Kim Chernin, a feminist author and counselor who wrote with compassion about female body dysmorphia and its cultural causes, as well as her own upbringing as the daughter of a fiery Communist organizer jailed for her beliefs, died on Dec. 17 at a hospital in Marin County, Calif. She was 80.
The cause was Covid-19, said her wife, Renate Stendhal.
Ms. Chernin’s mother was Rose Chernin, a labor organizer and Communist Party leader, convicted, with others, in the McCarthy era of attempting to overthrow the government (The government would also try, twice, to deport her to her native Russia). In 1957, in a landmark case, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions, ruling that merely encouraging people to believe a certain doctrine was not a crime.
It was a seismic moment for the country, and for Rose’s daughter, who wrestled to define herself in relationship to her mother — the “Red Leader,” as the newspapers liked to call Rose — instilling in the younger Ms. Chernin a lifelong aversion to media and publicity.
In 1980, Ms. Chernin was an unpublished poet when Ticknor & Fields bought her book, “The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness.” (The manuscript, seven years in the making, had already been rejected by 13 publishers.)
Anorexia and bulimia were little-discussed disorders at the time; on college campuses, however, there was an emerging crisis among young women, and when Ms. Chernin’s book appeared, she became a sought-after speaker on television and on college campuses. The book, which had a limited first print run, sold out quickly.
“Obsession” was the first of what would be a trilogy about women’s appetites and identity. In it, Ms. Chernin wrote of her own obsession with her weight and her attempts to equate food with nurturing, and used a variety of lenses — cultural, feminist, anthropological, spiritual and metaphorical — to explore why so many women felt alienated from their bodies.
“Many of life’s emotions — from loneliness to rage, from a love of life to a first falling in love — can be felt as appetite,” she wrote. “And some would explain the obsession with weight in these easy, familiar terms. But there are deeper levels of understanding to plumb. That night, for example, standing in front of the refrigerator, I realized that my hunger was for larger things, for identity, for creativity, for power, for a meaningful place in society. The hunger most women feel, which drives them to eat more than they need, is fed by the evolution and expression of self.”
She argued that the physical ideal for an American woman was a man’s body — lean and wiry, rather than soft and rounded — and if that was so, she asked, what did that say about society?
“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 turns an apparently trivial subject inside out to reveal unacknowledged attitudes and prejudices. We Americans probably do worry far too much about fat and its appearance. Perhaps Miss Chernin is right when she argues that the problem is not the shallowness of our perceptions, but rather, the depth of our feelings.”
Elaine Kusnitz, known as Kim, was born on May 7, 1940, in the Bronx. Her father, Paul Kusnitz, was a structural engineer educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; her mother, Rose (Chernin) Kusnitz, who went by her maiden name, had graduated early from high school and worked in a factory to support her parents and sisters.
Both Kim’s parents were Russian-born and committed Marxists, and before Kim’s birth returned for a time to Russia, where Mr. Kusnitz worked on plans for the Moscow subway.
When Kim was 4, her older sister and caregiver, Nina, died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Rose moved the family to Los Angeles and began working as an organizer there, championing farm workers and also housing rights for her Black and Latino neighbors.
Kim grew up attending Communist Party rallies, at first in her stroller. From a young age, she read Marx, Lenin and accounts of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine Black teenagers falsely accused of rape in Alabama. Kim fought bitterly with her mother, whom she also revered.
At the Yiddish school sponsored by a left-wing Jewish organization she briefly attended, Kim quacked like a duck when spoken to in that language. Yet when her mother was imprisoned for five months when she was 11, she was disconsolate. And when she wrote her 1983 memoir, “In My Mother’s House,” weaving her own story with her mother’s biography, she captured her mother’s distinctive, Yiddish-inflected voice, “You want to fly? Grow wings. You don’t like the way things are? Tell a story.”
Ms. Chernin studied English at the University of California, Berkeley, where she met, married and quickly divorced, David Netboy, with whom she had a daughter, Larissa, who survives her. Her marriage to Robert Cantor also ended in divorce, after which she took her mother’s maiden name as her own, as did Larissa.
Ms. Chernin met Ms. Stendhal, a journalist and author, at a cafe in Paris. Together since 1985, the couple married in 2014. They were collaborators and editors of each other’s writing, the co-authors of, among other works, “Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Forever Kit.”
After “Obsession,” Ms. Chernin published nearly 20 books, but her distaste for publicity and marketing grew as she grew older, said Ms. Stendhal, and her last writings were donated directly to her archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.
Ms. Chernin, who was in psychoanalysis for 25 years and began counseling women with eating disorders after “Obsession” came out, earned her doctorate, as did Ms. Stendhal, in the mid-1990s in spiritual psychology, which blends spiritual teachings of all faiths with conventional psychotherapy.
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