Posts Tagged With: Biopower

Transgressive Bodies and the Capitalization of Obesity

In 1978, psychotherapist Susie Orbach published a book about binge eating disorders titled, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.  Orbach gained her then-revolutionary status and popular credibility by and through working with stars like Princess Diana, but her book spoke directly to women as something of a prescriptive teaching tool: how NOT to fear being thin…how food is not “the enemy…”  This title no doubt homogenized all “fat” experiences to fit that particular mold of binge eating disorders; we know this to be untrue for a multitude of lived realities.  One book review understands the textual mission as that which is both healing to the corporeal form as it is to the psyche:

“By uncovering deeply held fears and beliefs, women can understand how they use food to fill emotional and psychological needs” (goodreads).

But could corporeal experiences really be that simple? That individual cognitive-behavioral/self-help therapy could fix, person by person, body by body? That women eat to feed their psychological hunger, and that psychological hunger is inwardly driven and self-derived? As an undergraduate being trained in the Sociological tradition, I tend to think that nothing is ever really that simple. Guest lecturer Melissa Campbell would agree with that sentiment, having made mention of those larger, structural forces at work in the complex social landscape that we call the good old USA. She brought up Orbach’s book last Thursday as a means by which to introduce certain theories surrounding the construction of self within and against differing notions of fat: fat is unrestrained consumption taking over the organismfat is an alien life form wrapped around the true self. And it’s THIS very concept that Orbach reproduces in her book, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.

Guest lecturer Melissa Campbell (@pluralisms) drew something like this on the board last Thursday, October 25, to represent the conflicting message of body/self derived from Susie Orbach’s book, FAT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

Campbell spoke to, “fat as a manifestation of societal pressures on women’s bodies and emotions,” as well as to the consequential visibility and invisibility of fat bodies: “not fat people, fat bodies.” In other words, we dehumanize people when we reduce them to their adipose tissue. Just google the hot button word, “obese,” and you’ll find countless headless bodies! Without faces, without identities: their humanity denied to them by the eye of we who gaze.

Indeed it is a very mechanical process: we numerize the calories in versus calories expended, we quantify pounds gained versus pounds lost. We measure behavioral successes and failures, which are morally-based, according to such empirical measures of body mass. This is, yet again, biopower hard at work, as discussed by Zoë C. Meleo-Erwin in her work on, “‘A beautiful show of strength’: Weight loss and the fat activist self.” Meleo-Erwin discusses obesity in those terms defined by our social culture: as risk as well as epidemic. Public health responses, generally signaled by the hyper-visibility of ‘excess’ adipose tissue, require certain “containment” like an ‘out of control disease’ (Meleo-Erwin). In her work on weight loss surgeries, Karen Throsby talks about the war on fat – which in turn can be interpreted as biopower’s war on deviant bodies.

But wait, why all this “waging war” on obesity? Where do these discursive powers stem from?

Underscoring biopower is an undeniable capitalist intent by hegemonic powers all throughout the State-financial nexus we call America. Over the past ten to fifteen years or so, media representations of fat bodies as bad & fat bodies as simultaneously sick or unhealthy have dominated the billboards, magazines and television screens – not as desirable images of fashion – but rather as forewarning images of transgression, deviance and monstrosity.

These messages are read to us LOUD and clear: obesity is badness, obesity is disease, stop the spread of obesity for the sake of public health. This analysis of fat bodies gets complicated by social class, race and gender, as women are often condemned as bad mothers if they are fat mothers; the implications of such being an unhealthy role model causing her children bodily harm via fatty foods and an unfit lifestyle. No one really ever seems to ask about fat father’s and their role in potentially ‘poisoning the seed(s).’ Historically, women have always come under harsh attack when children do not produce as good, capitalist citizens  no matter the context – it was her fault.

Public service announcements, reality television series, morning talk shows and news network coverage all capitalize on obesity as epidemic so as construct images of health as images of beauty. But at the very same time, we are saturated with media telling us to CONSUME, CONSUME, CONSUME! Beautiful people on television commercial advertisements bite into big, juicy, McDonald’s hamburgers but then TLC tells us, “Honey, We’re Killing The Kids.”

(I used to watch this show in Health class, both in Middle School as well as in High School); obesity rhetoric is also deployed as educational, as it simultaneously propels multimillion dollar industries, such as mass media as well as pharmaceuticals. Check out this interesting article, posted by Professor Daniels via Twitter, on “Why the ‘war on fat’ is a scam to peddle drugs.” But no matter the context, obesity rhetoric and representations of bodies in peril instruct the viewer how to read these discourses: fat bodies are the physical, material embodiment of hyper-consumption, which we are taught as good, passing citizens, to not only practice but to simultaneously hate as well.

