One of my favorite things about blogging (back when I was doing it regularly—which I'll go back to doing in March once my first draft is finished, I swear!) has been meeting some fantastic bloggers who ceaselessly bring new perspectives to this big loose conversation we're having on beauty, women, feminism, appearance, and the like. Specifically, getting to know one of the brightest body image bloggers out there, Kate Fridkis of Eat the Damn Cake, has been a delight—a delight made all the greater when I learned that she recently published her first book.
Growing Eden, an interior chronicle of her pregnancy, diverges from body image but is wholly aligned with one of her larger themes: womanhood, and exactly what that means, personally and collectively. Being grateful for all the opportunities we have today that our grandmothers didn't; feeling constrained by the sheer number of opportunities out there. Wanting to be seen, yet feeling relief when her pregnant body—"the promise of motherhood"—temporarily excused her from being seen in a sexual light. Believing in commitment to community, yet not being excluded from little vipers of envy that can accompany being a part of a larger entity. The book is about femininity as much as it is about motherhood or pregnancy—and more important, it's a beautifully written treat. Fridkis has always been one of those writers whose thoughts inspire wanderings of my own, so I was pleased when she agreed to do a Q&A about Growing Eden with me here. For an excerpt, visit Eat the Damn Cake.
My body definitely betrayed me in the beginning of my pregnancy, when I learned that “morning sickness” sometimes means “spending every day on the bathroom floor.” I think my brain thought I was dying. After that, my body shocked me by getting huge. I didn’t feel like myself, I felt like I was trapped inside a pregnant woman’s body. And then, just as that was becoming normal, I had to somehow push this terrifyingly large baby out. I didn’t want to do that. I really didn’t want to. But I had no choice. The whole thing was an exercise in being out of control. And the whole thing was an exercise in what my body is capable of, regardless of how I feel about it. My body turned out to be stronger than I’d ever known. It was a sneaky machine, just following its ancient program. And in the end, I was fine. Everything was fine. My body knew what it was doing, even when what it was doing was extreme or gross or enormous or horribly painful. My body made a perfect baby, even though I only ate Kraft mac and cheese and iron pills for a solid trimester. My body proved itself to me in spectacular ways. It proved how functional as opposed to decorative it really is. Which seems like it should be self-evident, but definitely hasn’t been for me. And all of this was totally normal. My body is just a normal body.
I think there’s a lot of pressure on women to have bodies that are exceptional. That are “better” than normal. That go beyond. Fitter, leaner, boobier, more dramatic, tighter, you know. I’ve definitely wanted to look “better” than normal. Better than myself. But it turned out, with my pregnancy and the birth of my baby, that normal was exactly what I needed to be. It was awesome that I was ordinary. And my ordinary body was awesome.
I think if I have another kid, I’ll go in trusting my body a lot more. I also hope I don’t have to barf as much, because that was really bad and I am still mad at my body for that part. Seriously, some women don’t even get sick. What the hell.
Ambition and reevaluating exactly what it means is one of the main themes of Growing Eden, and it made me think of the ways that figurative hunger (for accolades, accomplishments, etc.) and literal hunger are often connected—i.e. many women displace larger forms of yearning onto their bodies. Do you feel like your interest in having a "successful" life as you frame it in the book and your interest in body image are related? If so, in what ways?
Sometimes I think that success and thinness are wrapped around each other so tightly that it’s hard, as a woman, to picture one without the other. So that this terrible thing happens: When you’re sure you’re failing or falling behind in your life you might think, “at the very least I should be thinner.” Or when you’re sure you’re getting ahead in your life you might think, “but I should still be thinner, to really make this work.”
For me, food hasn’t always been the enemy of success, but beauty has always been mixed up in my vision of it. When I was a cocky little girl, I assumed I was pretty because I assumed I was smart. Those things went together in my head. I knew beauty was important, especially for girls, so I just figured I had it, since I was confident that I had the important things. Having that assumption interrupted seriously messed with me, and when I felt worst about my appearance I also felt like I was failing as a whole person. It was hard to separate the rest of me from the way I looked. Later, coming out of that (long) phase, I wanted to succeed enormously in my career almost to make up for my appearance. I imagined that at least I would be able to impress people with my shiny, exciting life, even if they might not think I looked good. And of course, I wasn’t thinking any of this very consciously. It was just floating around in the background as I worked frantically through the weekends or looked in the mirror in the morning. Oy vey. How exhausting. That whole dance, back and forth, between beauty and career. What I was really afraid of the whole time was being irrelevant. Of being forgettable and meaningless. Of not being worth noticing for any reason. And it’s interesting, as I’ve learned to slowly, slowly forgive myself for not looking the way I’d like to look, I’ve also become more forgiving towards my career goals. I guess forgiveness is big like that.
