How is the female body ‘docile’? Key concepts and quotes from Susan Bordo’s “Unbearable Weight”


Introductory Notes:

  • Susan Bordo:  modern feminist philosopher
  • Bordo’s work focuses on how gendered bodies are formed, in particular her essay “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body” provides an analysis whereby Bordo looks at (with frustration) how popular culture shapes the female body
  • She is often considered as being amongst the “founders” of body studies, which may be understood as the way in which culture shapes how both sexes should be looking upon each other and what they should be deeming desirable in the opposite sex
  • Some Influences:  Michel Foucault, Helene Cixous, and Sigmund Freud (note that she is influenced by theory, but her purposely politically stirring work reaches to an audience further than academic studies)
  • She strives to note how women are more prone to suffer from illnesses both physical and psychological and focuses on hysteria, anorexia, and agoraphobia in particular to demonstrate how such illnesses can be seen as examples for how women use their bodies to insert themselves into “the network of practices, institutions, and technologies”
  • A Common Theme: the personal and political are not separate in Bordo’s work. The woman and her relationship with her body is a reflection of how culture moulds gender performance. The power source that sustains the mould is the hold that ‘being perceived as attractive’ has on us.
  • Note: Bordo is very careful not to assert that illnesses such as anorexia are purely social and cultural coding’s induced by dominant ideology – she offers a feminist interpretation, and analyses social discourses and the ongoing construction of the feminine body


Some Key Concepts:

  • The female body can be considered as a text in itself. It can be read as an example of how society uses cultural images to regulate the female, disciplines consisting of makeup, dress, diet to name but a few, are examples of how the body is subconsciously (and scarily) exacted and normalized in everyday cultural discourse
  • Eating disorders today parallel the hysteria that infected (metaphorically) women in Victorian Britain. Both disorders are indicative of greater cultural struggles.
  • Anorexia is a self-defeating form of protest – for whilst the subject is questioning the cultural ideals that shape her life and body, she is as the same time being absorbed into a self-absorbing, isolating fetish. In attempting to protest the way in which her body culturally functions, she is now physically unable to function in fully health – this highlights the self-defeating nature of such a protest
  • The living body is trained and shaped, it is docile. It is socially adapted into what Bordo calls a “useful body” an example of which being the nineteenth century ideal of the hourglass figure, which is symbolic of how easily bodies succumb to domestic and sexual ideals placed upon them, the strait lace, starvation and subsequent lack of mobility to look this way restricts the body to a sphere of correspondence to aesthetic norm
  • Bordo looks at the symptomology of Anorexia, Agoraphobia, and Hysteria and considers their political significance. For example;

–          Anorexia see’s the subject literally and physically whittling down the space in which they occupy in society, Bordo considers the anorexic body as a “caricature” for the ideal of “hyperslenderness” ideal for the modern woman. She suggests that the anorexic body is inscribed with very much alive and pulsing conceptions for the ideal for domesticated femininity, for the anorexic and the domestic woman share the similarities of feeding others before the self, nurturing likewise, and considering self-feeding as greedy. Not to mention that the physically weak body carries “connotations of fragility and lack of power” when placed alongside her male counterpart. Bordo also continues to develop an interesting point that in order to function neutrally and (for lack of a better word) happily in society, the subject must strike a balance between female and male sides of the self, when they are anorexic they are practising a masculine language and values of “emotional discipline, mastery, and so on” however, at the same time, their bodies are keeping these skills restricted to the task of keeping them away from the public arena, they are not occupying a ‘happy’ medium.

–          In Agoraphobia the woman loses her social mobility. In being homebound she is being restricted to a controllable sphere. Similarly, when she is hysterical and muted she becomes an ideal of “patriarchal culture” in that she becomes the “silent, uncomplaining woman” (2249).