But therein lies a contradiction of neoliberal proportions – fore we cannot trace a linear path from hard, ethical [body] work (i.e. diet and exercise) to weight loss, and furthermore to societal conceptions of beauty, just as we cannot trace a direct line from hard work to socioeconomic success, especially in the United States where freedom of opportunity does not translate into freedom of equality. How, then, are we to think freely residing under such conflicting discursive powers of governmentality?

It is imperative that we remain critical of biopower hard at work in its deployments of bodily regulation via media representations and public health rhetoric. Tracing the effects such discourses have on women’s bodies is key to contemporary feminist theory; those intersections of capital, class, race and gender are crucial to our understanding of how biopower operates and how it mobilizes itself so efficiently – as we are the mechanism by which bodies are policed.

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LiLo the Monster: Biopower Hard At Work

French social theorist Michel Foucault first coined the term “biopower” in his 1978 three-volume study of sexuality titled, The History of Sexuality.  Foucault was referring to the national-State practices of policing, regulating and moralizing bodies according to constructed ideals of so-called-good health and the ideal bodily form, that is no doubt racialized as it was gendered.  Furthermore, Foucault attributed such deployments of hegemonic discourse to the national-State desire for control over populations: “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies.”  Today when we talk about biopower, it is often not in reference to the governmentality of national States, but rather to the societal policing of one another and of selves.  Indeed, we are the mechanism by which hegemony gets produced and reproduced.  Need some evidence?  No problem!  Look no further than celebrity gossip blogs, magazine articles and news coverage of Lindsay Lohan (LiLo) and her infamous struggles with addiction.

Editor Jeffrey Jerome Cohen would have us believe that the public rise and fall of LiLo is nothing new.  His Monster Theory details numerous case and points in which cultural perceptions and expectations of transgression are imprinted onto the body of the monster.  In his article, he attempts to read cultures by and through the “monsters they engender” – meaning we designate the boundaries of what passes as acceptable and what gets demonized as monstrous.  Monstrosity has taken many forms throughout histories and throughout cultural contexts but one truth remains the same, Cohen warns us, that: “Monsters are our children,” in that they are our creations produced through our imaginations; “They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression.”  Monsters are telling in this way.

I have no doubt that we, as a society, have transformed celebrity identities into dialectical Others: embodying a larger than life quality and simultaneous monstrosity all at once.  It is against these constructions of monstrosity that we regulate ourselves.  We punish transgression in the form of public, online condemnation.  Celebrity online blogger, Perez Hilton, details [his take on] the chronology of LiLo’s various court dates, familial interactions and Tweets to fans – facilitating a forum through which his followers can then partake in comment wars, in which they contribute their own opinions and advice surrounding LiLo’s ‘addictions’ to “partying,” “drugs,” and “drinking [alcohol].”


Guest lecturer and Sociologist, Rebecca Tiger, traces public insistence upon two dueling conceptions of addition: 1.) “that addiction is a disease that should…be fixed” by punitive measures (i.e. incarceration and/or institutionalized rehabilitation), and 2.) “that addiction is a disease that…can’t…be fixed.”  So therein lies a paradox for those transgressive (i.e. addicted) bodies.  There is a simultaneous construction of addiction that embodies both badness as well as sickness.  These two manifestations of deviance work together in order to strengthen the call to biopower; the desire of knowledge and to control deviant bodies is what drives our online obsessions to ridicule the monster and to ultimately justify her imprisonment, as consequence of her wasted self.  Juxtaposed to these images of deviance are certain fetishized images of ‘good health’ as both a physical and moral state of superiority.  Indeed, we fetishize the so-called-natural body and, ironically, strive for it.  If something is natural, then why is it so darn difficult to obtain? Hmm…

These reproductions of biopower feed into the system that which exercises its surveillance power over populations.  This is the very same [American] system which has successfully incarcerated more people than any other industrialized national-State in the world, but has rather unsuccessfully done much of anything to STOP drug use.  Perhaps by punishing individuals, it has lost sight of those much larger, structural factors of society that are more truly to blame.  And of course when I say “it,” I mean that mechanism which we occupy – by which we govern.

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Shattered Illusions: ‘Intervention’ and How A&E Got Rich Off of Recovery

Do these faces look familiar?

