoid gazing at the terrain of identity (lifestyle, love, or career) by focusing on only one tiny facet of their existence: their appetites. Friedan wondered 50 years earlier whether women were giving in to the housewife hype (“the feminine mystique”) in order to make their lives as small and manageable as possible.

Knapp believed that the women of her generation have adopted a new method of such shrinking focus in the body. Women in both Friedan’s and Knapp’s generations, overwhelmed and underdeveloped emotionally, tried to make the grand potentiality of their lives as diminutive as possible.

These feminist writers echo one another across a great distance of time and cultural space. So much has changed in the 50 years between their tomes. The Internet was invented, wars have been waged and lost, and women have struggled up the ranks of almost every profession. How then is it possible that they speak with such similarity?

Women my age, and, I suspect, women of all ages, are bound by a strange and almost silent collusion. Betty Friedan called it the feminine mystique 50 years ago, a time when she saw women hiding inside of their own homes instead of taking on the world. Now, women are hiding inside of their own bodies, avoiding asking the real questions: Who am I? What is my purpose on this earth? Instead they distract themselves with never-ending measurements (pounds, calories, cookies). But you cannot measure pain in this way. You cannot measure self-worth. You cannot measure potential. As Naomi Wolf wisely wrote in The Beauty Myth: “If there is a natural female shape, it is the one in which women are sexual and fertile and not always thinking about it”

Eating disorders are the famine mystique of my generation. According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorder, Inc. more than half of teenaged girls are, or think they should be, on diets. The National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that “eating disorders have reached epidemic levels in America: all segments of society, young and old, rich and poor, all minorities, including African American and Latino, seven million women.” And then there is the reality: you can not count the amount of times a “healthy” woman stares in a mirror and chastises herself for hips too round or arms too soft. There certainly aren’t statistics on the number of minutes wasted counting calories. There are no numbers that can describe a little girl discovering that unique female guilt over food for the first time.

I recently had the opportunity to hear the courageous Eve Ensler speak and one of the things she said has been echoing in my head over and over ever since: “See what you see, say what you say, know what you know.”

See What You See

I have seen monumental suffering housed in women’s bodies. I have seen teenage girls watch their mothers starve, deny and hate themselves, call their distorted ideas about food “will power.” I have seen these mothers teach this language to their daughters, usually unintentionally. I have seen vomit in toilets across America. I have seen protruding bellies, working so hard to get nutrients out of food that only rests for a few minutes before being retched up again. I have seen grown women’s wrists the size of toddlers’ wrists. I have seen a young woman pass out in an exercise room. I have seen the smartest college students in the world spend the majority of their days thinking about calories. I have seen shame, loads and loads of it, piled so high that women climb on top and reign there. I have seen a nine-year-old on a diet. I have seen women refuse dinner invitations because they don’t want anyone to see them eat. I have seen the blank, dry eyes of a best friend directly after vomiting up our shared dinner.

Say What You Say

I have said this. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with more force. I have said this to the women I watch starve and mutilate their bodies. I have said it to feminist leaders and college counselors. I have said it in classrooms and editorial meetings. Usually people don’t listen. When they do, a passing wave of sadness rests on their faces, before they rationalize that eating disorders are very individual, very personal diseases that we can’t possibly be expected to deal with on a collective level. They look relieved then. There were moments when I believed them, when I too, settled into delusional relief.

Know What You Know

But I know what I know and I can’t pretend. Yes, each individual woman suffers from her own unique version of a braided pain: parents and childhood trauma, body structure, and boys delicately interwoven. But each woman is also part of a shared story. This story is one of collective destruction, the brain power of my whole generation, my mom’s whole generation, has been co-opted into the incessant counting of calories, consideration of fat, negotiation of guilt, shame, and hate. We have together bought in to this powerfully corrupt system of beauty, self-worth constituted by self-denial. We may starve ourselves for different reasons, but we hunger together. And I know, most profoundly, that we will hunger until we speak the truth.

