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Life Hunger portraits

Oct. 23, 2020
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What I miss most, in isolation, is my appetite. 

Its vulgarity. Its territorial swerves and demands. How anxious and audacious the ache in my stomach can get, when unfed for too long, when I ignore its requests, or try to soften its expansiveness, its petulance. Alone, I eat, but the eating feels different. The communion of it is missing. In the soft-dark of movie theaters, a friend’s arm resting against mine, hands reaching into a bag of popcorn, our unrestrained chewing, greasy-fingered and salt glossing our lips, Raisinets tossed in, that necessary, familiar tenderness of sweet and salty. Or the dining hall: alone with each other, typing essays and laughing at memes, food a connective tissue between our bodies and our minds. Young women eating together, without restriction, without terror, without eyeing each other’s plates in that slimy, Pavlovian comparison we’re taught and re-taught. In feeding ourselves, side by side, I felt like maybe we were facilitating something like healing. Without those meals, I’m losing more than I preempted. It’s not that college food is good. It’s not. But it was a communal experience, forcing everyone to slow the fuck down, to pay attention to the ache in our bellies, to remember ourselves not as cerebral machinery but as actual hungering bodies.

Who am I if I can’t locate what it is I want? What constitutes a self if not what that self hungers for, if not the complicated, mesmerizing negotiation of appetite(s)? How does one connect to the world if she cannot summon her landscape of want? Who we think, culturally, is entitled to food is a question that’s really engineered this country’s injustices and fucked us over exquisitely. Hunger is always political, even when it shouldn’t be.

I want to get into the less life-or-death, yet still emotionally terrifying losses incited by quarantine: the loss of women’s hungers. I’ve talked about these emotional unravelings with a number of young women, primarily queer women of color, whose lives have been interrupted by the pandemic. I wanted to know about the less obvious losses—these unarticulated disconnections from our bodies and desires, to document a mini-archive of mourned appetites. To find a way back to claiming them. 


“I had less of an appetite for pleasure. I had gotten to a place where I craved pleasurable, exciting experiences, and went out of my way to create them for myself. But during quarantine, when I tried to create pleasure for myself, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I felt like I didn’t deserve pleasure while others were in pain.”


“Some days I do feel like a normally sexual queer young adult, but other days I am totally distant from sexuality. The idea of sex isn’t repulsive but definitely not exciting. The days when I’m not feeling sexual at all, I’d rather watch a movie or cuddle my partner. I don’t even think about sex and almost shut down any possibility of sexual activity.”

When the pandemic hit, some of my friends had just started to explore their queerness. For me me, a new crush was growing that felt maybe reciprocal, finally, maybe tender enough to trust. I’ve avoided dating boys for a while now; men are synonymous, in my muscle memory, with violence, but things were changing, and the shame lodged in my bisexuality felt less insurmountable. So many of us were just nearing a precipice, unrealized desire rushing forward, our bodies learning new bodies, before catastrophe happened. Now, that progress, that recharged appetite, that slow growth back into comfort-with-closeness, has been disconnected. Now, where does all that desire go? Where can it possibly realize itself?  


“My appetite grew a lot during quarantine. I was at college for so long and being home allowed me to be more creative with cooking. As for my appetite for intimacy, it pretty much didn’t exist. I was surrounded by family 24/7 in a tiny apartment and just wanted to be alone sometimes.”

Occasionally, hunger expands and reincarnates in moments; our jaws unlock. We unearth a new recipe. We wash our hands, season raw chicken, crack eggs, stand in front of an oven and feel heat against our legs. We can make, still. And sometimes, we aren’t cooking for subsistence but for pleasure, like we still inhabit our desire. After growing up as a girl, food never uncomplicated, satiating ourselves like this, mucking our hands in butter and flour, is a tiny liberation.

Maybe we cook so as to remind our nerve endings of their potential. To feel the sensuality of anything at all.


“Hunger comes in missing. I miss so many people; I am missing from so many people; they are missing from me. It is a special kind of ache, one that can only be softened by the presence of others.”

We want to be consumed. What we would give to swallow someone else’s breath, to feel their mouth against ours, what we would give to feel our limbs remarry, to hinge back into place, blood pounding and unafraid, to feel collective tenderness again, to at once remember and disintegrate our bodies in the thick of other bodies. We want to stop our vague fumblings at feeling anything, to feel hunger spill over and outwards. 

What will our post-quarantine desire resemble? Will we have to learn desire all over again, a newborn language, slow and ungrounded? As our cultural and political structures of care evolve, so too will our internal compasses of desire, of intimacy. Because now, we are forced to be resourceful, to be inventive, to unfamiliarize ourselves with what used to be “normal,” since, often, normal was malignant, unjust, even to ourselves. 


“As someone who’s endured domestic abuse, being Black, and a woman, the ways I compromised myself and shaped my entire life around other people from a young age weigh heavily on me when I shine a light on them. Parts of me from the past are completely gone. I’ve felt lost, exploited, neglected, and unexplored, but I have a long, long life ahead of me, and it’d be a shame to not start getting to know myself now. My appetite for a more honest version of myself continues to fuel me. As I become a better friend to myself—more caring, listening, understanding—I feel as if I’ve given myself permission to finally breathe and release. It feels nice.”

Maybe there’s opportunity here. Maybe we’ll unfurl new ways to love. To devour. I want to believe it, but I can’t gild this disaster, in its inequities and irreparable losses, in such a dismissive narrative arc. If we reclaim our appetites, it will be because we were able, somehow, to survive what we should not need to. 

Somewhere, our hunger still exists, seething and complex. Somewhere we’ll have to let it out.