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It’s Beautiful When You Eat: Reclaiming and Rediscovering Appetite

It’s Beautiful When You Eat: Reclaiming and Rediscovering Appetite
Caroline Morris

Caroline Morris

Contributor at Christianity Now
Caroline is currently residing in Portland, OR. She has a B.A. in English and is pursuing an MDiv with a concentration in Writing. Her key interests include: the relationship between anorexia and virtue, eating disorders, asceticism, evangelical dieting culture, and libidinal education. She is also overly interested in the Enneagram.
Caroline Morris

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“It’s beautiful when you eat.”

I had just confessed to him that I still felt ashamed, deeply ashamed, any time I had to display publicly my need for food.

“It’s beautiful when you eat.”

No one had ever told me that. No one had ever so much as suggested that my need for food, much less my desire for it, could be anything other than shameful.

I can’t help noting, after the fact, how odd and how fitting it is that I needed a man to tell me that, to give me permission to give my body nourishment.

I needed a man to give me permission to eat because whatever my personal experiences, however unique or banal they may have been, men throughout history have taken it upon themselves to tell women how and when and how much to consume.

 

 

Regulation of the female appetite can be traced back to the Genesis story of how the world began and was subsequently infected, temporarily ruined: “In the Genesis narrative of the fall, sin and death enter the world when a woman eats.”[1] The story of the fall, “the first story of all human stories,” is a prime example of what Helene Cixous calls “libidinal education.”[2] The term libidinal here refers to all “bodily and sexual experience”[3] and to all basic appetites—whether for food, sex, knowledge, or power. The accompanying term, libidinal education, refers to “the individual’s discovery of the body and the cultural prohibitions surrounding it.”[4] Although both women and men develop eating disorders, women, in a different way than men, have been subjected to libidinal education, and male-dominated societies have long been threatened by the idea—and the reality—of a woman who eats as she pleases.

Naomi Wolf ends her essay on “Hunger” in Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders with a description of how a young girl might experience life if she, like her male peers, were encouraged to eat her fill. She asks rhetorically, “Who knows what she would do? Who knows what it would feel like?”[5] The answer, of course, is that few know what that would feel like. Few women and girls have been so unscathed by society’s concern with stifling their appetites and commodifying their bodies that they haven’t experienced even a glimmer of the freedom Wolf describes. “To be trained in renunciation,” write Gilbert and Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic, “is almost necessarily to be trained to ill health, since the human animal’s first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, pleasure, assertion.”[6] When a woman eats her fill or eats as she pleases she is rebelling, retraining herself to strive after her own survival, pleasure, and assertion.

In Cixous’ interpretation of the Genesis story, Eve’s consumption of the apple is seen as a “paradigmatic moment of female rebellion against the invisible and negative force of patriarchal law.”[7] In the ancient story, Eve discovers herself, her body, and the whole world through her mouth, showing that “knowledge and taste go together.”[8] In exchange for tasting knowledge, Eve must pay a price, and this story functions as a warning for all women. To Naomi Wolf’s question of what would happen if a young girl—or if any woman—ate as she pleased, Cixous answers: she would know, she would discover the “inside,” and she, like Eve, would be punished.

In Reinventing Eve, Kim Chernin offers a reading of the Genesis creation account in which she seeks to “discover and believe Eve’s version of the Eden story.”[9] The dominant reading of the story turns every woman into “an Eve, indicted as the cause of evil and the corrupter of men and angels.”[10] This was likely both intentional and practical; the authors wanted to explain evil and to do it in such a way that “the cultural facts of male dominance and female subservience” were justified.[11] The story, “as it has been interpreted by male religious leaders,” “discredits, devalues, and redefines symbols of prepatriarchal cultures.”[12] Chernin, in looking at Eve’s side of the story, revisits the symbols of prepatriarchal cultures and portrays the serpent as a positive character, rather than a cunning tempter. As for Eve, and thus all women who possess her nature, she is no longer “the gateway of the Devil,” as Tertullian supposed,[13] nor is she inherently “defective and misbegotten” as Thomas Aquinas alleged.[14]

It is on one level hard to blame these men for their insults, repugnant as they are, as the story told in the Old Testament seems to lend itself to them. After all, the first woman was reportedly “created from a disposable part of the male body.”[15] In describing creation thusly, “the story reverses the natural relationship, and makes man ‘the mother’ of woman.”[16] With this in mind, it is not only easy to blame Eve for everything—as everything that goes wrong in this world is considered to be a result of her “sin”—but it also makes it easy to continue her punishment, for the story of her creation suggests that she is lesser, that she herself is disposable. Eve did not just do something wrong; in this lens, she is wrong. This is the old version of the story, but Chernin tells it differently.

