When I first picked up The Appetites of Girls by Pamela Moses, I was expecting something along the lines of chick lit. Basically I thought I would be mindlessly entertained for a few hours of reading and that would be it. (just so we’re clear I love chick lit, especially in between reading a two “heavier” books) Instead this book made me think of the complicated body image issues most girls have, the prevalence of eating disorders, as well as the fact that we women tend to be the harshest judges of other women.
The Appetites of Girls is a story of four very different women from very different backgrounds thrown together as freshmen flatmates at Brown University. Despite their significant differences, the girls form an unexpected bond sharing their college experience. Thought this friendship plays an important part in each of the girls’ lives, they still manage to keep certain secrets from each other, secrets and aspects of their past that shaped who they are to a large degree. The story starts with the women having a reunion as adults and then looks back at their individual stories both throughout their childhood and university years. These pieces of their individuals puzzles read almost as independent short stories. Taken together they offer a beautifully detailed, and complex portrait of each girl. Ruth, Opal, Setsu and Francesca offer glimpses into their stories, the ordinary and extraordinary moments of their lives that shaped their attitudes towards food, their bodies, their sexuality, relationships and the world in general.
A simultaneously loving yet controlling and meddling mother who offers comfort through food. A competitive, manipulative brother whose desire to take everything includes the food off of his sister’s plate. An adventurous, restless, exotic mother whose constant hunger for male attention “teaches” her daughter an unexpected lesson. An invisible daughter of wealthy parents who seeks “visibility” through food. Paloma Moses explores these topics throughout the book bringing to the surface the complexities of these issues and their relevance to the lives of these girls. These are not the stories of magical catharsis and transformations but rather thorny and gradual paths of self-discovery and self-acceptance.
While I was rooting for Ruth, Opal, Setsu and Francesca to find ways to learn to love and accept themselves, I couldn’t stop thinking of all the ways we make these paths harder for each other, for other women around us. Not to say that men don’t have body image issues or that they don’t deal with eating disorders but these still affect women/girls more frequently than men. And I find that we as a society but also as as women are a huge part of the problem. As a society not only do we keep imposing these impossible to attain, photoshoped images of ideal beauty but we also love to judge. We love “judging” celebrities for the clothes they choose to wear, their haircuts (but especially for) the weight they gain/lose. The OC’s Mischa Barton’s weight gain was a frequent topic in the tabloids for a while a few years back. Who cares? Just because she chose to be an actress and became a celebrity does not mean she signed over her soul to the Gods of Dieting for the rest of her life. On the other hand, Calista Flockhart’s slim figure gave way for constant speculation that she (must be) is anorexic. As you can see, there is no satisfying the masses.
We take this “judging” mentality to our daily lives and we feel comfortable to do this same thing to the women we cross paths we, often even making comments out loud – somewhere in the process forgetting or not caring that behind that outfit/weight we don’t approve of, their is an actual person….with feelings. We do the same thing to our friends, siblings, children, partners. In the process aiding and abetting the numerous industries just waiting to cash in on our ever growing list of insecurities. Diet programs, supplements, books…workout programs….miraculous cosmetics products….plastic surgeries and procedures…brand name clothes. Constantly chasing that permanently elusive ideal version of ourselves.
Working in the cosmetics industry I used to have the same conversion over and over again – with an endless number of women. Almost always about things they disliked about themselves. If only they could lose the weight. If only their lashes were longer. If only their breasts were bigger. If only they could look the way they did ten years ago. It broke my heart over and over again but I did not see the same thing they saw. Where they saw imperfection I kept seeing beauty. And for most women that’s the hardest road of all – the Mount Everest of self-esteem – reaching that point at which looking in the mirror reveals self-love and beauty, not yet another opportunity to self-criticize.
This expectation we place on ourselves and on other women plays a huge part in the complex relationship most women have with food as well. Food as a way to exert control over one’s life. Food as a source of comfort. Food as a way to fill an emotional void. And then the amount of time women spend talking about calories, pounds to be gained and lost, the tortures of whatever latest diet they are on. At the end of the day variety is the spice of life. Imagine how boring our lives would be if we all looked like models, clones of each other. And yet there would always be those who are not attracted to that look. And even then there would be a person out there somewhere wanting to look different, better in order to satisfy some imagined (different) ideal. And yes, most of us know all of this….in theory….Yet in practice when that moment comes to say that hurtful, judgmental thing out loud regarding someone’s looks or weight, we usually do not pause and think about all of this.
Just for the record, I am not writing all of this from the “holier than thou” position – this is a learning process for me as well. Something I have to keep reminding myself of constantly. Though I may not be able to change the world of unreasonable body ideals and constant criticism, what I (or any other woman out there) can do is love myself in all of my imperfect glory. I can also speak up each time I see or hear something negative being spoken about a woman based on the way she looks. I can be positive and supportive towards women and girls I encounter, reminding them in whatever way I can that they are beautiful just the way they are. So that maybe one day they will be able to do the same thing for someone else.
Quotes I enjoyed:
“So each evening before supper, while my mother worked in the kitchen and my father flipped through newspapers in the living room armchair, I closed my bedroom door to avoid disturbing them and played the new pieces I had learned. The notes vibrated through my fingers as I held them to the strings, making my hand tingle. Some nights I imagined my whole body humming the melodies, a swaying and swelling in my chest and in my throat that moved out and out along my limbs until I reached the final measure of a piece. The concluding notes that seemed so sad, fading until no music remained. I almost hated to play them, and sometimes few the bow in slow, slow strokes to make them last. Other times, I rushed through as quickly as my fingers would fly, hoping I had time to start once more at the piece’s happy beginning before dinner.”
NOTE: I would like to thank Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This post was originally published on my main blog