The Ease of Hard Work: Embodied Neoliberalism among Rocky Mountain Fun Runners

  • Jessie K. LunaEmail author


In contemporary Western countries, thin, fit, and “healthy” bodies operate as important markers of social status. This paper draws together Foucauldian and Bourdieusian literatures on this topic to investigate how “embodied neoliberalism” (internalized individualism and self-responsibility) intersects with performances of “embodied cultural capital” (high-status markers used to create social distinction). Through an ethnographic case study of upper-middle class white “Fun Runners” in Boulder, Colorado, I ask how people with culturally valued thin, fit bodies enact social status and produce exclusion in an interactional setting. My findings challenge a straightforward translation of “hard work” into status, as we might expect based on neoliberal discourse. Instead, I argue that runners engage in two simultaneous (seemingly paradoxical) forms of boundary work: First, they perform hard work, discipline, and deservingness – drawing boundaries against those who do not engage in the work of bodily discipline; Second, they perform ease and fun – drawing boundaries against those who lack the habitus to make this work appear easy and natural. I contend that the resulting performance of the “ease of hard work” makes the status of thin, fit bodies appear both earned and natural, a doubly effective means of producing exclusion and legitimizing status. These findings reveal that embodied neoliberalism intersects with race and class-based habitus, while also shedding light on how people in privileged positions claim to “deserve” their status through narratives of color-blind meritocracy despite evidence of structural inequalities.


Cultural capital Healthism Fitness Boundary work Meritocracy Color-blindness 



This paper has benefitted immensely from close readings and feedback from Jill Harrison, Mathieu Desan, Sanyu Mojola, Christina Sue, Amy Wilkins, Isaac Reed, Leslie Irvine, Jennifer Pace, Aaron Johnson, Andrew Gutierrez, Jamie Vickery, Laurent Cilia, as well as incisive comments from anonymous reviewers. Earlier versions of this paper were also improved through conversations at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association and the American Association of Geographers. Completion of this paper was supported by a writing grant from the American Association of University Women.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

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