Right now, I feel lucky to have the chance to be a writer. Which is not to say that I’m not ambitious. But ambition without appreciation is kind of like body dysmorphia—you never think you’re good enough. Convincing myself that I’m already good enough is probably one of the most critical missions of my life, and it’s interesting that it’s only really started to happen since I’ve been writing about body image in an effort to convince other girls and women that they are already good enough, too.
I loved the bit about how you felt like your pregnancy was a form of armor against sexual attention, and I'm wondering about whether that feeling of feeling somehow shielded against (here it comes) the male gaze has lingered since Eden's birth.
Yay! The male gaze! This feels delightfully classic. But seriously. Yes—it has lingered. Because now I’m a mom, and there’s a baby strapped to my body in a dorky Baby Bjorn carrier, and she’s bobbing around with her silly baby face under a giant fuzzy hat with bear cub ears and she’s drooling everywhere. In other words, my body is hidden under all of that. In other words, I am blatantly unavailable.
And also no—because my body looks weirdly the same in clothes as it did before I was pregnant. So when I go out without the baby, suddenly I am transported back in time. And I look around and I think, “No one knows…” They don’t know that I am forever changed. That I am forever someone’s parent now. Instead I just look like some chick waiting for the C train in the same jeans and boots as every other woman.
But also yes—because I feel different, no matter what, about the way I am in my clothes, and about the way I am under people’s eyes. It’s hard to explain. I’m thinking about it and just sitting here trying to put it into words. OK, I’m bad at thinking, I’m just going to write: I am into my own body these days. Because I am so surprised by it. I can’t believe it swelled into such a dramatic new shape and then transformed again, exposing my hips and the curve of my ribcage so that I saw them in a way I hadn’t seen them before. I feel sexy for looking the way I always looked anyway. I feel sexy because I didn’t know what to expect and then I was too distracted to care and now my body fits into real pants again, and that’s exciting. I sort of expect men to look at me and appreciate the way I look, because I am appreciating it. And at the same time, I don’t give a shit what they think, for maybe the first time. So when I’m walking alone (which is still rare) I am just enjoying the freedom, and enjoying my body, and if anyone is gazing, let them gaze. I’m not even looking around. I just want to get on the C train and go.
That’s the best I can explain it.
You have a part in the book about how one of the first thoughts you had after finding out your child was a girl was, "What will she look like?"—a somewhat forbidden thought for we feminists who are supposed to be all about so many other things, larger forms of power and place in the world, etc. What was it like for you to recognize that that was one of your initial impulses, to wonder about her looks specifically as a daughter?
It sucked. I was mad at myself. And I was mad at the world, for being a place that makes beauty so important for girls that I would even have that thought. I was embarrassed, too. I didn’t want to tell anyone (so of course, I eventually wrote about it). It suggested that I had my priorities all wrong. It suggested that I am vain and lame and think appearances are the most important thing. No, no! I wanted to yell at the imaginary people who would lob that criticism at me, if I told them, It’s not like that! I think she should be able to be anything she wants! Feminism! Woman power! She is probably going to be a brilliant mathematician! But I just don’t want her to suffer because of this stupid thing that happens to girls. I don’t want her to waste her time. I don’t want her to get distracted by her surface and lose time that could be devoted to what really matters about her.
Most of all, I wanted to know what my daughter looked like because I had this desperate urge to make sure she didn’t look like me. It wasn’t exactly rational. It was a primal rush of emotion, and in that moment, I wished more than anything that she would be better than me in every way, beginning with her appearance. I didn’t want her to have my struggles. I wanted her struggles to be better, less embarrassing. Less petty-seeming. I wanted her to be less vulnerable.
It’s not true, though. Even if she ends up looking just like me, she will always be herself, and her goals and battles and vulnerabilities and confidences will be different from mine.
And now that I know her, in person—now that she’s real instead of theoretical, it feels different. I’m actually working on a little piece about how proud I sometimes feel of the way I look because of the way she looks like me.