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Tyranny of Slenderness: The Obsession by Kim Chernin

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This is a profoundly disturbing treatise, superficially about the fashion of women’s bodies&#8212but 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&#8212and more
  • This recidivism leads to feelings of depression and self-loathing over loss of control&#8212both 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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  • Nancy

    Out of curiousity, did the author name who she thought the villain(s) is/are as far as pushing these stereotypes? I think that a number of very profitable industries have fastened like leeches on womens negative self image: consider the diet food industry, the diet ‘club’ industry, the medical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the ‘fitness’ industry, etc. They have billyuns and billyuns of bucks riding on women continuing to feel bad about their bodies, no matter how satisfactory said bodies actually are. More, it is in their interests to snag ever younger women, in order to perpetuate these myths, in order to perpetuate their profits…which the fashion designers and magazines gladly assist, since they too can make money off women by harping on their ‘problems’ or designing only for size 4s.

  • Better watch it; they hate fat chicks round these parts.

  • Nancy

    What parts would that be?

  • Bennett

    Nice post Brooke. Gad, what a yoke we wear as a “civilized” society. And how many hundreds of years will it take for us to get past this crap?

    We’re really quite immature and brainwashed when it comes right down to it.

  • Nancy, the author was quite adamant that women share the “villian” status, that each woman is complicit to the extent that she subscribes to body fashion. The external “motivations” (magazine advertisements, diet fads, TV and film stars, clothing size-Nazis) are actually manifestations of the current fashion.

    In other words, ads tout their products using images that are deemed attractive – but the fashion happens first. Diets persuade women (and men, I hasten to add) that a particular body shape is achievable – but the desired shape is a matter of fashion. Stars of previous eras were quite corpulent, compared to today’s fashion; sizes and styles of clothing are planned to complement the currently-fashionable body shape.

    So the author went deeper to discover the “draw” of the slender figure.

    Chernin lays this issue firmly… in the desire to retain youth… women are trying to be girls of the age when they were non-sexual.

    Perhaps we ought to ask first why this is seen as desirable…

  • Brooke, I’d be interested in hearing who “they” are who “hate fat chicks.” There are PLENTY of men whose attitudes toward plump, buxom, voluptuous, or even obese women are the exact opposite of hate.

    I agree there are lots of women (plump, buxom, voluptuous, or even obese) who “hate fat chicks,” and that obsession with what is for many of them an unnatural body shape is the main thrust of Chernin’s essay.

  • JR

    Brooke, I’d be interested in hearing who “they” are who “hate fat chicks.”

    That would probably be a reference to one of the other threads around here; I thought it was this one but it seems to have been extensively edited since I last saw it.

    Trust me, some of the comments were in astoundingly bad taste. I’m not sure they were exactly hateful, but I can see how it might have felt that way.

  • Eric Olsen

    I love the word “slender” – it is very slimming

  • Yes that thread was sanitized for our protection, and I guess to protect the guilty. Fortunately I recreated the entire thread on my website; so that we may say (what they say after every embarrassing disaster) Never forget!

  • Eric Olsen

    how sly of you Brooke

  • DrPat writes: “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.

    Reply: DrPat, did the author discuss that excessive body fat might be simply reflective, at least in our society, of lifestyle? I suspect other factors (salt content among others) have a lot more to do with the Samoan womens’ incidence of hypertension than adiposity, per se.

    That, unfortunately, is what makes the issue of actually determining the health risk from excessive body fat such a tricky one, medically. I suspect that the Samoans have an overall healthier lifestyle than we do in this country (activity level, dietary fat content, stress – she mentions obesity is “accepted” in their culture, etc.).

    These are, from your post, irrelevant as the book seems to focus on culture rather than be a medical discussion. I certainly agree with the author in that our society is certainly fixated on physical image above all else.



  • Nancy

    I need to move to Samoa!

    But seriously, while I agree part of the problem is women buying into this tyranny of looks, I continue to assert that the major reason for this acceptance of false ‘norms’ is due to unrelenting pressure, advertising, and hype from the various industries I named above, all of which have overriding reasons to ensure not only that the current generations of women continue to feel a need to conform to these artificial standards, but that future generations will, as well. Just check out the magazines geared for very young teens and pre-teens. They start in on them early…and there is really no comparison between the pressure brought to bear on men with that on women. Relatively speaking, there is none. Men/boys are far more accepted both culturally, socially, and other ways ‘as is’ physically – altho if the industries can figure out a way to snag them, too, this will change, but the male standards of physical acceptance are far more deeply implanted in our society and culture, and therefore harder to revise at the moment. In effect, this entire situation (marketing, increased pressures on women to conform, et al) creates a near no-win situation for women, in that unless they are individuals of extreme self-analysis and assurance, there is no way to avoid buying in to this tyranny of market forces’ artificial “standards” of acceptable norms.