These are the faces of A&E’s hit reality television series, Intervention.

Each of them are white and every one of them has their own story to tell, or rather has a version of their story told for them – by friends, family and the show’s network narrators. I have been watching this series on and off for a couple of years now. It is very intriguing and, needless to say, has brought its network (A&E) so much success, that can be measured in both dollars as well as credibility. In fact, Intervention reports a 70% success rate for its “participants” – using a method of intervention known as the Johnson style. This traditional model typically yields a 30% – 40% success rate, meaning that those who undergo one such style of intervention report sobriety one year after treatment. But the folks down at A&E have separate standards by which they measure success. In her lecture earlier today, Professor Daniels shared with our class that several people have died since their episode featured on A&E, but were counted as “successes” simply for having completed their 30-day-or-so treatments.

But aside from revealing those not-so-inspiring truths about Intervention’s so-called-success rates, Professor Daniels lecture and article on, “INTERVENTION: REALITY TV, WHITENESS, AND NARRATIVES OF ADDICTION,” did work to truly deconstruct those narratives told by A&E’s Intervention, exposing their representative biases. The show is predominantly heteronormative, in that it almost exclusively deals with heterosexual individuals – rarely featuring those identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Furthermore, the show is totally cisgender in that it has not featured transgender individuals or those identifying as genderqueer (i.e gender identities other than man or woman, which do not adhere to binary categories of cisgender normativity). In terms of sexual diversity, Intervention consistently ignores the wide ranging reality of sex-gender variance among ‘substance abusers’ alike.

So what are the dangers in framing representations solely along heteronormative lines? It occludes differences among what substances impact which communities (and how). It undermines the legitimacy of human variance. How can something (or someone) be regarded with any real validity if it (or s/he) continues to go unrecognized? But those blind spots (unfortunately) do not stop at sex, gender and/or sexuality. Intervention features [cisgender] men and women equally on their program – meaning 50% of the episodes feature men and 50% feature women. However, this seemingly non-biased representation of addiction is skewed. Real life statistics paint a very different picture pertaining to substance abuse and gender.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

  • Any use of alcohol is reported by 58% of males and only 48% of females
  • Binge drinking is reported by 31% of males and only 15% of females
  • Heavy alcohol use is reported by 11% of males and only 3% of females

In all cases, males accounted for more or heavier usage of alcohol, which just happens to be the predominant substance featured on A&E’s Intervention as the abused drug of choice. But in the case for alcohol consumption/abuse, women are being over-represented, as such 50/50 narratives of addiction do not properly mirror reality. Daniels further elaborates on such (mis)representations in her piece on, “INTERVENTION: REALITY TV, WHITENESS, AND NARRATIVES OF ADDICTION,” as she deconstructs the show’s deployment of medicalization, biopower, and governmentality. These Foucaultian buzz words indicate certain regulated processes of policing bodies that are racialized as they are gendered, according to strict standards of health and morality.

We have discussed some of the ways in which A&E’s Intervention disproportionately features women as addicts, and furthermore how the show systemically constructs a heteronormative binary world of just men and just women; failing to mirror reality on both accounts. Daniels also focuses on the series’ depiction of addiction as whiteness in crisis. That is, social privilege being wasted: “wasted whiteness,” as the show rarely features men and women of color. This works to reify certain punitive measures surrounding race and addiction that are present in society at large; that is to say that the State penal system punishes racial/ethnic minorities while “self-sufficient [white] citizens” are subjected to more “neoliberal regimes” of bodily regulation.

…whites make up 63.7% and Latinas/os make up 16.3% of the general U.S. population, 4 yet Latinas/os only appear as characters in 6% of episodes of Intervention. African Americans make up 12.6% of the U.S. population, while only 4% of those appearing on Intervention are black. Asian and Pacific Islanders make up 5% of the U.S. population and appear on Intervention as main characters 1% of the time (Daniels 7)…

We can draw parallels from the show’s narratives of addiction to the ways by which we conceive of race and addiction in our every day lives. By constructing addiction as both badness as well as sickness, A&E’s Intervention effectively justifies popular notions of moralizing health that are the productive rhetoric of biopower (hard at work). The show’s representations of race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality and gender contribute to hegemony, as they are skewed. It is imperative that we remain critical of these makeover reality television series, which aim to construct certain capitalist qualities as desirable (i.e. heterosexual relationships, and in the case for women, beauty).

Let us unpack these narratives, so as to reveal the neoliberal mechanisms by which they have been articulated.

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