Key Quotes:

“female bodies become docile bodies” (2241)

“at the furthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death” (2241)

“The symptomology of these disorders reveals itself as textuality” (2243)  – Bordo encourages one to consider the disordered body as symbolic and to pry at possible political meanings etched as deep as the suffering

“a steady motif in the feminist literature on female disorder is that of pathology as embodied protest (2247) – Bordo notes how within the language of suffering lies a violent protest – the language of which is not effective, it cannot be spoken, it has to be suffered through – it is counterproductive

“the social and sexual vulnerability involved in having a female body” (2250) – idea that female curves represent sexual vulnerability, in loosing these, the woman presumably also loses her sexual admirers and removes itself from harms reach; it is admired in a masculine nature, for the ‘strength’ and ‘will’ is connotes.

“The anorectic, of course, is unaware that she is making a political statement” (2248)

“the sufferer becomes wedded to an obsessive practice, unable to make any effective change in her life” she is as Toril Moi has put it“Gagged and chained to the feminine role” (2252) – suggestions that the anorexic is being distracted by an elusive acquirement of power

“I view our bodies as a site of struggle” (2254) – to Bordo it is crucial that an analysis of the contradictions in the practice of femininity are constantly analysed, and that this is how feminist politics perhaps should proceed

“The body – what we eat, how we dress, the daily rituals through which we attend to the body – is a medium of culture(2240)

“our bodies are trained, shaped, and impressed with the stamp of prevailing historical forms of selfhood, desire, masculinity, femininity” (2240)

“In newspapers and magazines we daily encounter stories that promote traditional gender relations and prey on anxieties about change” (2241)

“A dominant visual theme in teenage magazines involves women hiding in the shadows of men, seeking solace in their arms” (2241)

“following Foucault, we must first abandon the idea of power as something possessed by one group and levelled against one another” (2242)

A final thought… Bordo suggests the need for a new discourse in which the body and gender are formulated, suggesting that this discourse should be one that will confront the forces that sustain feminine oppression…

Questions to consider:

  1. What will happen if media advertising continues to prey on anxieties attached to body and gender perception?
  2. How are we raising young girls today? How vulnerable are contemporary young women?
  3. Although this essay is a feminist analysis and specific to the cultural pressures of females, I ask, what culture is doing to men? Men suffer just as much as women from cultural expectations and pressures, what can be read from the symptomology of psychological and physical illnesses common to men?



Image cited from

Bordo, Susan. “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 2240-2254. Print.

A Critique of Phallocentrism: Helene Cixous, “the Laugh of Medusa” (key concepts and quotes)


Introductory notes:

  • Helen Cixous: French feminist writer and philosopher
  • Her work is often considered as being deconstructive and of poststructuralist mode
  • Cixous wrote during the mid-70s, during the period of second wave feminism that was primarily concerned with the economic, social and economic limitations placed upon women
  • Her writing focuses upon the relationship between language and sexuality
  • Influences include: Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Sigmund Freud
  • Phallocentrism: the idea that woman exists separated from her body and desires. The phallus is the desired and the concept is dependent upon a ‘he has’ ‘she lacks’ binary.
  • Cixous’s article The Laugh of Medusa was translated from French to English in 1976. The highly metaphorical article proposes the idea of l’ecriture feminine, of women using her body as a means of communication and as a way to assert herself into “the text – as into the world and into history” (NATC 1942)

Key concepts: (note that when Cixous refers to ‘woman’ she is referring to the “universal woman subject” and her “struggle against conventional man”) (1943)

  1. Cixous seeks to destroy the prison of sexual impudence
  2. She urges women NOT to identify themselves in relation to men
  3. Before woman can write herself into a new type of text that liberates as oppose to merely oppressing further, she must discover where her own sexual pleasure is located. This will debunk mythology that suggests woman is defined by what she lacks (the phallus).
  4. She argues that the entire history of writing has been one of “phallocentric tradition” and that woman is yet to be given her turn
  5. Cixous asserts a solution. Her solution is the concept of l’ecriture feminine, this is female writing that communicates a new language, this language isn’t restricted by the ‘traditional’ binaries of woman and man, passive and active etc. This language is one whereby woman reconnects with the body that has been “confiscated” from her from the typical “masculine – economy” that has previously governed literature. This language is woman using her body as ink, or as Cixous suggests writing in “white ink” which is a metaphor she uses to further assert the importance of reunion, for just like female presentation of herself in writing, the maternal body is a place whereby lack and separation is overruled by connection and wholesomeness.

