A stubborn, persistent presence of Protestant ideologies is embedded in contemporary American secularism manifesting 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. My research explores how everyday behaviors at the site of the body 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 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, my dissertation entitled “Embodied Covenants: Women, Weight Loss, and American Secularism” explores how practices of weight management in the United States constitute an embodied contemporary secularism shaped by Protestant values and ideologies. My first case study considers the logics of nutrigenomics, 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. My second case study explores the pro-ana movement, an online community that shares resources that support the progression and maintenance of eating disorders, offering an interpretive account that considers how this movement recycles Protestant-informed American secularism through performances of individualism, self-control, and mastery appropriately communicated in a self-selected group setting. Finally, my third case study considers how contemporary performances of biohacking trends like intermittent fasting not only privilege populations with access to sexist and racist science in addition to the capital to invest in biohacking technologies but, more broadly, how biohacking perpetuates Protestant privilege in the United States by reinforcing commitments to Protestant values and ideologies at the site of the body.
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. 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.
In 2018, I presented a paper entitled “Networked Anorexia: Pro-Ana Communities, Network Logic, and the Internet” at the biennial conference of the International Society for Religion, Media, and Culture [ISMRC], which inspired a special issue of the Journal of Religion, Media, and Digital Culture to which I am contributing an article entitled “Networked Anorexia: ProAna Communities, Secularism, and the Internet.” I also presented a paper entitled “Uploading the Body; Embodying the Online: Bodies, Digital Space, and the Pro-Ana Movement” for the Religion, Affect, and Emotion Unit at the 2018 annual American Academy of Religion conference. Finally, an essay I submitted to Religion Compass on religion, secularism, and weight loss culture in America that summarizes the state of the field in this fairly new area in religious studies has been accepted and is forthcoming.
My next research project will consider early nineteenth century American diet reform movements that flourished alongside the rapid urbanization, industrialization, and emergence of an identifiable print public in the United States. These movements not only linked body size with morality and connected body regulation to the rise of American consumer culture but also worked to establish hierarchies of race, sexuality, gender, and class. While much of the work on early American weight loss movements has centered on Sylvester Graham and his followers, I am interested in exploring another trend–the water cure, a movement that was largely dominated by women in the United States. Most hydropathic spas were run by women and functioned as epicenters for dress reform, temperance, and the women’s rights movement–indeed the first National Dress Reform Association meeting was held at the Glenhaven Water-Cure. Through an analysis of this trend’s primary periodical Water-Cure Journal (published between 1845 and 1857), I will trace changing attitudes toward the body in light of the personal ads it ran that included height and weight specifications for prospective partners. Because other preferences like political orientation and religious affiliation were also listed, I expect to find evidence of shifting attitudes about religion as well. A careful reading and analysis of the Water-Cure Journal will likely offer important interventions in our understanding of evolving orientations not only toward the body but also towards religion, spirituality, and the increasingly “secular” imperative to count calories from the mid to late nineteenth century.
Broadly, my work is an interdisciplinary engagement with themes concerning Protestantism and secularism in America; critical theory and religion; religion, food, and the body; and gender, religion, and culture. I am committed to exploring how gender, religion, and secularism intersect in mundane, everyday practices at the site of women’s bodies. This commitment offers an important contribution to the fields of religious studies, cultural studies, and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies by shifting the primary unit of analysis from populations to the individual and how the individual, gendered body negotiates, embodies, and mediates “the secular” and “the religious” through daily actions and behaviors.