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.