My students, particularly but not exclusively my female ones, report a great deal of fantasizing in classes. No, silly, it's not about their teacher.
It's about food. In journal after journal, I read about my students' love/hate relationship with food. Compared to food fantasies, sex comes in a distant second as the subject about which so many young people are preoccupied. And though I've touched on this before, I feel compelled at this point in the semester to bring it up again: food is a feminist issue.
A number of feminist writers (Susan Bordo chief among them) have noted that in recent decades, our eating behavior has been increasingly couched in moral terms. Only far-right social conservatives use terms like "decadent" to describe contemporary culture -- but we all use it to describe rich, fattening desserts. We speak of "devil's food" and "tempting tastes." More basically, my students talk about themselves as "good" and "bad" in terms of their eating behavior. When I hear a girl say "I was so bad today", I can be almost certain that what will follow is a food-related confession. When I hear another say, "I was good all morning", I am fairly confident that she will not then relate a story of volunteering at the homeless shelter! Good, in contemporary parlance, means abstinence, self-control, self-denial; bad means indulgence, eating to satiety, pleasure.
Of course, there are always those students of both genders who claim to be blissfully unaffected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness and concomitant food restriction. I suspect that some of them are in denial (the old "refusing to be a victim" bit), while a lucky few may be genuinely untouched by concern about eating. They are fortunate, but they are also rare among American tween, teen, and twenty-something women.
I am a great believer that one of the most important narratives in feminist history is that of women's struggle to gain the right to pleasure. Broadly speaking, patriarchal culture tells women that their only source of permissable pleasure and happiness is centered on others: one can derive joy from feeding one's child, but not from feeding oneself; one can derive joy from pleasing one's husband in bed, but not from masturbation; one can derive joy from putting one's husband through law school, but not for putting oneself through. And so on. This is what feminists call the "doctrine of contingent happiness" -- the old fancy that virtuous women only derive real, enduring joy solely through sharing with others.
As a Christian, I am a profound believer in the importance of self-sacrifice. There are times and places where self-denial is indeed virtuous, particularly when self-indulgence would cause obvious harm to others. But traditional culture makes the mistake of turning self-sacrifice into an idol. Self-denial is blessed when it draws us closer to God or when it benefits others -- but it is not blessed in and of itself. Dieting for the sake of beauty is a form of destructive self-denial that follows an old pattern: "good women" repress and control their base, physical desires.
To paint with broad strokes, earlier periods in American culture demonized women's sexuality. (Certain elements in our culture continue to do so.) But a healthy percentage of American society has, for better or worse, become reluctant to use moral terms to describe their own sexual behavior or that of others. The language of "to each his or her own" has become dominant, and I'm fairly confident that that is something of a good thing. But today, we demonize women's appetite for food using the same language our forebears used for sex: "sinful", "decadent", "bad." We have stopped condemning one essential human activity and begun to attack another.
Food is our first pleasure, I tell my students. Our first experience of joy as children may be of being fed, of having our hunger satiated. In our old age, when we are too feeble to do much else, one of our final pleasures will be our meals. (I note that my great aunt, 95 this year, has one daily event she anticipates above all else: lunch.) Far more often than sex (presumably), delicious food will bring us delight over and over and over again over the course of our lives. Therefore, any ideology that seeks to limit that pleasure for the sake of beauty or conformity is inherently anti-feminist and anti-human.
I am not advocating over-eating as a feminist act. Eating far more than is healthy is an act of self-loathing, not self-love. But I am arguing against what I see as a "war on pleasure" in our contemporary culture. I want the young women I work with and teach to be unashamed of all of their natural, healthy, appetites. I want them to see that their own desires for food and sex are good in and of themselves. I want them to see their bodies as their own, and I want them to understand that while pleasing others is indeed a source of joy, it ought never be the sole source of delight in their lives.
And so this week, I'm giving them the following optional assignment: While out with friends or family or others whose opinion they value, I want my students to eat as much as they want of something they truly, deeply, crave. And they need to do so without describing themselves as "bad". (This is a tough one for most of my students, I've found.)
Again, I'm absolutely convinced that real liberation comes in the bold assertion of one's right to pleasure -- and pleasure ought never be solely about bringing joy to others. Women's bodies are not merely for making babies and pleasing husbands (or parents, or peers, or fashion designers): they are gifts of God intended first and foremost for the delight of their occupants! And when we as embodied persons delight in our flesh, we honor the extraordinary gift that is Creation itself.