Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. 10th Anniversary Ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. Print.


Summary: Bordo is responding at once to the mind/body dualism in the history of philosophy that treats the body as a trap or prison for the mind, while also associating women with the passive body, but she is also challenging the medical model that treats eating disorders in the terms of pathology and resists cultural analyses of eating disorders that might have important consequences for the way we understand eating disorders. In this book, Bordo brings a feminist cultural critique to bear on images of the female body in Western culture to argue that these images increasingly homogenize and normalize female embodiment, placing a deep emphasis on slimness and bodily control. She also uses her analysis to argue that our bodies are not a tabula rasa or purely biological but are always understood (by us and by others) through the lens of culture, meaning that our bodies reflect something important about the culture in which we live and are an important site through which power circulates. Rather than attempt a linear philosophical or cultural explanation of eating disorders, Bordo uses the book to create a Foucauldian “polyhedron of intelligibility” in which she takes on a variety topics/angles related to eating disorders and female embodiment ranging from historical views on the body. The book is divided into three sections: “Discourses and Conceptions of the Body,” “The Slender Body and Other Cultural Forms,” and “Postmodern Bodies.”

Chapter Summaries:

  1. “Whose Body Is This? Feminism, Medicine, and the Conceptualization of Eating Disorders”–Looks at the history of the medical model of eating disorders, as well as the challenges issued by a feminist cultural perspective. This feminist cultural perspective challenges the line drawn by the language of pathology between “normal” and “disordered” bodies and argues that culture doesn’t just contribute to eating disorders, but has a productive role.
  2. “Are Mothers Persons? Reproductive Rights and the Politics of Subject-ivity”–Argues that the discourses of woman as fetal incubator, the father’s rights movements, and the increasing rights of the fetus are a challenge to the personhood of women. She argues that we need to shift away from abstract discussions of choice and instead focus on contradictions pertaining to bodily autonomy and women’s experience of pregnancy and the fetus.
  3. “Hunger as Ideology”–Looks at ads as examples of cultural ideals about women and food. These ads show that restraint in food is seen as feminine, that feeding others is seen as a lofty feminine pursuit, that indulgence in food is framed in sexual metaphors, and that men can eat and be loved while women are seen as turning to food as a (privately consumed) subsitute for love.
  4. “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture”–Examines journals and personal accounts of anorectics and identifies 3 axes of continuity along which eating disorders develop and at which their connection to other cultural and historical phenomenon is evident: the dualism axis, the control axis, and the gender/power axis. Bordo argues that eating disorders “crystallize” or become characteristic expressions of what is wrong with our culture.
  5. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity”–This chapter is a more theoretical analysis of eating disorders that argues for a feminist analytic of the body that moves beyond oppressor/oppressed dyads, and that can instead describe power as constitutive rather than merely repressive and that “will enable us to account for the subversion of potential rebellion” (167).
  6. “Reading the Slender Body”–Reads the emphasis on slimness and muscularity as not about fashion but as signifying control and self-mastery. This is overlaid with the producer/consumer dyad in our culture that encourages restraint and indulgence all at once, raising anxieties about being able to control the body, especially as changing gender norms disrupt conventional spheres of power.
  7. “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender Skepticism”–This chapter is a critique of the limitations of a poststructural feminism that asserts that the “right” gender theory is one that forgoes any generalization in a focus on difference. This replaces “the view from nowhere” with that Bordo calls “the dream from everywhere” and stifles productive feminist work.
  8. “‘Material Girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture”–
  9. “Postmodern Subjects, Postmodern Bodies, Postmodern Resistance”–
This book seems to have continued relevance for ongoing discussions about the slim body and ideals about controlling the body that dominate the rhetoric of the obesity crisis. Bordo suggests at one point that while eating disorders may reflect the ideal of control over the body taken too far, obesity may be the opposite–the ideal of indulgence forwarded in a consumerist culture taken too far. This reading is troubling given the systemic oppressions (racism, poverty, inaccessible health care, etc.) that overlay much of the “obesity crisis” and is something that deserves further comment and critique.