A HUNGER SO WIDE AND SO DEEP: BODY CONSCIOUSNESS
The traumatic basis of many women's eating problems can teach us much about bodies and embodiment, for trauma often disrupts an intact sense of one's body. Women's ways of using food are emblematic of a rupturing of women's embodiment, of their ability to see themselves as grounded in and connected to their bodies.
When I first began to ask women about their relationships to their bodies, I asked them to tell me about their body images, but I soon realized a basic conceptual problem in my question. By inquiring about their body "image" I was taking for granted that they imagined themselves as having bodies, an assumption that many women quickly dispelled. The notion that someone can imagine her body assumes that she considers herself to have a body. Some women do not see themselves as having bodies at all.
This painful reality is partly a consequence of oppression that has both historical and contemporary manifestations. The more than three hundred years of slavery in this country robbed African-American men and women of the right to own their own bodies. African-American women were forced into this country as pieces of property "whose purpose was to provide free labor. . . . Their roles in U.S. society were synonymous with work, labor outside of the home, and legitimized sexual victimization from the very outset." In the existential nightmare of slavery, no self was legally recognized, and therefore the body could not exist for the self either. Once slavery was abolished, all that black people had were their bodies. The legal right to own one's body, however, does not in itself ensure that one can claim this right. The legacy of slavery still informs black women's experiences of their bodies in profound ways. The portrayal of black women as mammies (women incapable of being sexual), as Sapphires (women who dominate in the family and in the bedroom), and as Jezebels (sexually promiscuous women who willingly participate in sexual exploitation) reflects the projection of white fantasies and sexuality onto black women's bodies. The idea that white women needed protection was built on seeing black women as their opposite —neither worthy of protection nor wanting to be free of sexual violation.
Debilitating and contradictory stereotypes of Latina women are among the complex and limiting messages against which Latinas have struggled. They have been viewed both as highly sexual, irrationally flamboyant temptresses and as obedient, subservient, fat, and passive—good Catholic mothers. In both their historic and contemporary versions, these stereotypes have long-lasting effects on embodiment and physical presence for Latinas. The existence of these stereotypes does not mean they are inevitably internalized. But what embodiment means for black and Latina women cannot be understood without awareness of the struggle and impact of these stereotypes on self-consciousness.
For many women, responding to social injustices directed at their bodies includes trying to escape what seems like the very location of that pain—their bodies. Pecola, a character in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, tries to make her body disappear in response to incest, racism, and poverty:
Letting herself breathe easy now, Pecola covered her head with the quilt. The sick feeling, which she had tried to prevent by holding in her stomach, came quickly in spite of her precaution. There surged in her the desire to heave, but as always, she knew she would not.
"Please, God," she whispered into the palm of her hand. "Please make me disappear." She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard, too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.
Pecola's wish to make her body disappear dramatizes the destructive intersection of sexual abuse, racism, and poverty as no statistic can. Trying to disappear is an immediate and logical strategy to escape what Pecola came to believe caused her pain—her brown eyes and brown body. Her attempt to slip out and away from the reality of a world bent on destroying her is a vivid example of how women's embodiment is compromised. People facing these injustices cannot take for granted such a basic and elemental capacity as being able to reside comfortably in their bodies. And yet the costs of leaving one's body are monumental.
Ultimately, I put aside the concept of body image and instead thought about women's relationships to their bodies as forms of consciousness. Body consciousness is shaped by biological changes common to all women —growth spurts during childhood, puberty, menstruation, menopause, and the aging process —and by the changes of pregnancy and birthing. People are born with a self-consciousness of mind and body, with an internal body image, and a "sixth sense" —a body self-awareness and a sense of mind-body integration. It is through body consciousness that people can often sense danger, intuitively know what to do, and identify how they feel. These elemental and substantial capacities depend on residing within one's body. Embodiment that allows a person to know where his or her body stops and another's physical body begins may be at the root of a person's capacity to know him/herself as simultaneously unique and connected to the world.
Women with eating problems certainly do not have a corner on the market in terms of having difficulty residing comfortably within their bodies. As Emily Martin chronicles in her research on women's reproduction, medical and social processes of birthing, menopause, and puberty in the United States fragment women's embodiment. Feminist theorists on disability offer rich analyses of how disability changes women's embodiment. Discriminatory practices against people with disabilities —including limited access to education, employment, independent living, and sexual freedoms —are typically more restricting than actual physical conditions.
The essential issue may not be if women struggle to claim their bodies as their own, but rather the differing ways that embodiment is disrupted. Adrienne Rich writes:
I know no woman—virgin, mother, lesbian, married, celibate— whether she earns her keep as a housewife, a cocktail waitress, or a scanner of brain waves—for whom her body is not a fundamental problem: its clouded meaning, its fertility, its desire, its so-called frigidity, its bloody speech, its silences, its changes and mutilations, its rapes and ripenings.
In her poetic way, Rich captures the contradictions and complexities of living in one's body.
To complicate this further, women employ a variety of survival strategies in response to violations of their bodies. The poet Wanda Coleman writes:
The price Black girls pay for not conforming to white standards of beauty is extracted in monumental amounts, breath to death. We bend our personalities, and sometimes mutilate our bodies in defense. Sometimes that bent is "bad attitude," perhaps accompanied by a hair-trigger temper, ready to go off at the mildest slight: neck-wobbling, hands to hips, boisterous, hostile, niggerish behavior.
Women may also respond to psychic and physical assaults with silent refusals to engage or show rage. They may run away from home or never leave their apartments. They may flunk out of school or hide behind books. The reasons for these coping strategies are complicated and not easily predicted —just as it is not easy to explain why some women develop eating problems and others do not.
Women with eating problems, however, offer special insights about body consciousness because they respond to trauma in particularly bodily ways. Their stories reveal how bingeing, purging, and dieting can change a woman's embodiment, and they provide vivid examples of what it means for a woman to "leave her body."
The women whose experiences form the basis of this book identify their injuries and their resistance with honesty and insight. In so doing, they chronicle their despair and resilience, their depression and fortitude, their ingenuity in taking care of themselves.