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Feminism: “Unbearable Weight” by Susan Bordo Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2021

Summary

In her book, Susan Bordo explores contemporary perceptions, pathologies, and socialized images attached to the female body. She explains how social prejudices, control, and misconceptions about women define the way they perceive themselves.

Author’s Main Point

The crux of Bordo’s (1993) argument is that images of the modern female body in Western society are shaped by historical and socio-cultural constructions of ideal femininity. She maintains that internalized liberal feminist ideologies lead to “uneasiness with our femaleness, shame over our bodies, and self-loathing” (Bordo, 1993, p. 8). Due to these dominant cultural influences, women and girls view themselves as imperfect and must adapt to ideal figures.

Outline of the Argument

The key highlights in Bordo’s (1993) four essays are outlined below.

  • The feminine body is a text shaped by Western philosophy – Plato and Descartes – and cultural perceptions of femininity.
  • Cultural depictions of beauty, dressing, and diet are meant to control the expression of femininity.
  • Social adaptation of the body to the19th century perfect figure indicates how women yield to sexualized ideals, often through hunger.
  • Anorexia is a form of dissent against idealized notions of the female body.

Personal Reflection/Understanding of the Material

After reading the book, I understand contemporary femininity to be a cultural artifact. The female body is like a blank slate that is subject to societal controls through cultural images related to diet, dressing, or beauty. Eating disorders are a reflection of subconscious struggles against these aesthetic norms. An alternative cultural discourse is needed to change the current female body perceptions and neutralize oppressive influences.

Reactions, Opinions, and Thoughts

Given our patriarchal culture, I concur with Bordo’s (1993) sentiments that cultural definitions of the ideal female body are the forces that lead to the internalization of ‘disordered’ perceptions. Distorted feelings of low “self-worth, self-entitlement, and self-nourishment” are shaped by the popular cultural discourse (Bordo, 1993, p. 57). I find the author’s analogy that the female body is like a text to be consistent with the contemporary weight-conscious culture. In my opinion, early exposure to stereotyped feminine or masculine body images socializes children to conform to dominant cultural standards at the expense of being authentic.

In this regard, I agree with Bordo’s (1993) assertion that media portrayals of models as being the slender and societal perception of maternal bodies result in internalized misperceptions that consume femininity the same way hysteria did in the 19th century. Sadly, from an early age, young girls begin to dislike fatness because all images in their environment – from dolls (for example, Barbie) to cartoons in children’s shows – are thin. As teens, they succumb to social pressure and engage in unhealthy eating habits that cause pathologies – bulimia and anorexia – self-defeating protests against culture. I believe that media, parents, and peers are the key forces driving these ‘disordered’ cultural ideals in contemporary times.

Discussion Question

Do males suffer from the same cultural constructions of masculinity as females do, and if so, what are the psychological and physical manifestations of their suffering?

Reference

Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Feminism: "Unbearable Weight" by Susan Bordo." June 24, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/feminism-unbearable-weight-by-susan-bordo/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Feminism: "Unbearable Weight" by Susan Bordo'. 24 June.

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