Dissertation Abstract


Embodied Secularism: Protestant Secularism, Bodies, and American Weight Loss Culture

While calorie counting seems an utterly secular and mundane practice in the United States, body management has historically been a weighty matter with moral consequences. According to biblical mythology, humanity’s fall from grace was precipitated by a woman eating, after all. By analyzing the nature of “the secular” and “the religious” through the lens of body management, this study considers how women’s practices of weight management have become cultural techniques for producing and replicating protestant secularism.

Protestant secularism denotes a consolidated, pervasive protestant ideology, defined by individualism, self-control, voluntarism, and the primacy of textuality that continues to inform American secularism today. Arguing that there was nothing inevitable or natural about the consolidation of protestant ideology into the American religio-political landscape, scholars like Tracy Fessenden, Winnifred Sullivan, Janet Jakobsen, and Ann Pellegrini analyze the ways in which protestantism has informed American secularism, both historically and today. This hegemonic protestant entrenchment appears, for example, in the nurturing of American citizensubjects in early tax-supported public school systems, in legal definitions of religion that protect mainstream institutionalized protestantism without protecting the variable lived religious practices of non-protestants, and in how the dominant model of secularism, tied to marketreformed protestantism, represents a hegemonic political project that seeks to export its form of market rationality elsewhere. While previous scholarship in this area tends to analyze American secularism on the scale of populations, this project shifts the primary unit of analysis from populations to the individual and how the individual negotiates, embodies, and mediates “the secular” and “the religious” by participating in American weight loss cultures.

When women participate in weight loss cultures they enact and embody “the secular” and “the religious” on the scale of the everyday. This study demonstrates how bodies act as materialdiscursive sites mediating perceived tensions between “religion” and “secularism” through bodily techniques of weight loss. New materialist theory and affect theory productively intersect at the site of the body and inform this project’s approach to American weight loss cultures as entanglements of agential affective forces, space, bodies, and other matter(s) congealing at the site of bodies performing the techniques prescribed by these very weight loss cultures.

This project maps this entanglement from 1800 through 2015 coalescing around three specific moments. First it considers early nineteenth century American weight watchers like Sylvester Graham and his followers, who represent the first iteration of an American weight loss public. This first case study profiles one of the earliest American dieting cultures–the water cure–which often supplemented grahamite convictions in its practitioners. Most hydropathic spas were run by women and functioned as epicenters of dress reform, temperance, and the women’s rights movement. Through an analysis of this trend’s primary periodical Water-Cure Journal (published between 1845 and 1857), this project traces changing attitudes toward the body, particularly in light of the personal ads it ran that included height and weight specifications for prospective partners. This analysis reveals shifting attitudes about the body as well as evolving orientations towards religion, spirituality, and the increasingly “secular” imperative to count calories.

Second, this project analyzes twentieth century devotional fitness cultures, appearing as part of the modern evangelical Christian lifestyle industry, to highlight how these contemporary weight loss movements re-imagine themselves in light of the seemingly secular weight loss trends of the mid-twentieth century. This second case study analyzes two specific movements–The Weigh Down Diet and The Daniel Plan. Because these two movements appeared at two slightly different moments in the evolution of modern faith-based weight loss culture, this project offers a comparison to reveal shifting themes and commitments in devotional diet cultures that mirror similar developments in non-devotional diet cultures. This mirroring is not the result of one trend mimicking the other but is rather the result of shared origins in protestant secular bodily techniques.

Finally, this project explores a contemporary iteration of American weight loss–the proana movement, which emerged alongside the rise of digital technology and widespread internet usage in the late twentieth century. Pro-ana is an online community that rejects treatment-based approaches to eating disorders and often utilizes religious concepts and categories to define and frame its members’ devotion to weight loss. Through an analysis of interactions and posted material collected from online pro-ana forums and sites, this project explores how the proana movement disrupts delineations between “online” and “offline” space, between “religion” and “media” and challenges how “religion” and “secularism” are defined in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the bodily techniques of the pro-ana movement highlight the continued and persistent entanglements of “secularism” and “religion” at the site of the body.

By offering interpretative accounts of three key moments in American dieting history, this dissertation contributes to ongoing conversations in religious studies, cultural studies, and histories of weight loss in the United States by highlighting how protestantism and secularism are not simply concepts but also embodied practices. First, this analysis highlights that protestantism and secularism are as embodied as they are textual and thus corrects a longstanding disregard for the bodily techniques that sustain public culture in the United States. Second, by mobilizing new materialisms and affect theory, this project offers a robust account of the gendered body in contemporary dieting culture and how these dieting bodies contribute to the creation of broader political formations. Finally, this project contributes to the growing body of literature that addresses the history and evolution of American weight loss culture and diet reform by offering a fresh interpretation of three key moments in that history that highlight shifting trends in protestant secularism in the United States more broadly. Ultimately, this project explores how body management itself–regardless of whether or not it is framed as religious or secular–is both the product of protestant secular entanglements as well as the means for their replication.