Choosing health: embodied neoliberalism, postfeminism, and the “do-diet”

Abstract

Feminist scholars have long demonstrated how women are constrained through dieting discourse. Today’s scholars wrestle with similar themes, but confront a thornier question: how do we make sense of a food discourse that frames food choices through a lens of empowerment and health, rather than vanity and restriction? This article addresses this question, drawing from interviews and focus groups with women (N = 100), as well as health-focused food writing. These data allow us to document a postfeminist food discourse that we term the do-diet. The do-diet reframes dietary restrictions as positive choices, while maintaining an emphasis on body discipline, expert knowledge, and self-control. Our analysis demonstrates how the do-diet remediates a tension at the heart of neoliberal consumer culture: namely, the tension between embodying discipline through dietary control and expressing freedom through consumer choice. With respect to theory, our analysis demonstrates how the embodied dimensions of neoliberalism find gendered expression through postfeminism. We conclude that the do-diet heightens the challenge of developing feminist critiques of gendered body ideals and corporeal surveillance, as it promises a way of eating that is both morally responsible and personally empowering.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Neoliberalism is a contested term, but can be used in a specific way to refer to a discursive context where market-culture is valorized, state responsibility is minimized, and individual responsibility is prioritized. As a political-economic ideology, neoliberalism came into vogue in the late 1970s and spread rapidly thereafter (see Harvey 2005). Today, it is understood to have important implications for a sociology of daily life (e.g., MacKendrick 2010).

  2. 2.

    The equation of fat bodies with poor health has been widely critiqued. See LeBesco (2011), Guthman (2011), Campos et al (2006) and Burgard’s (2009) account of “health at every size.” For a critical realist analysis of the obesity “epidemic,” see Patterson and Johnston (2012).

  3. 3.

    Prior studies of governmentality have demonstrated the regulatory power of neoliberalism (e.g., Rose 1999), however this stream of scholarship has been criticized for an overly deterministic conception of the neoliberal subject that creates totalizing accounts of corporeal surveillance and discipline (Barnett et al. 2008; Brenner 1994).

  4. 4.

    While our focus is on the links among health, diet, and femininity, we acknowledge that masculinities are also governed through health discourses that include a concern for physical appearance (e.g., Crawshaw 2007; Beagan et al. 2015, pp. 129–133).

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful for the feedback Ali Rodney and Deborah McPhail provided on previous drafts of this article, as well as the contributions made by Katelin Albert, Merin Oleschuck, Kerstin Giannini, and Elizabeth Lun. The idea of the “Foucault Machine” originally emerged out of conversations between Kate and her brother, James Cairns, and we are thankful for the contribution he made to this early conceptualization. Finally, we want to thank Mike Goodman and David Goodman for encouraging us to write a book on Food and Femininity, and for providing continued support, feedback, and insight throughout this process.

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Correspondence to Kate Cairns.

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Cairns, K., Johnston, J. Choosing health: embodied neoliberalism, postfeminism, and the “do-diet”. Theor Soc 44, 153–175 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-015-9242-y

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Keywords

  • Dieting discourse
  • Food choice
  • Food consumption
  • Corporeal control
  • Femininity