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.
Your wife, Renate Stendahl, said the cause was Covid-19.
Ms. Chernin’s mother was Rose Chernin, a labor organizer and Communist Party leader who was convicted with others 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, who struggled to define herself in relation to her mother – the “Red Leader,” as the newspapers liked to call Rose – and instilled a lifelong dislike for the younger Mrs. Chernin Advertising.
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 Chernin was an unpublished poet when Ticknor & Fields purchased her book The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness.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 was 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 about her own obsession with weight and her attempts to equate food with care. She used a variety of lenses – cultural, feminist, anthropological, spiritual, and metaphorical – to discover why so many women felt alienated from their bodies.
“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 was a man’s body – lean and wiry, not 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 1981 New York Times review of the book. “Eloquently written, passionate in its rhetoric and consistently receptive, it becomes a seemingly trivial subject from the inside out to uncover 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, using 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 Russian-born Jews and committed Marxists. Before Kim was born, they 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 began working as an organizer to advocate farm labor and housing rights for their 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 memoir “In My Mother’s House” in 1983, in which she interwoven her own story with that of her mother, she recorded her mother’s unmistakable, Yiddish-influenced voice: “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 David Netboy. The two were married, had a daughter, Larissa, who she survived, and soon divorced. 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. They married together since 1985 in 2014. They were, among other things, collaborators and editors of each other’s letter and co-authors of “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 in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.
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 .