Vampiric Words

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment by Maud Ellmann
    Virago, 136 pp, £7.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85381 675 2

When Jane Fonda told an interviewer for Family Circle some months ago that she was heavier than she had previously been but also ‘more comfortable’ with her body, Associated Press duly relayed the news to the world. ‘I don’t weigh myself anymore,’ the 57-year-old Fonda announced, explaining that after two decades of ‘going for the burn’ when she exercised and of binging and purging when she ate, she had decided that there was something unhealthily obsessive about her relation to her flesh. Social critics troubled by the fact that the last twenty years have also seen a dramatic rise in reported cases of anorexia and bulimia, especially among young women in the US, may wish to believe that the ever-canny actress and entrepreneur will once more set a trend. But a cautionary note is in order. As Susan Bordo suggests in Unbearable Weight, her recent study of our collective fixation on thinness – discussed here by Carol Gilligan (LRB, 10 March) – this would not be the first time in current memory that popular magazines heralded a turn toward a ‘softer’ or rounder look for women, only to continue advertising the same taut and rigorously pared-down bodies in their pages. In fact, as Bordo shows, the ideal female form has actually been growing thinner over the last few decades: not only is the model in a 1990 Maidenform advertisement considerably slimmer than her counterpart of 1960, but the same body type who dreamed she took the bull by the horns in her Maidenform bra thirty years ago has now been relegated to the special category of the ‘full figure’. Asked whether they would rather gain 150 lbs or be run over by a truck, 54.3 per cent of young women in a recent Esquire poll chose to be flattened by the truck. No doubt the fact that such questions are asked reveals as much about our culture as the pseudo-science of the results. Still, Esquire’s young women obviously have something in common with the respondents to a previous survey cited by Bordo, over a third of whom replied to the question of what they feared most in the world: ‘Getting fat.’

Maud Ellmann’s The Hunger Artists had already appeared when Jane Fonda announced her latest incarnation, but if one were to extend the associative logic by which Ellmann interprets the actress’s earlier metamorphoses, Fonda’s liberation from the scales would be seen as an uncanny anticipation of Clinton’s subsequent lifting of the trade embargo against Vietnam and a confirmation that the US had finally put the trauma of the war behind it. In the opening pages of her book, Ellmann describes how she returned to the country in 1978 after an absence of nearly a decade, to find that the anti-war protesters of the Sixties had become ‘the health fanatics’ of the Seventies. ‘In a sense the war had come home, for now it was our bodies that were under siege, rather than those of the Vietnamese; and only the most unremitting vigilance could save us from the chemicals bombarding us from every supermarket shelf.’ Fonda’s career offered an exemplary instance of this transformation, and in the obsessive physical activities of the former activist Ellmann finds all the signs of a neurotic compulsion to repeat:

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