Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Emerging from the intersection of female identity and the prevalence of eating disorders among American women, The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity asks why so many women have a troubled relationship with food. In answering this question, Kim Chernin draws upon her work counseling women suffering from bulimia and anorexia. She argues that underlying women’s obsession with food are the basic components of a rite of passage, the elements of a transition from one stage of life to the next. The problem of food thus becomes its failure as such a rite, its inability to enable women to move from one stage of life to another.

Throughout the book, Chernin recounts the stories that women have told her about the place of food in their lives. These are stories of obsession, descriptions of the compulsion to exercise, to ingest huge quantities of food and then vomit, and to allow calorie-counting to disrupt normal activities and behavior. Furthermore, as Chernin delves more deeply into women’s stories, she explains how the problem of food cloaks a more fundamental problem of identity. Her thesis is that at a time when women are encouraged to forgo traditional feminine pursuits, eating disorders appear as sites for the struggle over the meaning and validity of female identity. In other words, an eating disorder signifies an identity crisis.

For example, some women develop eating disorders when turning to a new career after having spent a number of years mothering and caring for husbands and children. Others, generally younger and preprofessional, the first generation of women socialized to expect career and educational opportunities, take on the styles and manners of the group in power—men. These young women seek to rid themselves of the flesh that makes them feminine and often adopt the men’s-wear look encouraged by the media. Both groups, the older as well as the younger women, are...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Kim Chernin’s The Hungry Self is an important contribution to the understanding of the developmental issues particular to female identity. Perhaps more important, it is a shocking exposé of the horrors of eating disorders, both as aspects of a widespread phenomenon in American society and as deeply personal obsessions with food and weight. As one of the earliest nontechnical, book-length studies of anorexia and bulimia, it affected the way in which many women think about their own relationship to their bodies. Whereas previous feminist analyses of development had stressed sexuality, Chernin reminds her readers that while many contemporary women are comfortable expressing and acting upon their sexual desire, the vast majority of women experience deep guilt and ambivalence with regard to food. Eating is the new sin, the taboo to be secretly enjoyed and later absolved through penitential rituals. The Hungry Self further develops arguments and ideas Chernin raised in her book The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (1981).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. A collection of critical essays exploring problems of the body for women. Includes discussions of anorexia, slenderness, and body image with reference to and elaboration on Chernin’s work.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. An account of the scope and dimensions of anorexia, with attention to the historical context of the disease.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. An important discussion of fasting and other food rituals for medieval women. Contains an index and extensive notes.

Spitzack, Carole. Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. An analysis of contemporary dieting and weight loss literature which draws upon Chernin’s work.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990. A general discussion of the media images of an ideal femininity. Draws upon Chernin’s discussion of eating disorders and body image, providing later statistical data confirming the epidemic proportions of these problems. Includes a helpful bibliography.