Neoliberalism and the Constitution
of Contemporary Bodies
A growing literature in social science uses terms such as “foodscape” or “toxic environment” as explanations for the so-called epidemic of obesity. The thrust of these arguments is that fast, junky food is everywhere, available all the time, which is the reason that North Americans, and to some extent their counterparts, the British, are becoming increasingly fat. I do not concede the factuality of the “obesity epidemic” as it has been constructed and represented, and I am troubled by the renewed stigmatization of fat people that this epidemic talk has produced. Yet it is important to take the foodscape argument seriously, both because it provides an alternative to rhetorics of personal responsibility and genetic determinism and because it ostensibly draws attention to broader political, economic, and cultural forces in understanding the constitution of contemporary bodies. In other words, it has some affinity with a public health perspective. In that regard, however, the foodscape discourse has several conceptual problems, not the least of which is that it begs the question of who is not fat or getting fat. This makes it a “thin” explanation both analytically and normatively. In other words, to employ these broad, macro analytics in understanding contemporary body sizes, thinness must be explained with the same richness as fatness.
The purpose of this essay, then, is to suggest what a richer explanation of contemporary fatness and thinness might look like. To do this, I turn to neoliberalism, arguably the leitmotif of the current era. I draw from scholarship that theorizes neoliberalism as both a political economic project and a mode of governmentality. The overarching argument is that the global political-economic contradictions of the neoliberal era are literally embodied, whereas the “problem” of “obesity” is implicated in how neoliberalism produces different sorts of subjects. Regarding the former I will argue that the material contradictions of neoliberal capitalism are not only resolved in the sphere of surplus distribution, but also in bodies, such that the double fix of eating and dieting produces a political economy of bulimia, as it were, but has differential effects on individuals (with strong correlations with class). Regarding the latter, I will note a culture of bulimia, where on one hand consuming is encouraged and on the other deservingness is performed by being thin no matter how that is accomplished. I will then discuss how the discourse of “obesity,” including the foodscape