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. Like religion, secularism is something negotiated, embodied, and mediated, and while it is often perceived and analyzed on the scale of populations, when women participate in weight loss cultures they enact and embody “the secular” on the scale of the everyday. By analyzing the nature of the “secular” and the “religious” through the lens of body management, my research considers how women’s practices of weight management have become cultural techniques for producing and replicating America’s particular protestant-informed secularism.
In my dissertation, I explore how women’s bodies mediate perceived tensions between “religion” and “secularism” through techniques of weight loss from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twenty-first. I utilize insights from new materialist theory and affect theory to argue that women’s practices of weight management produce and replicate protestant-informed secularism in their daily, seemingly mundane interactions with their bodies. In order to highlight the entanglements of religion, secularism, culture, gender, and bodies, I offer three case studies of different body management trends in American history that correspond with key shifts in American public life.
My first case study profiles one of the earliest American dieting cultures–the water cure. Through an analysis of this trend’s primary periodical Water-Cure Journal (published between 1845 and 1857), I trace 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. My second case study analyzes two specific religious weight loss movements–The Weigh Down Diet and The Daniel Plan, which emerged toward the end of the twentieth century alongside the modern evangelical Christian lifestyle industry. Because these movements appeared at two slightly different moments in the evolution of modern faith-based weight loss culture, I offer 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. My final case study explores a contemporary iteration of American weight loss–the pro-ana movement, which emerged alongside the rise of digital technology and widespread internet usage at the turn of the twenty-first century. Through an analysis of interactions and posted material collected from online pro-ana forums and sites, I explore how the proana movement disrupts delineations between “religion” and “secularism” in the twenty-first century arguing that the bodily techniques of the pro-ana movement actually highlight the continued and persistent entanglements of “secularism” and “religion” today.
This project makes contributions to three bodies of scholarly literature: religious studies, cultural studies, and histories of American dieting cultures. First, my 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, I offer 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, my work contributes to the growing body of literature that addresses the history and evolution of American weight loss culture and diet reform, which I supplement 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, my 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.
As a precursor to this work, I collaborated with two others on a paper, “Spreading the Religion of Thinness from California to Calcutta: A Critical Feminist Postcolonial Analysis” which appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. In this paper, we engaged with a critical feminist postcolonial analysis to explore the neocolonial dynamics of the spread of western conceptualizations of femininity to the two-thirds world. Drawing on research about the growing influence of the Euro-American idealization of thinness on women in the global South, we analyzed the missionary-colonizing aspects of the globalization of American culture’s devotion to thinness, highlighting its commercial underpinnings and implicitly racist subtext. Ultimately, we argued that the globalization of western beauty standards illustrates the extent to which women’s bodies continue to function as primary sites of contact, conflict, and colonization in the process of Western expansion.
Recently, based on my dissertation research, I presented a paper entitled “Networked Anorexia: Pro-Ana Communities, Network Logic, and the Internet” at the 2018 bi-annual conference of the International Society for Religion, Media, and Culture. This year’s ISMRC conference has also inspired a special issue of the Journal of Religion, Media, and Digital Culture to which I am submitting a journal article abstract for consideration. I will also be presenting 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. Additionally, I am currently working on an essay for Religion Compass on religion, secularism, and weight loss culture in America that summarizes the state of this fairly new area in religious studies. Finally, I have a forthcoming review of Pamela Klassen’s The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indigenous Land and a previously published review of Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power in Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief.
Overall, my work is an interdisciplinary engagement with broader 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 studies by shifting the primary unit of analysis from populations to the individual and how the individual body negotiates, embodies, and mediates “the secular” and “the religious” through daily actions and behaviors.