Kim Chernin, Who Wrote About Women, Weight and Identity, Dies at 80


Kim Chernin, a feminist writer and counselor who wrote compassionately about female body dysmorphism and its cultural causes, and about her own upbringing as the daughter of a fiery communist organizer incarcerated for her belief, died on December 17 in a Marin County hospital , California. She was 80 years old.

The cause was Covid-19, said her wife Renate Stendhal.

Ms. Chernin’s mother was Rose Chernin, a labor organizer and Communist Party leader who, along with others, was convicted during the McCarthy era for attempting to overthrow the government (the government would also try twice to deport her to her native Russia ). In a landmark case in 1957, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ruled that it was not a crime to merely encourage people to believe a certain doctrine.

It was a seismic moment for the country and for Rose’s daughter struggling to define herself in relation to her Mother – the “Red Leader”, as the newspapers liked to call Rose – instill a lifelong aversion to the media and public relations in the younger Ms. Chernin.

In 1980, Ms. Chernin was an unpublished poet when Ticknor & Fields purchased her book, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. (The seven-year manuscript has already been rejected by 13 publishers.)

Anorexia and bulimia were little discussed diseases at the time; However, there was an emerging crisis among young women on the college campus, and when Ms. Chernin’s book appeared she became a sought-after speaker on television and on the college campus. The book, which had a limited edition, sold out quickly.

“Obsession” was the first of a trilogy about women’s appetite and identity. In it, Ms. Chernin wrote of her own obsession with weight and her attempts to equate food with care, and used a variety of lenses – cultural, feminist, anthropological, spiritual, and metaphorical – to find out why so many women felt alienated from hers Body.

“Many of the emotions in life – from loneliness to anger, from love for life to falling in love – can be experienced as appetites,” she wrote. “And some would explain the obsession with weight in these simple, familiar terms. But there are deeper levels of understanding to guide. That night, for example, when I was standing in front of the refrigerator, I realized that my hunger was for bigger things, for identity, for creativity, for power and for a meaningful place in society. The hunger that most women experience, which leads them to eat more than they need, is satisfied through self-development and expression. “

She argued that the physical ideal for an American woman is a man’s body – rather slim and wiry than soft and round – and if so, she asked, what did that say about society?


Jan. 3, 2021, 5:36 p.m. ET

“There is a poetic truth at the heart of ‘The Obsession’,” wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his New York Times review of the book in 1981. “Eloquently written, passionate in its rhetoric, and consistently absorbing, it becomes a seemingly trivial subject inside out to expose unconfirmed attitudes and prejudices. We Americans are probably far too worried about fat and its appearance. Perhaps Miss Chernin is right when she argues that the problem is not the superficiality of our perceptions but the depth of our feelings. “

Elaine Kusnitz, known as Kim, was born in the Bronx on May 7, 1940. Her father, Paul Kusnitz, was a civil engineer trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her mother, Rose (Chernin) Kusnitz, who carried her maiden name, had graduated from high school early and worked in a factory to support her parents and sisters.

Both of Kim’s parents were born in Russia and engaged in Marxists. Before Kim was born, he returned to Russia for some time, where Mr. Kusnitz was working on plans for the Moscow subway.

When Kim was 4 years old, her older sister and carer Nina died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Rose moved the family to Los Angeles and started working as an organizer. She campaigned for farm workers and housing rights for her black and Latin American neighbors.

Kim grew up attending Communist Party rallies, initially in her stroller. From a young age she read Marx, Lenin, and reports on the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in Alabama. Kim fought bitterly with her mother, who she also adored.

At the Yiddish school, which was sponsored by a left-wing Jewish organization, which she visited briefly, Kim quacked like a duck when she was spoken to in that language. But when her mother was imprisoned for five months at the age of eleven, she was desolate. And when she wrote her memoirs in 1983: “In my mother’s house”, in which she combined her own story with her mother’s biography, she recorded the unmistakable, Yiddish-influenced voice of her mother: “You want to fly? Grow wings. Don’t like things the way they are? To tell a story.”

Ms. Chernin studied English at the University of California at Berkeley, where she met, married and quickly divorced David Netboy, with whom she had a daughter, Larissa, who she survived. Her marriage to Robert Cantor also ended in divorce. After that, she took her mother’s maiden name as her own, as did Larissa.

Ms. Chernin met Ms. Stendhal, a journalist and author, in a café in Paris. The couple married since 1985. They were collaborators and editors of each other’s letter and co-author of, among others, “Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Forever Kit”.

After “Obsession,” Ms. Chernin published nearly 20 books, but her aversion to advertising and marketing increased with age, Ms. Stendhal said, and her latest writings were donated directly to her archive at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library.

Ms. Chernin, who was in psychoanalysis for 25 years and began counseling women with eating disorders after the publication of “Obsession”, did her doctorate in spiritual psychology, as did Ms. Stendhal, in the mid-1990s, which combines the spiritual teachings of all creeds with conventional psychotherapy .