Chernin’s Eve did not sin when she broke the Male Creator’s rule and ate, though it was certainly an act of defiance. Eve succumbed to temptation, but this temptation came to her from the benevolent whisper of a serpent that desired to free her, by reminding her “of the primal and visceral knowledge: to be female is not to be weak, but rather to be strong; not to be seductive, but rather to be re-source-full (filled as the Source of birth and of being).”[17] In eating the fruit, Eve also tasted knowledge, a specific kind of knowledge: “that female creative power all mention of which has been left out of the Genesis story, except for the obscure symbol of the fruit tree.”[18] Chernin points out that this fruit tree belongs, in other ancient traditions, to a goddess,[19] and she suggests that the tree was there not because God put it there but because it belonged there, representing femininity in an otherwise masculine narrative.[20] And so, it becomes possible to “reinvent” Eve, to reimagine the meaning of the whole story. It was not vice but virtue within Eve that prompted her to consume the “apple of possibility.”[21] I recall Naomi Wolf’s question: “Who knows what it would feel like?[22] This is the possibility that Eve consumes, the world of possibilities she opens up with her glorious, defiant act.

Thanks to Eve, there is hope for what Chernin calls the “Woman Who Is Not Yet.” The “father-world” would have women believe that their only options are to conform to the image of the temptress or to transform themselves into the image of man.[23] But Eve, in this reading, opens up the possibility of women making sense of themselves. Rather than a warning to women to stay inside the lines drawn for them—or else—the story of Eve can be an aid when women find themselves facing the same decision Eve faced, as all have and do and will again, a decision: “Between renunciation and appetite . . . subordination and desire . . . submission and power . . . hunger as temptation and hunger as vision.”[24] It can encourage women to seek the knowledge that will finally allow them to make themselves in an image they recognize, into themselves, whatever that ends up looking like.

This reinvention of the story of Eve is empowering for all women: “To imagine Eve, the sinful first woman, as rebel in Paradise, is itself a bite into the forbidden fruit.”[25] But it may be powerful in a unique way to women struggling with eating disorders. Mary Louise Bringle, who shares her own experiences with bulimia in The God of Thinness, writes of the effect Chernin’s reading of the story had on her:

In its affirmation of food and fecundity and femaleness and the flesh, it gives me back my appetite . . . As a compulsive dieter who has internalized the misogyny of my religious tradition in the form of disgust at my own hungering female body, I find comfort in the wise whispers of the serpent who tells me it is permitted to take, eat, and enjoy.[26]

It would seem that misogynistic religious traditions sometimes play a role in the entry of anorexia and various eating disorders, as they encourage women to develop appetite-denying practices. Traditional, patriarchal readings of the text take away the notion of appetite as life giving, and these alternative readings[27] have the ability to give women back what was taken from them: a healthy appetite, the expression of which is in their control.

 


 

[1] Tamar Heller and Patricia Moran, “Introduction: Scenes of the Apple: Appetite, Desire, Writing,” in Scenes of the Apple: Food and the Female Body in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing, ed. Tamar Heller (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 1.

[2] “We have worked on a group of texts which belong to what can be called the literature of apprenticeship, the Bildungsroman, . . . which relate the development of an individual, their story, the story of their soul, the story of their discovery of the world, of its joys and its prohibitions, its joys and its laws, always on the trail of the first story of all human stories, the story of Eve and the Apple.” Helene Cixous, “Extreme Fidelity,” in Helene Cixous Reader, ed. Susan Sellers (London, GBR: Routledge, 1994), 132-133, accessed October 12, 2015, ProQuest Ebrary.

[3] Heller and Moran, “Introduction: Scenes of the Apple,” 2.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Naomi Wolf, “Hunger,” in Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, and Susan C. Wooley (New York; London: The Guilford Press, 1994), 110.

[6] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Cumberland, RI, USA: Yale University Press, 1980), 54, accessed March 5, 2016, ProQuest Ebrary.

[7] Heller and Moran, “Introduction: Scenes of the Apple,” 5.

[8] Cixous, “Extreme Fidelity,” 132-133.

[9] Kim Chernin, Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself (New York: Times Books, 1987), 149.

[10] Bernard P. Prusak, “Woman: Seductive Siren and Source of Sin?,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 97.

[11] Ibid., 97.

[12] O. Wayne Wooley, “…And Man Created ‘Woman’: Representations,” in Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, and Susan C. Wooley (New York; London: The Guilford Press, 1994), 29.

[13] Alcuin Blamires, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1992), 51.

[14] Chernin, Reinventing Eve, 150-151.

[15] Ibid., xix.

[16] Wooley, “…And Man Created ‘Woman,’” 29.

[17] Mary Louise Bringle, The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 88.

[18] Chernin, Reinventing Eve, xix.

[19] Ibid., xvii.

[20] Ibid., 174.

[21] Ibid., xix.

[22] Wolf, “Hunger,” 110.

[23] Chernin, Reinventing Eve, 120; xvii.

[24] Ibid., 181-182.

[25] Ibid., 149.

[26] Bringle, The God of Thinness, 89.

[27] See, for example: M. Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (London: Thames & Hudson, 1989); G. Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).