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In Search of Damp Feminism; Or, What Can We Learn from Fat Studies

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is from contributing editor Michelle McClellan.

In my last post I reflected on the complicated backstory of feminism, intoxication, and vulnerability, specifically in relation to campus culture today and efforts to prevent sexual assault. I speculated whether there could be such a thing as “damp feminism,” a way to allow, even encourage, women’s pleasure while still accommodating gender-specific risks. I’m not sure exactly what this would look like but I want to keep thinking about it and welcome readers’ thoughts. Here, I muse on what seem to me to be several important factors: the complicated developments of the 1970s, including the women’s health movement; feminist resistance to essentialist thinking; and the role of advocates.

In her Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (UNC Press, 2010) founding Points editor Trysh Travis traces the connections between feminism and recovery culture during the 1970s, asserting that “recovery” was not the apolitical, inward-turning process that some critics have charged. Instead, Travis argues, a wider reading of both “recovery” and “politics” reveals rich connections and accomplishments, particularly within the alcoholism treatment field. While liberal feminists, many of whom were middle-class white professional women, propounded a language of self-esteem to interpret women’s reliance on alcohol and drugs, Travis explains that gay and lesbian radical feminists understood substance abuse and addiction through a vocabulary of oppression. In both cases, Travis insists, recovery could be a political act, with print culture used to demonstrate and document it.

language of the heart

Yet, as Travis elaborates, that energy was not carried forward through the 1980s. Building on Travis’s work, and placing addiction squarely in the context of the women’s health movement, I am more convinced than ever that we founder on the body. And by “we” I mean historians as well as other humanists and social scientists with a feminist bent. Almost a decade ago, Howard I. Kushner called on historians of addiction to “take biology seriously,” especially if they wish their work to inform present-day policy debates. For feminists in particular, the decoupling of cultural roles from biology has been fundamental and hard won. For that reason, many feminists are skeptical or downright hostile toward assertions of differences that are rooted in the body. I know I reflexively bristle at the fact that the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism measures “moderate” drinking and “binge” drinking differently for women and men. There may be good clinical and scientific evidence for this differential, but as a women’s historian I see it through decades of a double standard and wonder whether the guidelines may be right for the wrong reasons.

Comparing substance use and addiction with other women’s health issues, I suspect that what makes me and perhaps others particularly squeamish is acknowledging that the same behavior affects bodies differently enough to justify gender-specific recommendations. Health conditions that are unique to women create different circumstances and responses. Looking at childbirth and breast cancer, for example, it was not easy to create women-centered practices in the American health care system, but they could be imagined. That is harder to do with substance use, abuse, and addiction, where women are (or are perceived to be) a minority and a male-dominated ethos purports to be universal, as Travis and others have pointed out.

Feminist impulses in interpreting women’s addiction can also be at odds with a disease model, the dominant explanation during the second half of the twentieth century. For example, in her Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (1980), Marian Sandmaier asserts a unity among women whether alcoholic or not. She explains that “the acute frustration and self-negation that alcohol can temporarily blunt is not the exclusive property of women who drink.” Instead, she declares, “that pain belongs to all women” (xviii). Sandmaier discusses how conventional gender roles constrained women, blunting their potential, and how twentieth-century drinking customs that ostensibly offered liberation were in fact only a “cheap substitute” for equality (64). Her analysis may well represent a “damp” feminism, and so it is disappointing that it did not gain more traction. Perhaps part of the reason is that her claim of sisterhood – that alcoholic women are like all women – cuts against a fundamental tenet of the modern alcoholism paradigm that alcoholics are a distinct subset of people. As well, her challenge to all women to feel kinship with female alcoholics may not have been able to override the stigma attached to women’s problem drinking.

If modern ideas of addiction differentiate the addict from everyone else in a kind of lateral division, there is also a profound trajectory in addiction and recovery, a before and after that shapes our perceptions of the condition and of who can be a reliable advocate. In many diseases and health conditions, patient activists are often those who struggle heroically against illness, or family members who pledge to continue the fight for research dollars or innovative treatments in the name of someone, often a child, who died tragically. It is not so easy to map addiction and recovery onto these understandings of disease and advocacy. Credibility generally comes with recovery, reinforcing a division between those who have struggled with addiction and everyone else. That dynamic can make it hard to make space for normative use, which would seem a necessary ingredient in “damp” feminism.

In thinking about how scholars, clinicians, policy makers, and advocates could better talk to one another about such issues, I wonder whether there could be a self-consciously defined approach of “Addiction Studies,” akin to the burgeoning academic field of “Fat Studies.” I suspect we actually have addiction studies, or at least the ingredients, even if it not yet named as such. “Fat studies,” according to a recent call for papers from the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association, “is an interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary field of study that confronts and critiques cultural constraints against notions of ‘fatness’ and ‘the fat body’; explores fat bodies as they live in, are shaped by, and remake the world; and creates paradigms for the development of fat acceptance or celebration within mass culture.” The field also boasts an academic journal, and a recently published reader with forty chapters.

The parallels are not exact but suggestive. Leaving aside the question, for the moment at least, of whether certain eating behaviors should be regarded as “addiction,” it seems to me that fat studies offers some helpful elements in its critique of morally-inflected truisms about body size and health, opening the door to a wider consideration of social and self regulation, perceptions of excess, and “appetites” more broadly.

Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Are you a fat studies scholar who has taken addiction into consideration? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below. 



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