This is mine: I have had only a few close friends in the 25 years that I have lived who didn’t have a severely distorted body image or destructive relationship with food. I have never suffered from an eating disorder, but I have spent far more time than I feel good about admitting thinking about the size of my thighs, lower back or stomach (I weigh 140 lbs. and I am 5′ 9″ tall). I feel bad about myself if I don’t exercise regularly. I don’t know if this is because I truly want to be healthy, or if I am afraid of getting fat. I eat little, measured portions. I am proud if I eat less. I feel shameful if I eat more. I eat when I am bored and sad and lonely. I wish I didn’t have to think about any of this. I wish I could just focus on making the world a better, kinder place. I wish that other women would speak the truth, that we could all admit that there is an epidemic of eating disorders and body image distortion in this country and it is not only killing our spirits, our potential, and our energy, but also the spirits, potential, and energy of our daughters.

My mother’s generation modeled it through their unexamined language, their buy-in to media’s unattainable ideal, their own screwed up relationship with food. And now my generation, seemingly more empowered than any before it, is keeping the pathos alive. We may have broken the glass ceiling, stormed boardrooms and bedrooms with birthrights of equality, but we still get paralyzed when it comes time to order a meal (will we be good or bad?). The braburners taught us about consciousness-raising, but ironically, forgot to include the body consciousness. We have, truth be told, suffered the cruel inheritance of the feminine mystique in a new, equally insidious form.

We don’t seek refuge from the big, bad world in kitchens and washrooms. As our mothers were trapped in their homes, we are trapped in our own bodies-obsessed with figuring out how to carve them into some kind of perfection, never satisfied with our thwarted attempts at absolute perfection. Though we feel entitled to medical degrees and vice-presidencies, we accept these honors with growling, unsatisfied stomachs; our most fundamental needs unmet. Though we feel confident making speeches on the floor of the United Nations, declaring our truth in national media columns and classrooms across the country, our deepest desires-to eat, to feel full, to love our own forms-are never spoken.

Today I speak out. The famine mystique is killing my generation-sometimes literally, often politically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is, ultimately, not our bodies that suffer most, but our souls. As Marion Woodman so beautifully put it in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter: “Anorexia and bulimia tell us that our souls are starving.”

We can no longer throw our hands up in apathetic collusion, calling these diseases by complicated, individuated names, battling them alone in our bathrooms and bedrooms. Instead we must make public these very private fears about fat and worth, we must air them and pick them apart, see them-in the light-for the irrational and diabolical myths that they are.

We must reclaim our language very deliberately and consciously. Telling your daughter that she is beautiful, and then turning around and commenting on what a “fat cow” you are is confusing and destructive. Your daughter has no way of reconciling your vision of her with your own self-hate-like a funhouse mirror, she is left trying to make sense of the distorted reality. Within friendships we must strive to hold each other accountable for the same reason. It is important to acknowledge your own struggle with self-image, but not in the degrading language of an unenlightened culture. Create your own language-an honest, compassionate one with words flexible enough to describe the complexity of women’s relationships with their own bodies.

We must reject the incessant barrage of diet fads and skinny supermodels. Don’t buy magazines that make you feel bad. (Great alternatives are off our backs, Bust, Bitch, and Clamor!) Write letters to women’s magazines and beauty companies that you think are perpetuating an unrealistic ideal for women; tell them that you will no longer buy their products until they show images of a variety of women-both in terms of size and ethnicity. (And visa versa-if a company miraculously shows an atypical model in its ads, let them know that you appreciated it.) Don’t let yourself fall for supposed miracle diet plans that only serve to punish you and pull you, screaming and kicking, farther away from a natural, healthy state of balance. As Wolf writes, “Hunger makes women feel poor and think poor.” Women are, in fact, the number one consumer group in this country. We buy more books, beauty products, magazines, and clothing than men at any age. There is power in your pocketbook-if you use it, the culture will change.

We must re-educate ourselves on health. Balance, not bone, is the true mark of good nutrition. Food is not the enemy, just as guns are only deadly in the hands of a human being. We are our own worst enemies. If we can seek out accurate and trustworthy information about diet, fitness, spiritual and mental health, perhaps we can recreate our own matrix of what it means to be beautiful. Beauty is a woman laughing in the sunshine as she runs after her child on a playground. Beauty is my slightly round belly after a hot meal that my boyfriend lovingly prepared for me. Beauty is my late grandmother’s withered hands. Beauty is strength, vitality, happiness. Beauty, most radically, is self-love.

Courtney Martin is currently working on a book on this subject titled Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters for Simon & Schuster, May 2006.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. May/Jun 2005

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