    I didn’t read the blog referred at the time it originally came out, but having just gone over the referral site above, I am disgusted and horrified, but not surprised by the attitudes and comments made by those two. I’ve heard these comments and worse all my life, from people w/very little excuse to be that downright sadistic, self-satisfied, and ignorant, directed both at myself and others. To try to cloak it in “being honest” on top of it all as an excuse is contemptible. Unfortunately, like them, too many people still think that ALL obesity is due to lack of control & sheer piggishness, which is not true, as very recent discoveries in brain chemicals & DNA are beginning to show. It hasn’t been until these same people who have always been scornful of fat persons got fat themselves and tried to work it off that they also got a dose of humility and reality. For that, at least, I’m glad for the fattening of America. It makes the formerly cruel & snug walk a few yards in my shoes and find out it’s not like they thought, at all. Good. It couldn’t happen to more appropriate people. People who make those kinds of comments must think those who are overweight or obese are as stupid and obtuse as they are. Do they seriously think that anyone in that situation doesn’t know it would be healthier to be smaller, that the obese would feel better, physically and emotionally?

    I remember going to an eminent orthopedic surgeon – a handsome, trim man prominent in his profession on the East coast – and him walking in w/my file & history (which took me an hour and a half to fill out, it was so exhaustive), which included the facts of my weight loss attempts including stomach stapling (when it was still very experimental and mortality rates were 1:7!), jaw wiring, and god only knows how many diets and regimens over the years since early childhood, and announcing to me, “well, we can fix this easily – but you really need to go on a diet.”

    NO-!? REALLY????!!!! Wow, who’d’a guessed! You mean, all I have to do to lose weight is stop eating? Run around? Why would I want to do that, just so I could move better, sleep better, feel better, wear nicer clothes, not be insulted and humiliated at every turn, not be a freak anymore? Gee whiz. If I’d’a had an MD like you, doc, I would be as smart. I’ll bet your mama calls you ‘son’, you’re so bright!

    That horse’s ass. I fired him on the spot, in front of a waiting room of about 30 people after explaining clearly and audibly in the same terms as above just where he went wrong. And boy, did it feel good. I still smile when I remember. Never went back, and found another dr. w/more brains and just as good w/a scalpel as Mr. Intellect.

    That said, I think I’m still going to check out living conditions in Samoa ;D

  • Being in my eighth month I’m pretty rounded and have friends and family calling me names like Killer Whale or Walrus. While I’m laughing over it now but I do know what’s coming my way once the baby is born.

    I’d be expected to get back in shape within a month and will be expected to put up with fat jokes and if I protest then I’d be called over sensitive.

    Dr Pat is right, in the eyes of society it is sin to be overweight.

  • Eric Olsen

    SP, I hope you are feeling well! You know you get the “pregnancy pass” don’t you? which extends for the length of time you were pregnant, ie, you have 9-10 months after giving birth to whip yourself back into shape, although I’m sure you look perfectly cute at a roly-poly 8 months as well.

  • Nancy

    A time limit to get back in shape? What most people – including a lot of women – don’t understand is that frequently, after giving birth, a woman’s whole metabolic & brain chemical system change, and gaining or losing weight is not always much of a matter of choice. I hope ‘puss’ isn’t one of those, but if she turns out to be, she’s still A-OK despite her weight. Good luck & congrats, btw.

  • Eric Olsen

    hell yes, there’s a time limit for getting back into shape, woman!

  • Nancy is right; the obsession starts young. Just how young I did not realize until a few months ago. I overheard a skinny seven year old girl telling her friends she thought of herself as fat, and how badly she wanted to lose weight.

    Any sane person looking at this child would think she doesn’t get enough to eat. But she has already been trained to think herself fat, just because her limbs don’t match the emaciated stick-figure arms and legs of the cartoon characters on her “Bratz(tm)” backpack and t-shirt.

