Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body

BOOK: Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body
5.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Unbearable Weight, Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body

Susan Bordo

University of California Press

Berkeley Los Angeles London

"The Heavy Bear" is from Delmore Shwartz,

Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge.
Copyright © 1959 by Delmore Schwartz. Reprinted by permission of

New Directions Publishing Corp.

Figure 48 is reprinted from
Love for

Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger
by permission of the Mary Boone Gallery.

Figure 50 is reprinted by permission of
magazine. Copyright ©

1992 by
Communications, Inc.

University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd. London, England

© 1993 by

The Regents of the University of California First Paperback Printing 1995

Library of Congress CataloginginPublication Data

Bordo, Susan, 1947—

Unbearable weight: feminism, Western culture, and the body / Susan Bordo.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0520088832 (pbk.)

  1. Feminine beauty (Aesthetics—United States.

  2. Body, Human—Social aspects—United States.

  3. Body image—United States. 4. Selfesteem in women—United States. 5. Feminist criticism— United States. I. Title.

HQ1220. U5B67 1993

305.42—dc20 9241582

Printed in the United States of America 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.481984. ©

For Edward

Introduction: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body
Part One Discourses and Conceptions Of The Body

Whose Body Is This? Feminism, Medicine, and the Conceptualization of Eating 45


Are Mothers Persons? Reproductive Rights and the Politics of Subjectivity 71

Hunger as Ideology 99

Part Two The Slender Body and Other Cultural Forms

Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture 139

The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity 165

Reading the Slender Body 185

Part Three Postmodern Bodies

Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender Skepticism 215

"Material Girl": The Effacements of Postmodern Culture 245

Postmodern Subjects, Postmodern Bodies, Postmodern Resistance 277


It is extremely difficult for those of us at small colleges to find, in our heavy teaching schedules, time for writing. I have been both fortunate and highly privileged in having been given that time, in the form of more than generous institutional support from a variety of sources. Two residential fellowships, one to spend the spring semester of 1985 in Alison Jaggar's Laurie seminar at Douglass College and the second in 198788 as a Rockefeller Humanist in Residence at the Duke University/University of North Carolina Center for Research on Women, provided not only time to think and write but wonderful intellectual environments to stimulate the process. An American Council of Learned Societies/Ford Foundation Fellowship, awarded for the same period as the Rockefeller, made it possible for me to continue working on this project the following year, when I was generously granted early sabbatical leave by Le Moyne College. It is to Le Moyne that I owe my greatest debt—for several faculty research grants and course reductions in the past, for the open, diverse, and warm intellectual home that it has provided for me, and for its courageous decision to name a feminist scholar to its first endowed chair, the Joseph C. Georg Professorship. From my perspective, the award could not have been timelier; announced in 1991 just as I was entering the final stages of work on this book, it has provided me with needed time for revisions, financial resources for preparation of the manuscript and illustrations, and a boost of encouragement to see me through to the culmination of what has been a long and taxing—although absorbing and gratifying—project.

Because this book is made up of essays written over a period of years, many different people have contributed to it in different ways. I have tried to acknowledge those contributions in an opening note for each essay; I apologize for any that have gone unmentioned

out of forgetfulness. What are not represented in those notes, however, are the intellectual conversations and emotional support informally provided at various stages of this project by friends and colleagues such as Linda Alcoff, Sandra Bartky, Susan BehuniakLong, Jonathan Bennett, Janet Bogdan, Robert Bogdan, Celeste Brusati, Jack Carlson, Janet Coy, Sandra Harding, Erica Harth, Alison Jaggar, Ynestra King, Ted Koditschek, Drew Leder, Janice McLane, Paul Mattick, Mario Moussa, Jean O'Barr, Robert O'Brien, Linda Robertson, Sarah Ruddick, Jonathan Schonsheck, Maxine SheetsJohnstone, R. J. Sidmore, Cynthia Willett, Bruce Wilshire, Donna Wilshire, Iris Young, and my sisters, Binnie Klein and Marilyn Silverman. I also thank Naomi Schneider, my editor at the University of California

Press, for her encouragement and patience, Carol Miller for her reassuring expertise and professionalism in the computer preparation of the manuscript, and JaneEllen Long for her astute and clarifying copyediting.

It is impossible to measure the contributions of Lynne Arnault and LeeAnn Whites or adequately to express my gratitude for the intellectual and emotional sustenance their friendship has provided for me. Finally, I thank Edward Lee for all our years of wonderful conversation, for his integrity and individuality, for his insights, his humor, and his kindness, and for the haven of our life together.



"the withness of the body" Whitehead

The heavy bear who goes with me, A manifold honey to smear his face,

Clumsy and lumbering here and there, The central ton of every place,

The hungry beating brutish one

In love with candy, anger, and sleep, Crazy factotum, disheveling all, Climbs the building, kicks the football,

Boxes his brother in the hateridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal, That heavy bear who sleeps with me, Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,

A sweetness intimate as the water's clasp, Howls in his sleep because the tightrope Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.

