Feminine Gospels: Applying Bartky’s Lens to Anorexia in “The Diet”

The poem “The Diet” by Carol Ann Duffy deals with women and body discipline, through the form of anorexia. Sandra Lee Bartky’s essay ” Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” I read last semester in Dr. McVicker’s feminist theory class tied into some of the key points Duffy is making in the poem.
Bartky writes about how the policing of women’s bodies and the space they occupy.

Today, massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste…Dieting disciplines the body’s hungers: appetite must be monitored by all times and governed by an iron will. Since the innocent need of the organism for food will not be denied, the body becomes one’s enemy…Anorexia nervosa, which has now assumed epidemic proportions, is…the crystallization in a pathological mode of a widespread cultural obsession.

Our society is structured in a way that, as Foucault writes in his essay on docile bodies, we are told how our bodies should occupy the space around us. Bartky takes this further and argues that women’s bodies in relation to space are restricted and controlled even further. Women are expected to occupy as little space as possible, and this obsession becomes internalized in women. As a result of this, more women are becoming anorexic, as Bartky writes.The woman in Bartky’s poem is striving to meet the societal expectations written on her body, and we watch her as her eating disorder progresses.

The first stanza of “The Diet” opens up with just that: the woman is dieting to the extreme, or as Bartky writes “disciplines the body’s hungers.” As the diet progresses, the woman begins to physically disappear. “By the end of the month, she was skin/ and bone,” yet “she starved on,” showing how a diet to presumably lose weight has grown into a disease. Duffy writes that “her skeleton preened under its tight flesh dress.” Her word choice here is vital to understanding the connection back to Duffy’s work. Preened means “devote effort to making oneself look attractive and then admire one’s appearance.” The woman in the poem has developed an obsession with meeting the unattainable standards society demands of a woman’s body, so much so that she has turned into a skeleton. There is no space left to lose, yet she persists and continues to lose weight.

With no more weight to lose, the woman “started to grow smaller” and eventually ends up becoming “seed small.” Carol Ann Duffy is taking Bartky’s observation about how massiveness and excessive size of a woman’s body is not allowed and the repercussions of this and exaggerating it. Not only does this unhealthy expectation of woman manifest in eating disorders, but Duffy writes that it goes further and has women striving to become insignificant and nonexistent. Once seed small, the woman in the poem is unseen by humanity. She exists only in “an empty beer bottle rolled/in the gutter,” “the barman’s eye” or “she lived in a tear.” Not only is she no longer a part of society, but she engages in reckless behavior and parties all night. Her existence is irrelevant to anyone else, just like society wants it to.

The last two stanzas of the poem are incredibly powerful; the seed sized woman lands on the wrong tongue. “She knew where she was all right…inside the Fat Woman now, / trying to get out.” Despite all of her hard work, the woman is right back where she started, trapped inside the Fat Woman she tried to escape. The capitalization that Duffy uses here assumes that it’s not just any fat woman the main character is trapped inside, but the Fat Woman. “The Fat Woman” symbolizes everything that women in society are taught to stay away from, taught to despise, taught to fight; Duffy’s poem shows that no matter how hard the main character tried, she ended up right back where she started. Because, just like Bartky says in her essay, women are taught to hate their bodies, no matter what. Thinness and the physical expectations of women in today’s society are impossible to achieve. Everyone that attempts to be perfect by society’s standards will fail. Duffy’s poem voices crucial concerns about the current structure of our society.

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4 thoughts on “Feminine Gospels: Applying Bartky’s Lens to Anorexia in “The Diet”

  1. Hello Courtney! Your blog post was extremely fascinating, and i really enjoyed that you brought in resources from another course to this piece. When I read your post, what popped into my head was how women are expected to occupy a space. While riding on the tube or standing in a line women tend to fold there arms or cross there legs, small ways to take up as little space as possible, yet on the tube noticeably to me men tend to spread out. I think this is really interesting how you relate the occupying of space to a women’s own body.

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