The issue of embodiment is difficult for all women, but it poses a particular problem for female writers. There is something about the act of writing that seems to be antithetical to female nourishment. Maybe this antithesis is due to the fact that embedded in the notion and language of ‘good writing’ is a certain disgust for the female body and all of its associations. “We praise arguments for being muscular and compact and criticize prose for being flabby, flowery and, implicitly, feminine... What is the fat body in the popular imagination but excess, lavishness, redundancy?” writes Kate Manne in her essay “Diet Culture Is Unhealthy. It’s Also Immoral.” In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous goes further to describe writing as “a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated.” (2) This pervasive idea of female excess—or ridding oneself of female excess in order to fulfill a standard defined by male connotations—runs both ways, from a writer’s actual human form to the intangible prose and back. The paring treatment that female writers give to their work, the crafting of concise, controlled, tight phrases, is the same treatment they give to their selves and bodies.
Probably the most well-known example of a writer who related her body and nourishment directly to her work is Virginia Woolf, who set a precedent for the idea that the female author must go hungry. Although she famously asks in A Room of One’s Own, “Now what food do we feed women artists upon?” and proclaims that “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” she was unable to incorporate this advice into her own life. (3) Roger Poole explains in The Unknown Virginia Woolf that “for Virginia, eating, digesting, and sitting still, were loathsome activities which led directly to visual ugliness, as well as to spiritual and intellectual decadence.” (4) In place of physical nourishment, she seems to suggest through her fiction and diaries that one should be able sustain oneself off of one’s work. Exploring the connection between her bouts of anorectic depression and her writing, Woolf writes in her September 16, 1929 diary entry: “these curious intervals in life—I've had many—are the most fruitful artistically—one becomes fertilised—think of my madness at Hogarth—& all the little illnesses.” (5)
Although these “little illnesses” may have seemed highly individualized, they were born of a female Victorian stereotype that equated the deprivation and control of women’s bodies to femininity. Woolf most likely understood that she could attain a tacit power by conforming to this undernourished stereotype while simultaneously defying other gendered stereotypes in asserting herself through art. Some kind of awesome power lies in the disparity, or friction, between having a frame that threatens to be swept away in the wind and having such loud, decisive things to say. And it is this friction, the relationship between conforming and defying, that seems to be the key component in allowing female writers to make themselves heard.
Take Joan Didion, for example. According to the documentary made in 2017 by her nephew, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Didion subsisted largely on a diet of ice-cold Coca-Cola and salted almonds. In it, a distraught David Hare explains that he was so troubled by her weight that he refused to work with her on the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking unless she agreed to split a sandwich with him. A truly disturbing 2017 article in Vogue entitled “Why Joan Didion, at 82, Is Still a Beauty Icon” has very little to say about her work but instead lauds her perpetually emaciated state:
In other words, no one would have taken her seriously if she weren’t a waif. It makes a certain sense that the high fashion industry, Vogue, has laid claim to Didion. She represents their particular brand of manufactured femininity—descended from the Victorian stereotype that so afflicted Woolf—a femininity that has very little to do with what it means to be female. She learned to write by copying out stories and sentences from Hemingway, literature’s king of machismo and accordingly misogyny. “I mean [Hemingway’s are] perfect sentences,” she said in a 1978 interview for The Paris Review. “Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.” (8)
Although Didion never wrote publicly or explicitly about her relationship to food and nourishment, she did write about a burning desire to be hard, compact and durable (in the service of ‘character’)—all male-connotated concepts. This theme arises again and again, particularly in her early works. The “Women” section of The White Album contains only three essays: the first is a scathing response to second-wave feminism; the third is a love-letter of sorts to Georgia O’Keeffe. (9) In the “Georgia O’Keeffe” essay, Didion explains her veneration for the artist, writing, “She is simply hard, a straight shooter,” and praises her for moving to Texas and blasting bottles with her sister’s gun. (10) It seems that Didion does not necessarily admire O’Keeffe’s individual character as much as her ability to be more male than the men themselves. In a January 4, 1916 letter, however, O’Keeffe wrote that she thought her work communicated “essentially a woman’s feeling.” (11) In another in 1925, she said that “a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living might say something that a man can't—I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore.” (12) It is possible that Didion lacked the lexicon to describe someone she admired in non-male-connotated terms. Maybe it was not actually the hardness of O’Keeffe that she so respected, but a willingness to embrace femaleness in her art despite the pressure to be hardened, to be male.
In her withering essay “The Women’s Movement,” it is unclear as to whether Didion thinks feminism itself is a sham or whether the movement is not doing enough. In many ways, it seems as though her primary issue with the movement is that it’s too female—too focused on trivial experiences and “romance” and “tenderness” and joy—and therefore neither legitimate nor serious. (13) Interestingly (although unsurprisingly), many of the criticisms she leverages against the second-wave feminists are denunciations of their writing and literal prose. She writes that in the literature of the movement, “the clumsy torrent of words became a principle,” that the feminist theorists have undertaken “didactic revisions” and that they do not understand the “certain irreducible ambiguities” of fiction. (14) She claims that these women are ignoring what it actually means to be female, an experience she defines as: “living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death.” (15) Though she did find herself unfortunately and intimately acquainted with death, it is difficult to believe that a woman who was unable to bear children and who weighed 80 pounds for most of her life had much experience with menstrual blood.
Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion are only the tip of the iceberg. Once one acknowledges the relationship of a skeletal woman to supposed good writing, one begins to recognize a pervasive pattern. For example, in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy, the bifurcation between the two protagonists, Lenu and Lila, is marked by the differences between the two women’s bodies. Though Lenu wishes and strives to be a writer, her body, round and fertile, serves as a constant threat and reminder of her illiterate origins. On the other hand, Lila, an expert storyteller, is sharp, undernourished and hardened both physically and intellectually. Though the story is told from Lenu’s perspective, Lila’s piercing voice has the power to hijack and control large swaths of the narrative. (16) In a similar vein, Ottessa Moshfegh, the author of six novels and countless stories, once said, “I spent a lot of years in an anorexic and bulimic blackout... writing saved my life... it gave me the semblance of control.” (17) Scholars have speculated that Emily Dickinson may have suffered from an eating disorder. “The psychosomatic syndrome that wasted her body may have simultaneously enhanced her artistic consciousness,” writes Heather Kirk Thomas in regard to Dickinson’s anorectic behavior. (18) Louise Glück in her poem “A Dedication to Hunger” likens the desire for emaciation to the act of writing: “I felt/what I feel now, aligning these words/it is the same need to perfect.” (19)
In Elif Batuman’s Either/Or, it is no mistake that even Selin, at times a curiously disembodied character, attends Pilates classes with her dieting friends while deciding that she would like to be a writer. On a visit to a museum, Selin is confronted with two statues of women: one, an 8,000-year-old fertility goddess with “pendulous breasts… stomach flopping over her thighs, her face… blurry and stupid looking;” two, a 10-inch-tall figurine about which Selin says, “I could tell she wasn’t empowering… she was too thin. But she was beautiful—lithe, doll-like, eminently portable. You wanted to move her through the world.” (20) Selin hopes to fashion herself into her own character, a character with the same capacity to be beautiful and (as the Vogue article says about Didion) to move through scenes with ease.
In the course of her kunstlerroman, Selin briefly touches upon the issue of feminine excess in relation to writing. A friend introduces her to the work of Hélène Cixous and the other practitioners of Écriture féminine—theorists writing contemporaneously with Didion and a possible cause of her phrase, “the clumsy torrent of words.” (21) Cixous and others advocate for “the ebullient, infinite woman” to take back language, to invent her own kind of writing independent of patriarchal standards. (22) In “The Laugh of Medusa,” Cixous notes that these standards have created “a narcissism which loves itself only to be loved by what women haven't got.” (23) Or, a woman who loves herself solely for the fact that she could be a windblown germ, for having so little body, so little self to hold her together. Where Écriture féminine seems to lose course, however, is in its radical embracing of the stereotype that female writing is excessive and disorganized. To embrace a stereotype can be a powerful tool of resistance. But in this case, Écriture féminine seems merely to accept the stereotype of excessive femaleness as an inherent, inescapable truth. Instead of using the act of conforming to stereotype as a set-up to subsequently and strikingly defy stereotype as Woolf and Didion do, the movement finds itself entrenched in patriarchal clichés.
“So what are you supposed to do, not use words?” Selin asks. (24) Maybe the solution is, as Kate Manne writes, “to eat when we are hungry” and stop when we’re full—to strive to understand that there is nothing inherently excessive about femininity or female bodies in all their forms. (25) And to understand that one need not follow the path of emaciation in order to be a good writer. Although one might admire Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion, there is no necessity to gain hold, literally and figuratively, “on sausage and haddock by writing them down,” nor to subsist on Coca-Cola and almonds. (26) There can be a separation between one’s writing and one’s body; careful curation of one does not need to be tied to deprivation and control of the other. Likewise, fullness of one is not connected to excessiveness of the other. The stereotypes can be laid to rest. In the direct, succinct words of Hélène Cixous: “Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” (27)
(1) Kate Manne, “Diet Culture Is Unhealthy, It's Also Immoral.” The New York Times, January 3, 2022.
(2) Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 879.
(3) Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989), 53, 18.
(4) Roger Poole, The Unknown Virginia Woolf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 56.
(5) Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, (New York: Harcourt, 1980), 254.
(6) Griffin Dunne, director, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, (Netflix, 2017).
(7) Kate Branch, “Why Joan Didion, at 82, Is Still a Beauty Icon,” Vogue, October 12, 2017.
(8) Joan Didion, interview by Linda Kuehl, “The Art of Fiction No. 71,” The Paris Review, no. 74, 1978.
(9) Didion, The White Album (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).
(10) Ibid., 127, 130.
(11) Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack Cowart, and Juan Hamilton, Georgia O’Keeffe Arts and Letters (Boston: New York Graphic Society Books, Little Brown and Company: 1987), 147.
(12) Ibid., 180.
(13) Didion, The White Album, 117, 116.
(14) Ibid., 111, 112.
(15) Ibid., 117.
(16) Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels, trans. Ann Goldstein. (New York: Europa Editions, 2018).
(17) Ottessa Moshfegh, interview by Joe Fassler, “Finding Meaning in Going Nowhere,” The Atlantic.
(18) Heather Kirk Thomas, “Emily Dickinson’s “Renunciation” and Anorexia Nervosa.” American Literature 60, no. 2 (1988): 224.
(19) Louise Glück, Descending Figure (New York: Ecco Press, 1980), 32.
(20) Elif Batuman, Either/Or: A Novel (New York: Penguin Press, 2022), 292-293.
(21) Didion, The White Album, 111.
(22) Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 876.
(23) Ibid., 878.
(24) Batuman, Either/Or: A Novel, 177.
(25) Manne, “Diet Culture is Unhealthy, It’s Also Immoral.”
(26) Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. 5,ed. Anne Olivier Bell, (New York: Harcourt, 1984), 358.
(27) Cixous,“The Laugh of the Medusa,” 876.
Ruthie Kornblatt-Stier is an emerging freelance journalist and writer based in New York City. She studied English literature at Barnard College and graduated in 2020 with the Stains-Berle Memorial Prize in Anglo Saxon.