Professor Carol-Ann Farkas is professor of English and Director of the Bachelor of Arts Program in Health Humanities at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Boston, USA.
- From the wellness magazine to social media ‘content’
- The democratic paradox of internet
- We aren’t enough… but for what?
- The discourse of healthism
- Can body positivity save us all?
- From individual healthism to social justice
IN THIS ARTICLE:
The knowledge to promote and maintain the health of the body is not esoteric lore, possessed by a few; rather, there is “tons of useful stuff” that we can all draw upon to promote individual and group power instead of powerlessness, greater liberation instead of continued docility and obedience to hegemonic authority. With the proliferation of health information in…[the wellness…media of] popular culture, our ability to educate ourselves might result not in increased hypochondriacal neurosis, but in increased expertise that will allow us to critically assess our institutions of power to see how deeply flawed they are, how poorly qualified they are to be dictating the terms of our wellness, and how necessary and possible it is for us to be become involved with efforts for change….[R]aising our individual level of awareness, knowledge, and expertise, may take us from advocating the wellness of our own bodies to working together to improve the wellness of the body politic.Farkas, 2010, 128.
When I wrote those words in 2010, I didn’t expect to be revisiting them twelve years later. At the time, feminist scholars had done a great deal of cogent, insightful, scholarship to deconstruct the oppressiveness of fitness and beauty standards in western culture. I remember thinking that, surely, we’d solved it: obviously the obsession with being pretty, fit, and thin was a construction of the patriarchy, a means for oppressing and limiting us. If we’re busy dieting, exercising, and buying beauty products to disguise our flaws, we don’t have the time and energy to question the workings of patriarchy and capitalism, never mind actually organise and overthrow those systems. Through a Foucouldian process of internalised surveillance and discipline, we do the work of hegemonic Power to police our own bodies and desires, to keep ourselves distracted, hungry, and small.
Obviously, I thought then, making this insidious phenomenon apparent would be the path to liberation. Women would wake up, and with raised consciousness, organise to subvert and refuse oppression. Job done. Easy.
From the wellness magazine to social media ‘content’
The popular discourse of beauty, fitness, and wellness has changed tremendously in recent years. It used to be that wellness magazines – in the US, Self, Shape, Fitness, Women’s Health, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan – were where we looked for what we now call “influence,” and our beauty and fitness regimes were shaped by those publications’ exclamatory headlines. The magazines could be relied upon to provide us with the latest, most vital information about exercise and nutrition, about how to “get a better beach body by June!” and “torch calories without being hungry!” and “build muscle without fear of bulking up!”.
The wellness magazines had it down to an art, striking just the right tone to sound like our very best, most supportive friend, even as the constant insistence on the possibility of improvement ensured a constant anxiety about our failure to improve enough. (Nowadays, we call this gaslighting). And, just like you always want your best friends to do, when you’re feeling ill at ease, insufficiently glamorous, fit, healthy, or in shape, the magazines always had a NEW! product, outfit, diet, or workout, and all the newest and most essential gear. There was no problem you couldn’t discipline and shop your way out of.
A decade or so later, the fitness and beauty discourse has undergone significant changes in medium and genre. Say goodbye to the monthly issues of fitness and beauty magazines (most are extinct); say hello to the constant, non-stop inundation of information, exhortation, and commodification known as “content,” delivered to us via social media…And yet we’re as collectively seduced, distracted, and complicit as ever. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose….
The democratic paradox of internet
The internet and the rise of social media were supposed to set us free (wasn’t it?…), promising to take the power to disseminate information – and persuasion – out of the hands of media conglomerates and put it in the hands of regular people like you and me. We’d have crowd-sourced transparency and democratic access to information; consumers, voters, and patients would have as much power over knowledge as corporations, politicians, and medical experts. Blogs, microblogs, vlogs, posts, tweets, reels, and tiktoks would be our tools for resisting propaganda, advertising, and misinformation. The internet was going to help us find the cutest new shoes and mascara, plan our workouts, eat for zest, vitality, and weight loss…even as it would help us to also resist political and corporate tyranny.
Instead: far-right extremism and autocratic movements are on the rise; if “advice” is free, it is also overwhelming in its abundance and highly variable in its quality; the information that we need most still tends to be held behind paywalls and other forms of institutional control; and we’ve surrendered, not entirely consensually, most of our privacy to the same media giants who provide us with the neurotransmitter-stimulating content that absorbs increasing swaths of time and intellect.
And we still worry that we’re not pretty, thin, fit, or young…enough.
We aren’t enough… but for what?
Enough for what, though? Enough to satisfy our internalised awareness of western beauty standards, which are predicated on stubbornly-conservative assumptions about gender, class, and race, which in turn serve the interests of a capitalistic and patriarchal culture.
This pressure to be enough is fuelled by body shame, which Dolezal (2015) defines as
“shame that is centred on the body, where the subject believes their body to be undesirable or unattractive, falling short of social depictions of the ‘normal,’ the ideal or the socially acceptable body” (7). This concept of body shame is produced by ideological forces at the level of culture, but, shame being shame, we nevertheless experience our unsatisfiable desire and failure as unbearably individual, and feel an awareness of not being “normal” enough, as though we are not healthy enough. This is how ostensibly-healthy behaviour becomes what Crawford, in 1980, coined as “healthism,” a form of neo-liberal responsibilization of the self, “a goal that should be achieved through personal investment and commitment, […] an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance and self-restraint” (Spratt, 2021, 10).
