Posted in: Feminism, Global Culture
Published on Jul 21, 1985 by Phyllis Chesler
ANOREXIA BECOMES ELECTRA
THE HUNGRY SELF Women, Eating, and Identity. By Kim Chernin. 213 pp. New York: Times Books. $15.95.
KIM CHERNIN'S ''Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity'' is an inspired psychoanalytic meditation on contemporary female identity and eating disorders. According to Miss Chernin, the fact that so many ''normal'' women are obsessed with ''diets, exercise and poundage'' proves such women are in full flight from freedom and self-development and that female identity is arrested and in crisis. Miss Chernin and others believe women who attempt to appear young and attractive (slim) are avoiding the fat maternal destiny that leaves them susceptible to poverty and abandonment by men. Like other feminist theorists, Miss Chernin regards female thinness as a form of male-imposture in which women try to look like boys or men: lean, muscular, competitive and, paradoxically, little, unthreatening - daddy's girls after all.
Why are so many women obsessed with food and fat instead of with growth, wholeness and autonomy? Miss Chernin's continuing answer to this question is prefigured in her earlier book ''The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness'' in which she writes of Marian, a character in Margaret Atwood's novel, ''The Edible Woman.'' Marian bakes a cake shaped in the figure of a woman and, after a lifetime suppressing her hungers for food, for sex and for independence, she devours the cake.
Miss Chernin writes in ''The Obsession,'' ''By eating up this cake fetish of a woman's body she assimilates for the first time her own body and its feelings. It is a reenactment of the ritual feast, in which the eating of an animal's flesh, or a piece of cake shaped like a breast, signifies the coming together of human and divine, individual with collective . . . a woman with her own body and feelings. Marian has transcended the futile symbolism of anorexia and evolved instead the expressive symbolism of ritual.''
Marian's forbidden feast is the metaphor that drives ''The Hungry Self.'' Miss Chernin suggests (and I think she is right) that women who have ''disordered'' relationships to food are unconsciously ''guilty'' of the crime of symbolic matricide and have falsely concluded that they - not their brothers or fathers or the institution of motherhood - have ''cannibalized'' and ''depleted'' their mothers in earliest infancy or childhood.Miss Chernin writes, ''The hysterical symptoms of swelling and bloating in women of normal size . . . all reveal themselves as the terrifying sense that the woman has been taken over by the mother from whom she is trying to separate and whom she has swallowed down, over and over again symbolically in the reenacted primal feast. . . . Now, slowly, we come to understand that fat means this sense of oneself taken back by the revenge-mother; it means the daughter [is] ugly, unacceptable, rejectable, disgusting, outcast for the crime of matricide.''
Nancy Chodorow, in ''The Reproduction of Mothering,'' suggests that one reason women become mothers is to experience (or re-experience) the intense intimacy forbidden to adult women in both heterosexual marriage and the patriarchal workplace. Here, Miss Chernin suggests that obsessive female dieting is, among other things, an expression of women's longing for union (or reunion) with their mothers. She argues that such dieting is also a refusal or a sign of the contemporary daughter's (all women are daughters, at any age) inability to leave her mother behind as she attempts to enter a terrifying brave new world.
Miss Chernin leans too heavily on feminist or psychoanalytic insight as a way to control self-destructive behavior. As Sheila MacLeod, writing about her own anorexia in ''The Art of Starvation,'' has pointed out, ideology alone will not help an anorexic eat. Miss Chernin's theorizing is, like every other theoretician's, an act of personal revelation and autobiographical exorcism. (See Miss Chernin's ''In My Mother's House,'' which movingly recounts her struggle to leave, love, honor and return to her own mother.) In ''The Hungry Self,'' Miss Chernin does not explore differences in class, race or ethnicity among women with eating disorders. She writes as a white, middle-class woman about others like herself and assumes that all women are like her. She underestimates the influence fathers and other men may exert in cases of seriously arrested female self-development and does not focus on the patriarchal system of rewards and punishments that controls women's physical appearances. MISS CHERNIN is however both brave and wise to focus on the theme of symbolic matricide. Feminist and antifeminist women often deny and cannot remember ever hurting or betraying other women, certainly not their mothers. Such amnesia is tragic. It is easier for women to blame their mothers than to blame themselves for the murderous anger they feel toward other women. It is easier for women to dwell on Orestes' murder of his mother Clytemnestra than to notice Electra's complicity in her mother's death. At some level, women are (and believe they are) Electra: certainly they are all Electra's daughters. Many women have conspired in symbolic matricide. Perhaps that is why they are often mistrustful of their own daughters and of younger women.
Miss Chernin asks women to remember their ''childhood kitchens,'' their first loved foods and meals (their personal Proustian madeleine cakes), as a way of ''easing the passage'' into their forgotten and authentic hungers. It is a very useful exercise.
Phyllis Chesler is the author of ''Women and Madness.'' Her ''Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody'' will be published this fall.
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