—The strutting showoff is terrified, Dressed in his dresssuit, bulging his pants, Trembles to think that his quivering meat Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,

He's followed me since the black womb held, Moves where I move, distorting my gesture, A caricature, a swollen shadow,

A stupid clown of the spirit's motive, Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness, The secret life of belly and bone,

Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown, Stretches to embrace the very dear

With whom I would walk without him near,

Touches her grossly, although a word Would bare my heart and make me clear, Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed Dragging me with him in his mouthing care, Amid the hundred million of his kind,

The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

Delmore Schwartz

Cultural Expressions of MindBody Dualism

Through his metaphor of the body as "heavy bear," Delmore Schwartz vividly captures both the dualism that has been characteristic of Western philosophy and theology and its agonistic, unstable nature. Whitehead's epigraph sets out the dominating, doubleedged construction, the one that contains and regulates all the others—that of disjunction and connection, separateness and intimacy. "The withness of the body": the body as not "me'' but
me is at the same time the body that is
"with me." Like a Siamese twin, neither one with me nor separable from me, my body has "followed me since the black womb held," moving where I move, accompanying my every act. Even in sleep, "he" is "breathing at my side." Yet, while I cannot rid myself of this creature, while I am forced to lived with "him"

in intimacy, he remains a strange, foreign presence to me: "private," "near," yet "opaque."

The body is a
brute, capable of random, chaotic violence and aggression ("disheveling all . . . kicks the football / Boxes his brother in the hateridden city"), but not of calculated evil. For that would require intelligence and forethought, and the bear is above all else a creature of instinct, of primitive need. Ruled by orality, by hunger, blindly "mouthing" experience, seeking honey and sugar, he is "in love"—delicate, romantic sentiment—but with the most basic, infantile desires: to be soothed by sweet things, to discharge his anger, to fall exhausted into stupor. Even in that stupor he hungers, he craves, he howls for a repletion dimly remembered from life in the womb, when need and fulfillment occupied the same moment, when frustration (and desire) was unknown.

The bear who is the body is clumsy, gross, disgusting, a lumbering fool who trips me up in all my efforts to express myself

clearly, to communicate love. Stupidly, unconsciously, dominated by appetite, he continually misrepresents my "spirit's motive," my finer, clearer self; like an image maker from the darkness of Plato's cave, he casts a false image of me before the world, a swollen, stupid caricature of my "inner" being. I would be a sensitive, caring lover, I would tell my love my innermost feelings, but
only "touches her grossly," he only desires crude, physical release. I would face death bravely, but
is terrified, and in his terror, seeking comfort, petting, food to numb him to that knowledge, he is ridiculous, a silly clown performing tricks on a tightrope from which he must inevitably fall.

The bear who is my body is
"dragging me with him." "The central ton of every place," he exerts a downward pull—toward the earth, and toward death. "Beneath" the tightrope on which he performs his stunts is the awful truth that one day the bear will become mere, lifeless
"meat" for worms. And he, ''that inescapable animal," will drag
to that destiny; for it is he, not I, who is in control, pulling me with him into the "scrimmage of appetite," the Hobbesian scramble of instinct and aggression that is, in Schwartz's vision, the human condition.

The body as animal, as appetite, as deceiver, as prison of the soul and confounder of its projects: these are common images within Western philosophy. This is not to say that a negative construction of the body has ruled without historical challenge, or that it has taken only one form, for the imaginal shape of the body has been historically variable. For example, although Schwartz employs Platonic imagery in evoking the distortions of the body, his complaint about the body is quite different from Plato's. Plato imagines the body as an
deceiver, its unreliable senses and volatile passions continually tricking us into mistaking the transient and illusory for the permanent and the real. For Schwartz, the body and its passions are obstacles to expression of the "inner" life; his characteristically modern frustration over the isolation of the self and longing for "authenticity" would seem very foreign to Plato.

Plato, arguably (and as another example of the historical range of Western images of the body), had a mixed and complicated attitude toward the sexual aspect of bodily life. In the
passion distracts the philosopher from the pursuit of knowledge, but in the
it motivates that pursuit: love of the body is the essential

first step on the spiritual ladder that culminates in recognition of the eternal form of Beauty. For Christian thought, on the other hand, the sexual body becomes much more unequivocally the gross, instinctual "bear" imagined by Schwartz, the animal, appetitive side of our nature. But even within the "same" dominating metaphor of the body as animal,
can mean very different things. For Augustine, the animal side of human nature—symbolized for him by the rebelliously tumescent penis, insisting on its "law of lust" against the attempts of the spiritual will to gain control—inclines us toward sin and needs to be tamed. For the mechanistic science and philosophy of the seventeenth century, on the other hand, the body as animal is still a site of instinct but not primarily a site of
Rather, the instinctual nature of the body means that it is a purely mechanical, biologically programmed system that can be fully quantified and (in theory) controlled.

BOOK: Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body
5.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Poisonous Plot by Susanna Gregory
Timescape by Gregory Benford
Rook: Snowman by Graham Masterton
Burnt Water by Carlos Fuentes
Tough Guys Don't Dance by Norman Mailer
Death by the Book by Lenny Bartulin
Mary Tudor by David Loades
A Million Versions of Right by Matthew Revert