The discourse of healthism
Nowadays, the discourse of healthism mingles “expert” biomedical knowledge and popular, self-help psychology, with fashion, fitness, and celebrity culture, disseminated through the fragmented and fragmenting channels of social media. The totems of healthism are defined by its taboos: what is healthiest for me is to set and meet my own goals for physical and emotional wellbeing. I’m reassured that whatever decisions I make around food, exercise, and self-presentation, I should only do what I need to be happy – which all seems liberatory enough… unless I can’t succeed, in which case, only I am responsible, for not being disciplined, or resourceful, or self-caring, or self-nurturing…enough.
To be caught up in the discourses and practices of healthism is to be caught up in a maddening, time-sucking trap of insufficiency, which works wonderfully to drive consumption (of expertise, of good and bad information, of commodities) and distract us from social critique and activism. And when we are enmeshed in the healthism discourse, it’s very hard to see any way out of it. The equation of
is insidiously, convincingly comprehensive. If I want to refuse any element of the equation, I risk being unhealthy, unbeautiful, possibly abnormal, definitely bad and shameful. When we look around us in the culture, we see (by design) that the rewards for obedience are high (ideally, the rewards break even with the costs of participating). It’s not always easy to find convincing evidence that refusal can be comparably socially or personally rewarding.
Can body positivity save us all?
And yet, the evidence is there. The same media that promulgate healthism make anti-healthism possible too. Feminist movements to resist the tyrannical conflation of fitness, diet, health, beauty, and worth have persisted amid a larger discourse of activism which has evolved alongside healthism. Notably, recent years have seen a tremendous increase in expressions of body positivity. It’s true, that the body-positive valorisation of “difference” inevitably implies something intractable about norms of beauty and health. The body-positivity discourse, moreover, isn’t ideologically pure (it would be suspicious if it were), and as such, is susceptible to a drift into co-optation, to become just another kind of neo-liberal healthism:
body-positivity via social [and popular] media tends to commoditize the body, with corporations ‘capitalizing off the movement’ by pushing diet and beauty products through influencers….promot[ing] the sexualization and commoditization of the female body, rather than raising awareness about the structures and systems (e.g., patriarchy) that fuel women’s body dissatisfaction….The lack of diversity in the individualist, selfie-oriented body-positivity movement has also been criticized.Jovanovsky and Jaeger, 2022, 3.
If healthism, as an ideological phenomenon, has as its purpose the disciplining of the “good/normal/healthy” body, that body – even in body-“positivity” – still tends to be tacitly understood to be white, cisgender, heterosexual, and middle or upper class. Social media are still full of healthist exhortations (automatically implying recrimination) to achieve enough by being less – less hungry, less big, less old, less wounded by emotional and physical insults.
from individual healthism to social justice
And yet: alongside the promises of reward for obedience and threats of shame and rejection for failure, we also find new discourses of body-positivity creating space for communities of difference. Where I see exciting potential, is where body-positivity intersects with discourses of social justice, going beyond mere feminism, to now include queer activism, anti-racism, disability and neurodivergent positivity, and indigenous ways of knowing. The disobedient, activist, liberating and liberatory body is increasingly queer in gender and sexuality, non-white, neurodivergent, and eager for social and political reformation.
Also heartening – even as popular media (increasingly synonymous with social media) fragments our attention and creates the illusion of neo-liberal individualism (where individual responsibility is inseparable from individual shame), that separation is just an illusion. The “social” piece of social media is a real tool that canbe used to create connection – a lesson that might be inimical to healthism but vitally inherent to the activism of intersectional social justice movements. The second-wave feminist mantra, “the personal is political” is still very much applicable:
the line between public (e.g., protest) and private sources of change (e.g., individual strategies such as rejecting beauty ideals), as well as personal and political forms of oppression, is often blurred. […] Many ‘awkward’ movements have advanced understandings of cultural forms of power and marginalization, and the significance of individual actions in blurring public and private forms of resistance.Jovanovski and Jaeger, 2022, 5
Larger, formal revolutionary movements can be understood as emerging from individual choices shared through relationships. As O’Shaughnessy and Kennedy explain, such “relational activism – or the ‘behind-the-scenes, private sphere, and community-building work performed primarily by women’ – fuels social movement building and subsequent long-term cultural and material change.”
Our activism might be decentralised, diffuse, and “awkward”, and yet, accumulated, mediated, and broadcast through our available social media, we can find influence through finding one another.
- Dolezal, L, (2015) The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism, and the Socially Shaped Body. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Farkas, C.A. (2010). “Tons of Useful Stuff”: Defining Wellness in Popular Magazines. Studies in Popular Culture, 33(1), 113-128.
- Jovanovski, N. & Jaeger T. (2022): Unpacking the ‘anti-diet movement’: domination and strategies of resistance. Social Movement Studies. DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2022.2070736
- O’Shaughnessy, S. O., & Kennedy, E. H. (2010). Relational activism: Reimagining women’s environmental work as cultural change. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 35(4), 551–572.
- Spratt, Tanisha (2021). Understanding “fat shaming” in a neoliberal era: performativity, healthism, and the UK’s “obesity epidemic”. Feminist Theory. pp. 1-16.