Dissertation Abstract


Embodied Covenants: Women, Weight Loss, and American Secularism

Because concepts like religion and secularism are typically assumed to be politically neutral, even natural, it can be challenging to parse the ways in which Protestantism and secularism are deeply entangled. The persistent presence of Protestant ideologies in American secularism manifests 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 broad 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.

Indeed, it is everyday behaviors at the site of the body that most vitalizes and entrenches Protestant commitments to values like individualism, self-control, and voluntarism in contemporary public life by subtly infusing seemingly secular and mundane practices–like weight management–with their timbre. This obfuscation is unlike the ways we see Protestant values reified in seemingly secular institutional structures, which can be more easily named, analyzed, and even challenged. The enfleshment of secularized Protestant values lodges the particular secularism of the United States in the daily practices that sustain–or diminish–life and liveliness. “Embodied Covenants: Women, Weight Loss, and American Secularism” explores how women’s practices of weight management in the United States constitute an embodied contemporary secularism shaped by Protestant values and ideologies.

Highlighting the entanglements of religion, secularism, culture, technology, and bodies, this project explores American weight loss cultures in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I pay particular attention to cultural themes, technological advances, and sustained Protestant ideologies through the lens of three specific expressions of weight loss culture: socio- medical discourses concerning fat in the 1980s; the rise of nutrigenetics in the 1990s; and the emergence of the pro-ana movement at the turn of the twenty-first century. Taken together, these case studies demonstrate how techniques of weight loss sustain a persistent Protestant ideological hegemony in American secularism.

While weight loss publics have a long history in the United States, it was not until the 1980s that the rising incidence of both eating disorders and obesity became matters of widespread public concern. Body regulation intensified as a new coalition between evangelical Christianity and American politics emerged in the form of the Moral Majority and the subsequent election of Ronald Reagan whose social and economic policies exacerbated negative attitudes towards the body. Nationwide distress over diet and exercise peaked with the release of the ubiquitous “Food Guide Pyramid” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992. My first case study considers how the particular anxieties of the eighties–a decade often associated with excess and greed–are reflected in the national sentiment towards fat, which was characterized as a burdensome, excisable substance that could be eliminated from the body with the right diet plan.

By the mid-nineties, scientists, mining human biology on ever smaller scales, had started making significant strides in mapping the human genome while, at the same time, engineers were developing increasingly powerful microprocessors, which 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 second 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, the rise of digital technology and widespread internet usage in the United States had facilitated the formation of online communities devoted to alternative approaches to eating disorders. Pro-ana is an online community that shares resources that support the progression and maintenance of eating disorders. By participating in group activities that affirm commitments to success, control, and perfection, anas, or pro-ana community members, translate bodily practices in offline space into digitally mediated relationships online. My third case study offers an interpretative account of the pro-ana movement as it recycles Protestant- informed American secularism through performances of individualism, self-control, and mastery appropriately communicated in a self-selected group setting.

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 culture in the United States. It is not arbitrary or insignificant that Protestant values are recycled and reinvented in contemporary weight loss movements. 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.