Key quotes:

“I wished that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire” (1943)

“Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it” (1943)

“Woman must write woman. And man, man.” (1944)Cixous notes that man still has everything to say about his sexuality, that he (in the universal sense) is encouraged to view l’ecriture feminine as opportunity for a redefinition of binary opposition that he can benefit from.

“Woman will return to the body that has been more than confiscated from her” (1946)

“the act of writing Is equivalent to masculine masturbation (and so the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis)” (1950)

“they riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss” (1951) – note that in Freudian terms female sexuality is seem as a “dark continent”, as a place of fearsome riddle, as a black hole whereby the penis may disappear. The reference to Medusa refers women as being coherent with the fear of castration.

“you only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (1951) – Cixous suggests that beauty is no longer to be forbidden as Medusa’s was.

Men say that there are two unpresentable things: death and the feminine sex. That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death” (1951)

“women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations, and codes” (1952)

“sweeping away syntax” (1952) – (activity of female writing referred to with a an allusion to the story of Theseus led out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth by Ariadne’s thread)

her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.” (1955)

“When pregnant, the woman not only doubles her market value, but – takes on intrinsic value as a woman in her own eyes and, undeniably, acquires body, and sex” (1957) to Cixous motherhood is a major catalyst for writing -(back to Freud again)  to Cixous giving birth is proof that women know how to live without fear of detachment or ‘castration’.

“Besides, isn’t it obvious that the penis gets around in my texts, that I give it a place and appeal? Of course I do. I want all. I want all of me with all of him.” (1957)

“In one another we will never be lacking” (1959)

A final concept… woman has always existed as being within a male discourse, she must invent her own language in which to function.


Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of Medusa”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 1942-1959. Print.

Image cited from


My Top 15 Angela Carter Quotes

To say I am obsessed with Angela Carter (her writing, of course) would be just a slight understatement. She had an ability to access a depth of the imagination I believe few can ever fathom reaching. The way in which she bravely and confidently entered political debate through a magic realist perspective, for me, secured her a place in the list of the most important English writers of the post-war period.

“The bed is now as public as the dinner table and governed by the same rules of formal confrontation.” – Angela Carter

“The notion of a universality of human experience is a confidence trick and the notion of a universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick.” – Angela Carter

“If Miss means respectably unmarried, and Mrs. respectably married, then Ms. means nudge, nudge, wink, wink.” – Angela Carter

“Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.” – Angela Carter

“We do not go to bed in single pairs; even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our whole biographies / all the bits and pieces of our unique existences.” – Angela Carter

“Pornography is a satire on human pretensions.” – Angela Carter, the Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography

“There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.” – Angela Carter

“Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I wil become as small as my own reflection, I will diminish to a point and vanish. I will be drawn down into that black whirlpool and be consumed by you. I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty.” ― Angela Carter, The Erl-King

“I speak as if he had no secrets from me. Well, then, you must know I was suffering from love and I knew him as intimately as I knew my own image in a mirror. In other words, I knew him only in relation to myself.” ― Angela Carter, Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories

“When I’d first loved him, I wanted to take him apart, as a child dismembers a clockwork toy, to comprehend the inscrutable mechanics of its interior.” – Angela Carter

“I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.” ― Angela Carter, Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation” – Angela Carter

She was like a piano in a country where everyone has had their hands cut off.” – Angela Carter

“All artists, they say, are a little mad. This madness is, to a certain extent, a self-created myth designed to keep the generality away from the phenomenally close-knit creative community. Yet, in the world of the artists, the consciously eccentric are always respectful and admiring if those who have the courage to be genuinely a little mad.”
― Angela Carter, Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories

…and best of all

“I would really like to have had the guts and the energy and so on to be able to write about, you know, people having battles with the DHSS. But I haven’t. They’re dull things. I mean, I’m an arty person. OK, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So f**king what?” – Angela Carter

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