When I was a kid, I was lucky enough not to be hungry. Not only did I live in a family that could afford food regularly, I rarely banked my own appetite. I ate a lot, and stopped when I was full. But then, around the age of eight, self-consciousness kicked in. My older sisters were ten and twelve at the time, and I’m sure what they were experiencing as blossoming adolescents in the image-zany 1980s filtered down, but even so: I consider myself somewhat lucky that I managed to eat unchecked for almost eight years.
Can we stop to fully appreciate how weird that is? How on earth did we get to a place where eight-year-old girls are lucky if they haven’t yet started head trips on themselves about their appetites?
And of course, as we all know, these warped perceptions and unnecessary anxieties extend to plenty of other appetites, in woman and men, though women tend to bear the brunt of shaming (by themselves and others) around the more intimate ones: the sexual appetite, the desire to feel powerful and heard, the hunger for personal expression. And when one appetite is compromised, they all weaken.
One of the wonderful and agonizing things about being a writer is that your self is your instrument, and the music you make depends largely upon your ability to let yourself sing. In my case, for example, I find that when I’ve lassoed my poor appetite to the calorie counting mechanical bull, I tend to also be worrying about word counts and page lengths and fitting into a genre. This is the creative equivalent of trying to swim in a lead vest. Or when I’m too anxious to remember how much I enjoy time in bed with my husband, I might find that I haven’t been open to reading new works and letting fresh voices in, or that my characters are doing nothing but talking and are starting to bore even me.
Sure, you’re saying, I’ll just give into my appetites and eat this entire batch of Christmas cookies and go sleep with the UPS guy/gal. But that’s like calling jumping into bed with your ex closure. It’s not about giving into the appetites, it’s about appreciating them instead of castigating them. Maybe you want to eat the Christmas cookies because your mother just called and the only way you know how to survive her citrusy barbs is to anesthetize yourself with the mellowness of vanilla and sugar. Maybe while you’re enjoying them you might think of other ways your voice isn’t heard, and the cookies won’t seem quite as necessary. Maybe you want to sleep with the UPS person because you told your partner you didn’t mind doing the laundry all the time, but now you feel like her toady washerwoman, especially when she drops her dirty socks in the middle of the bedroom floor for you to pick up.
The point is, desire and appetite can’t be squelched, at least not for long, and even if you manage to temporarily shove them down into your gut, they’ll find their way out in much darker and more damaging ways. Because they’re just a part of us. There’s no judgment to be made about that. The judgment comes, perhaps, in what we do with our desires, but we should be the ones who make that judgement call according to our sense of a good life well lived. We should figure out what the best expression of our hunger, our sexuality, our power can be. And then we make the right spaces for them, rather than constantly trying to put the genie back in the bottle. When I think of what I could have done with the time spent obsessing over ways to deny my hunger if I’d put it toward children, or books, or listening, it makes me want to just go back to bed. Thank goodness I’ve still got today. And cookies.