I want to talk about wanting. About how I see women around me wanting, and what they want, and how its complicated and sometimes frustrating.
Last night I was with some friends, and it was a weird night. I won’t speak to the habits of others, but I will tell you that at one point (2nd happy hour) I was eating chips and guacamole. I did not want this snack. I was eating for other strange reasons, among them: anger, anxiety, frustration, habit, and substitution (I really wanted something else that I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get.) I know women who engage in this kind of consumption all the time, sometimes every day. What the hell are we all doing?
I am reading a new book, which I will shortly quote from, called Appetites. This is book about desire and wanting, and it articulates the complex world of female wanting in unbelievably smart and sophisticated terms. It is hitting close to home on so many topics, it makes me feel sad and empowered at the same time. Here is just a taste of author Caroline Knapp’s brilliance:
“Like so many women I know, I grew up understanding that self-worth and likeability were inextricably linked, that a sizable portion of my value would come from nourishing others: pleasing, avoiding conflict, concealing my own needs and disappointments. Granted, some of this had to do with what I observed and absorbed about women as a child, the standard messages about gender and female accommodation. Some of it, too, had to do with my own drive to fit in, the creeping uncertainty I felt in adolescence about my own likes and dislikes and desires. But a pivotal piece, I think was rooted in a more visceral feeling of alliance with my mother…” Chapter 2, The Mother Connection
This book touches on so many things that ring true to me. It talks about controlling the female body, hegemony, how ambition is thwarted (Hillary Clinton!), how sexual appetites are demonized, and how women’s desires are continually downplayed or belittled or straight up denied. I certainly had examples of women like Knapp describes, women who seemed to never want, women who were always doing for others and caring for others and never ever thought about themselves.
But thats not exactly what I want to talk about. It’s that first sentence that I’ve been seeing in action lately, that part where being liked is directly linked to your self worth. This is a phenomenon, which I agree starts in that murkiest of murky places: Adolescence. Girls stop being individuals and start moving as packs, and they all start to want the same things including but not limited to: being pretty, being skinny, boys (the same boys) and sometimes success in school or sports (but only to the extent allowed and usually these drives are not the first on the list.) Even now, I see myself and the women around me struggle to like a boy without worrying that if he doesn’t like us back it says something about us, not about him. Why is there that immediate tie, that sticky little thread connecting someone else’s approval to how good you feel about yourself on a given day? For the life of me, I cannot figure out when I started to let this happen. (For the record, I was a sassy, feisty little bitch in high school, and in a lot of ways I was way smarter than I am now. For one, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that boys were silly and fun, but to treat them as more than that was a waste of my time. I also knew that I was silly and fun, and I didn’t need anyone else to qualify that by agreeing with me.)
So where does that confidence go? What happens when we stop being in touch with our own true desires, and start to all want the same thing? It looks to me like we all get distracted with bullshit and are easier to keep skinny and quiet. It also looks to me like we convince ourselves that taking up too much space, with our bodies or our ambitions or our dreams, is un-lady-like and unattractive and unacceptable. And to top it all off, we become these weird desperate versions of ourselves, and having a crush feels like a triathlon we didn’t train for and have no idea how to conquer. But we know how to complete a triatholon! We have all kinds of skills that make us good at relationships. We have all kinds of knowledge that should make deciding who we are and what we want if not easy, then at least manageable (the tyranny of freedom and how overwhelming so many choices can be is another genius topic she covers, for another day.)
I just want my friends to see how beautiful and talented and great they are without needing a significant other as proof. I want, for myself, to be able to have a crush on a boy without immediately assuming that I’m gonna fuck it up or wondering why he’d like me. Why wouldn’t he like me? A lot of people like me. My friends are never confused, just as I am never confused as to why anyone would want to hang out with them. So I’m gonna do some serious soul searching about what I desire in my life, if I want to eat more or move more or have more sex or more love or watch more movies or read more books or get a god damn PhD. And I’m gonna remember that who I am isn’t defined by who likes me or who’s in my bed (or not in my bed.) And I’m going to remind my friends that life isn’t perfect, but they are, and anyone who isn’t on board is a waste of time. We have got to get better at wanting, or more accurately, at articulating what we want unapologetically and then going about getting it in style.