In writing The Hungry Self, Chernin claims for eating the same sort of significance that Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts have found in sexuality. Like sexuality, eating is both a fundamental aspect of human existence and an activity with deeply symbolic meaning. Thus, just as Freud’s work considers neurosis in the light of infantile memories and the cultural import of ancient and mythic rites and rituals, so does The Hungry Self analyze anorexia and bulimia with regard to early childhood experiences and tribal initiatory practices signifying the passage into adulthood. By linking the particular psychological experiences of individual women with larger societal issues involving the acceptance and inclusion of women as full participants in society, Chernin is able to provide a rich analysis of the epidemic of eating disorders disabling so many contemporary women.
Chernin describes the societal dimensions of eating disorders in stark terms. Using various studies from 1982, she estimates the number of girls and women suffering from anorexia and bulimia to range from one in a hundred between the ages of sixteen and eighteen and one in five college-age women. Given the vast number of women suffering from an obsession with food, weight, and body image, Chernin argues for the necessity of looking beyond each individual story to discover the larger social causes for this epidemic. Beginning in the 1970’s and 1980’s, women have been given more options, and pressures, than ever before: They are now able to move from the home into society at large. Yet many still find themselves feeling empty and confused, unsure of who they are and unable to turn to their mothers as role models in this new world. Thus, Chernin claims that women’s eating disorders are not simply personal dilemmas, but a larger societal problem occasioned by women’s ability to take on the rights and prerogatives of men.
Chernin neither belittles this advancement nor urges a return to traditional domesticity. Rather, she reads the messages of media and culture as signaling to women the need to be like men if they are to succeed in the workplace. Accordingly, the tight, muscular...
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