Lydia’s Library Books

Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body

The title of this entry is the name of (one of) the book(s) I’m reading right now (by Susan Bordo), and I’ve got to say… it’s one of those books that makes you feel kind of silly because everything you’ve thought about in moments of revelation is already in there. No matter, I’m glad I found it. I don’t agree with everything I suppose, but that’s for another post (I swear, I’m going to start posting again! I have time off from work now- that gives me some prime thinking time).

Anyway, one of the major points that Bordo makes in this book is that eating disorders are less pathology and more a product of a misogynistic culture. Personally, while I feel like this is a very legitimate and truthful argument, I also think that there is a lot to gain from contemporary psychological theories and explanations- especially those that place eating disorders under the category of coping mechanisms. However, this entry isn’t really going to go into that. I’m just going to start with the very basics of eating disorders and negative body image as a result of Western culture. My starting point is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately (so much, in fact, that I got a book on Plato out from the library..), and that’s the separation of mind and body into a dualism.

This sort of dualism was really brought to the surface as problematic during feminism’s second wave (which I’m learning much more about, seeing how I’m currently working as an assistant on the production of a documentary about second-wave feminists. This group was ahead of it’s time- very white, but attune to intersectionality and the problems of the moderate movement). With women representing BODY and men representing MIND, in order to focus on endeavors outside of the household, women had to essentially become men, or at least genderless. “Traditional” gender roles had women in the home, caring for bodily needs (food, health, reproduction), with men working during the day only to come home at night and have their bodily needs taken care of.

While this has changed slightly since the sixties and seventies (we are at least aware of gender inequality and the normalization of socially created gender roles), this dualism has not been addressed in popular mass culture. I read an article by a blogger for The American Prophet today that really dug into that.

In a home where both parents work, women spend 11 hours a week caring for the kids and men spend…three. Whoa. Of course, this isn’t because husbands and wives sit down and set up a schedule where women do about four times as much child work. Rather, it just sort of…happens that way. People are busy. The guys look at the work and assume someone else will take care of it. The women look at the work and decide they’d better get it done. Societal expectations reinforce this division of labor.

…. Guys in the workplace don’t see why women can’t do what they did, and guys at home justify their reduced housework by pointing to their demanding jobs. Conversely, women have more housework and childcare responsibilities, and thus less time to devote to the workplace and less of the scheduling flexibility that’s currently required for advancement. So men advance professionally, and justify their personal habits on those grounds, and women pick up the slack, and thus don’t advance as far professionally.

Women still inhabit that body role, even as they seek and do intellectual work. From what this article is saying, it seems as if many men also see women this way, even if it’s not conscious.

You might now be thinking- what the hell does this have to do with eating disorders? You might have forgotten I mentioned that at all, in which case- I forgive you! Anyway, the separation of mind and body is problematic for reasons other than gender roles. It makes one think about one’s self in terms of the body and the mind, or intellectual self- two different entities. I’ll admit, that’s how I think about myself. That might be how you think about yourself. Our culture has made this very normal.

What’s problematic about this? Well, it might make one think that the body is something that the mind can control, or change, to fit certain values or traits that one wants to identity oneself with. If culture associates a slender body with power, a person in a stressful or powerless situation might seek to alter their body to fit this powerful image. When control is gone from one aspect of life, control over the body might seem like a logical way to cope.

As discussed above, the association of women with body and men with mind has historically given men the more powerful, valued roles in society. Valuing a specific type of MIND over body is one of the root reasons, in my view, for culturally induced eating disorders- and possibly even the fact that psychological problems manifest themselves through food at all. It’s suppression of the body and of female desire. As Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber writes in The Cult of Thinness,

The split between mind and body is central to our idea of what it means to be male and female- and our culture values mind over body. But dichotomous thinking is a powerful mechanism of social control and oppression. It separates groups into “we” and “they,” instead of allowing diversity to flourish. … [We] need to change the messages girls and women absorb from families, schools, and jobs- all places where women are rewarded or punished daily from being in the “right” or “wrong” body.

This quote is especially important to me because of my research/activist interest in the globalization of eating disorders, as a particular type of world bank driven development moves into third world nations.

So that’s a bit of an introduction of sorts on mind/body dichotomy and how it relates to women’s oppression and eating disorders. I honestly think of eating disorders, negative body image and low self esteem as violence against women- truly linked to such issues as domestic violence, sex trafficking, and more. It’s culture telling us we’re wrong, in a way that has lead some to suicide.

There are sure to be many more posts on this book, and one on The Cult of Thinness, which I just finished, coming soon.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. * CYNCMYCLEW says:

    I agreed with you

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 2 months ago

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: