The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman wrote an article this week about a new phenomenon she calls “female confessional journalism.” In her opinion, this new genre of writing involves female authors who write first person narratives about their battles with eating disorders, body image, relationships, etc. But the articles go beyond sharing a story, they usually involve a fair amount of obsessing and often long rants about self-loathing. According to Freeman, the narratives usually end with the writer “still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece.”
I’ve also noticed an increase in these types of articles, and, like Freeman, I often am sickened by them. At the same time, I don’t agree with her that all stories that confess insecurities are harmful to readers. So at what point do first person narratives about personal difficulties turn into rants revolving around self-hate? I’m not sure, but I hope to figure out by the end of this analysis. What I know right now is that I’m particularly sick of hearing about body-image obsession, and women who hate their lives (but don’t really want to do anything about it). Jezebel turned me on to two articles that put me over the edge.
The first is entitled: “Fatten me up! What happened when former anorexic Liz Jones had to eat normally for three weeks“. In this lengthy piece, author Liz Jones discusses her 40-year saga of obsession with food—or at least with not eating it—and gives details about her (upsetting) need to be stick-thin. At one point she writes, “I love my concave stomach and I can’t help […] but regard women who are fat, who don’t exercise, who gorge on things like Galaxy, as somehow lazy. They just don’t try hard enough.” Well, that’s just great.
Later in the article, Jones shares a sort of diary with the reader, where she gives detailed descriptions of the foods she forced herself to eat during a three-week stay with her sister. She stuffs her face with “pancakes, apple crumble, rice pudding, and chocolate pudding and custard.” She also talks about how revolted she feels after eating a Snickers bar, and how difficult it was for her to put anything richer than plain white toast in her mouth. In the end, she is so freaked out by the fact that the scale might go up that she resorts to her former ways — old habits die hard, especially when you want them to.
This anecdote isn’t inspiring, (hopefully) isn’t very relatable, and doesn’t evoke any emotion from the reader—at least not from me. Anna N. of Jezebel shared a similarly negative reaction to the piece:
“One of the best pieces of feminist advice I’ve ever gotten is not to insult my own body in front of others. It perpetuates the idea that women should hate our bodies — that our inevitable physical flaws are worth valuable brain-space and conversational time. But pieces like Jones’s…aren’t just body-snark, they’re self-snark: public expressions of low self-esteem so intractable that it lingers for years, harms relationships, and even endangers physical health.”
Jones’ story is one about a woman who enjoys hurting herself, who seems to be psychotic, and who says and thinks things like “I’d rather be thin than happy or healthy.” The moral: don’t eat a lot if you’re a religious anorexic because it will make you severely uncomfortable. How enlightening.
A second “confessional” piece I found painful to read was one written by playwright Zoe Lewis, who exhausts quite a bit of internet space whining about how feminism (which caused her to build a career), men (who, according to her, are not attracted to the “modern,” strong-willed woman), and her mother (who instilled the values of “choice, equality and sexual liberation”), have ruined her life. Lewis explains that she felt societal pressure to choose a career over a husband and kids, and has therefore ended up a depressed old — middle-aged actually – maid, who longs to engage in “womanly” duties.
What bothers me about the article isn’t the fact that Lewis is ready to throw away her career for a husband and kids, it’s the fact that she’s pro-sulk and anti-proactive. First of all, the woman is 36. She’s not about to die of old age. She has plenty of time left. If she wants to end her career and find a husband, she should just get over her anger at the world and at least try to make herself happy. Because she’s right—not all people find perfect fulfillment from a career. On the other hand, I think the woman is incredibly mistaken in believing that every housewife with kids is fulfilled, and that if she becomes one, she will be too. In fact, considering her tone, I’m not sure anything will make this lady content.
So in conclusion, while I like to read about the lives of others, I’m still unclear, as is Freeman, as to why reading about female misery is a popular pastime. Sharing stories is one thing — ranting about loathing your life or despising your figure is another. I’ve just about had enough of hearing about completely and utterly unhappy women. Now, I know what you’re thinking. I write for a website that is all about anecdotes from women about their personal lives and essays that fall under the umbrella of “confessional journalism.” But what I’ve figured out while writing this, is that what sets the anecdotes I described above apart from the rest (most of which I enjoy), is two things: the attitude and the message. When the attitude is negative, and the message is even more depressing (“I hate my body”, “I hate my life”) the article is neither fun to read, nor constructive. And as Anna of Jezebel writes, “[t]hese sob stories basically promulgate the notion that women can’t have it all, or even much of anything, because even smart ladies who write for newspapers and magazines are basically unfulfilled and miserable.” So instead of whining about how much we women hate ourselves and our lives, let’s figure out what makes us happy, and work on making that happen.