Dissertation Abstract

Embodied Covenants: Gender, Body Management, and American Secularism

Protestant ideologies are persistently present and embedded in American secularism on every scale–from institutions to individuals. While a number of scholars have attended to America’s particular form of secularism as it circulates in institutions like law, politics, and economics, less attention has been paid to how individuals negotiate, embody, and integrate Protestant-informed secularism in their daily lives. “Embodied Covenants: Women, Body Management, and American Secularism” argues that it is everyday behaviors at the site of the body that vitalize and entrench Protestant commitments to values like individualism, self-control, and optimization in contemporary public life by subtly infusing seemingly secular and mundane practices–like weight management–with their timbre. Through a trio of case studies focused on entanglements of religion, secularism, culture, technology, and bodies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this project explores how practices of weight management in the United States constitute an embodied contemporary secularism shaped by Protestant values and ideologies.

During the nineties, scientists, mining human biology on ever smaller scales, started making significant strides in mapping the human genome. At the same time, engineers were developing increasingly powerful microprocessors that allowed computers to perform faster and more complex functions at lower costs to consumers, whose home computers were becoming increasingly networked. These dual developments–in computer technology and human genetics– inspired an interpretive framework towards the individual body as a unique biological system as well as a networked entity that could be analyzed–through the science of nutrigenetics–to produce a personalized nutrition plan suited to its particular biological makeup. My first case study considers the logics of nutrigenetics, grounded in individualism, optimization, and data analysis, and how these logics echo both Protestant ideology and its emphasis on the internal worlds of individual believers as well as a Cartesian dualism that understands the human subject as capable of controlling the flesh through sustained effort and analysis.

By the turn of the century, rising interest in digital technology and flourishing internet usage in the United States had facilitated the formation of online pro-ana communities where resources supporting the progression and maintenance of eating disorders were being shared and circulated. Through group and individual activities affirming commitments to success, control, and perfection, anas, or pro-ana community members, translate bodily practices in offline space into digitally mediated performances of ana values online. By considering the nature of contemporary secularism through the lens of the pro-ana community, my second case study analyzes how women’s participation in the movement’s rhetorics and practices contribute to the constitution of an embodied contemporary secularism shaped by Protestant values and ideologies, and how this enfleshment lodges the particular secularism of the United States in the daily practices that sustain–or diminish–life and liveliness in individual, gendered bodies.

Today, a number of notable Silicon Valley tech types are forgoing the luxuries their paychecks afford them in order to experiment with “intermittent fasting,” a contemporary biohacking trend that seeks to optimize the body to increase health, productivity, and lifespan through abstaining from food, and sometimes drink, for specified amounts of time. Practitioners like Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey and former Evernote CEO Phil Libin are disciples of a neo-stoic lifestyle promoted by “life hacker,” entrepreneur, and bestselling author Tim Ferriss whose self-help empire aims to teach consumers how to achieve their personal and professional goals utilizing as little time and effort as possible. My third case study analyzes the rhetorics and practices of biohacking in the twenty-first century to reveal not only the bedrock of inequality upon which the movement is built–with its reliance on both racist and sexist science as well as its economic bias–but, more broadly, how it perpetuates Protestant privilege in the United States by reinforcing commitments to Protestant values and ideologies. This privileging of particular bodies and practices transcends denominational commitments and works to universalize Protestant ways of inhabiting the body in seemingly secular ways.

Offering important interventions in religious studies, cultural studies, and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, this project makes plain the ways in which secularism is embodied in American weight loss cultures and thus corrects a longstanding disregard for the bodily techniques that sustain public life in the United States. It is not arbitrary or insignificant that Protestant values are constituted, recycled and reinvented in contemporary weight loss movements. Indeed, the continued, daily performances of these values at the site of the body demonstrates how hegemonic Protestant ideologies are sustained and fortified through everyday, seemingly secular, rhetorics and practices.