Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tyranny of Slenderness: The Obsession by Kim Chernin


This is a profoundly disturbing treatise, superficially about the fashion of women's bodies—but at its base, The Obsession Kim Chernin writes about is for power over the minds of women and men.
...I recalled the faces of women who had recently lost weight. The haggard look, the lines of strain around the mouth, the neck too lean, the tendons visible, the head too large for the emaciated body. I began to reason... There must be, I said, for every woman a correct weight, which cannot be discovered with reference to a chart or to any statistical norm...

Chernin's approach to this obsession is feminist, to be sure, because she is discussing the seizure of power underlying the focus on size. On the way, however, she uncovers some truths that are equally applicable to diet-obsessed modern men.
  • 90% to 98% of dieters eventually gain back all the weight they lost—and more
  • This recidivism leads to feelings of depression and self-loathing over loss of control—both of which are emotional states conducive to weight gain, creating a feedback loop
  • Samoan women, accepted by their society as beautiful at heavy weights and large sizes, rarely exhibit the hypertension "caused" by lower levels of obesity in women whose societies reject them for being fat.

Along the way, Chernin speculates about a number of things that may be related to the current obsession over weight. Chinese foot-binding, for instance, is reeled into the discussion, with 19th-century corsetry and modern plastic surgery. And if there is a vast conspiracy to make women unhappy with their natural bodies, it is one willingly entered into by women themselves; if hundreds of thousands of women have their breasts enlarged, still more have their breasts reduced, their thighs sucked slimmer and tummies tucked in the endless battle with fat.

Why would women conspire against their own natures? Chernin lays this issue firmly in the woman's own choice to meet a shifting ideal, and in the desire to retain youth. The pre-pubescent slimness and lack of body fat informs the current fashion; women are trying to be girls of the age when they were non-sexual. (It is in reasoning about why men would want girlish women that Chernin is most feminist; she believes men are subtly jealous of the woman's generative ability, her womb, and thus seek to keep women in a physical state that belies this power.)

There are, in addition, Puritanical impulses that support the fashion for slenderness. Lust and gluttony are both loss-of-control sins. The curvaceous, obviously-fertile woman is an occasion of sin for lust; her fatter sister is presumed to be a walking sign of her own gluttony. Darker sins are covered by our Puritanical reaction.
I don't think even I could exaggerate the pain these women suffer because they are large. In the face of their obesity our normal standards of humanity vanish and we are possessed by a form of racist revulsion for the bodies of these women. [Emphasis mine.]

Again and again, Chernin asks us to look at the fat woman, with her "rounded cheeks, plump arms..., broad shoulders,... full thighs, rounded ass... of a woman made that way according to her nature, walking with head high in pride of her body, however it happened to be shaped." We need, she insists, to see each woman as she is meant to be, ripe and full of promise, not cut her down to some Procrustean ideal.

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