    If this obsession is all about health, as some people claim, we are doing a piss-poor job of it. There is tremendous joy in vigorous activity. Nobody loves to run and jump and be active more than a child does. But we aren’t telling them about that. We are only telling them how they must look.

    In our obsession with thinness, exercise has no value of its own. It is only a means to achieve a socially acceptable level of emaciation.

    When we do this, we poison the natural joy of exercise with a nauseating terror.

    And then we wonder why people don’t exercise more.

  • Thanks Eric and Nancy.

    Eric, you sound like my ma 🙂

    And yes that ‘pregnancy pass’ lasts basically only for six to nine months, then the well-intentioned comments start.

    Been down that road 😉 The line- love me the way I am- doesnt seem to take me too far with family….lol

  • Chernin makes a solid distinction between the way a woman wants her body shaped (which is the desire informed by society, media input, and her own emotional reaction to her shape), and the way her body is meant to be shaped by nature (her genetic component, her hormonal status, and her age). The external factors – lifestyle issues – are secondary to these two.

    So a woman (and men, too, I repeat) uses diet, exercise, supplements and surgery to overwhelm her natural shape in order to squeeze herself into an arbitrary size. In that sense, who picks the arbitrary size is far less important than why we choose to subordinate nature to it.

  • Let me add, bhw, that your own young-mother’s natural shape is what you should aim for as you “get back into shape.” Nancy’s right in this – you aren’t that pre-partum girl anymore!

  • Exactly, DrPat, the lifestyle issues are secondary. This is exactly why claims about health concerns ring false on this topic.

    If a person is already thin, the culture of obsession does not really care how healthy their diet is. The metabolically fortunate who can eat everything in sight without gaining an ounce never have to endure the judgemental stares facing a heavy person who dares to eat an occasional ice cream cone.

    If a person is already thin, the culture of obsession does not really care whether or not they exercise. Only heavy people get the constant moralistic pressure to start working out. Doctors of course cite exercise as a necessity for everyone’s health, but family members, friends, acquaintances, and random strangers won’t drop hints about the gym if you’re already thin.

  • Your right Dr Pat, I’m quite happy being pear shaped just want to a slimmer pear by exercising and eating right.

    Being a mom anyways takes away the option of drastic dieting- one needs energy to deal with a toddler and a newborn 😉

  • Sorry, ‘puss! I gave your baby-body and comment to bhw. (Don’t you wish it was that easy…)

  • I knew, chuckled over it but decided to let it slide; me being content and all 😉

  • nancy writes: “That horse’s ass. I fired him on the spot, in front of a waiting room of about 30 people after explaining clearly and audibly in the same terms as above just where he went wrong. And boy, did it feel good. I still smile when I remember. Never went back, and found another dr. w/more brains and just as good w/a scalpel as Mr. Intellect.

    Reply: Good for you, Nancy! The absolute correct response. I applaud your courage and grit.



  • Nancy

    So do/did I! It was a MOST liberating experience. I highly recommend it to everyone who encounters stupid professionals with ersatz god complexes. As Gonzo says, ‘excelsior!’ or in my case, “You’re Fired!”

  • Sunny

    I remember when I was in high school (a long time ago! Ha!) and I subscribed to Seventeen magazine. One particular issue had a young girl on the cover in a two piece swimming suit. She was a slender, beautiful girl. Her belly was not TOTALLY flat. It had a slight, rounded pooch. Anyway, numerous readers wrote in asking why someone that “fat” or “out of shape” was featured on the cover in a bikini. How outrageous! She was THIN for crying out loud. Plus, she was an adolescent girl. How sickening that many readers of this magazine saw her shape as wrong.

    That magazine cover and subsequent “Letters to the Editor” have obviously stayed with me a long time. I remember looking at that picture and wishing I was that “fat.” And back then, I wasn’t a heavy girl. At 5 ft tall I weighed around 110 I’d say when that cover was printed.

    As I said, I was never thin-thin. But after my son was born, when I was just 19, I never regained my pre-pregnancy weight. I think if I ever did, I’d look a little foolish now. I’m OK with knowing that I will never be a size 3 again.

    I wouldn’t mind being a size 8 though…

  • maggiemay

    my take on it is this—our brains and our culture are programmed for scarcity and lack by centuries of, well, scarcity and lack—fat ppl R viewed as having eaten more than their share