Dissertation: Healthy is the New Thin: The Discursive Production of Women's Healthy Living Media
I recently defended my doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto, Department of Sociology. The dissertation is an analysis of women's healthy living media, which is produced within a political context of neoliberalism, healthism, and obesophobia and its intersections with gender and class inequalities. Together, these ideologies produce an expectation of personal responsibility for health, wherein healthwork demonstrates responsible citizenship, and thinness operates as a proxy for health (Crawford 2006; Guthman 2009a, 2009b). My dissertation studies the food and fitness discourses in women’s healthy living media to understand how health, gender and culture intersect within the contemporary healthy-living mediascape.
For this research, I conducted a content and discourse analysis of 640 blog posts from six foundational healthy living blogs and 230 articles from two high-circulation health and fitness magazines. My analysis found that, contrary to previous research suggesting that healthy living blogs model restrictive ways of eating and are potentially dangerous for readers, bloggers discursively construct a healthy lifestyle in ways that resonate with a dominant ideology of healthism but also disrupt dominant health discourses in regards to how authority and embodiment are presented. While healthy living bloggers remain compelled to demonstrate self-regulation, they steer clear of restrictive and punitive discourses by presenting alternative logics of healthy living that nonetheless reflect and reproduce the neoliberal fetishization of the individual and individual experience. Compared to traditional print media, bloggers present food as health-producing rather than dangerous and base their authority on personal embodied knowledge, and an authenticity borne of avoiding pathologized extremes. The dissertation is composed of three papers which are described as follows.
Paper 1: Pathogenic or Health-Promoting? How Food is Framed in Healthy Living Media for Women
In the first of three papers, I find that while healthy-living magazines frame food as pathogenic, disease-promoting and dangerous in relation to body composition. In contrast, HLB posts present food as a relatively “salutogenic” (Antonovsky 1996) force that promotes health and wellness. Bloggers perform a classed, feminine subjectivity that trusts the body and eats healthily for pleasure. In light of this, I argue that healthy living blog prosumers (who both produce and consume social media) are able to broaden the range of public health discourses, albeit without critiquing the moralization of health or thinness as an overarching goal.
Paper 2: The Rise of the Blogspert: Biopedagogy, Self-knowledge and Lay Expertise on Healthy Living Blogs
In the second paper, I find that healthy living blog discourses teach body regulation through the use of two epistemic logics: knowing the body and mastering the body. I argue that, in order to generate the authority to disseminate health information, laypeople who are not health professionals must produce health media that includes a distinct knowledge base and evidence to support their recommendations. I offer the concept “blogspert” to describe the way in which bloggers’ authority to disseminate biopedagogy is demonstrated by providing anecdotal evidence that they have successfully and intentionally cultivated bodily knowledge towards losing or managing weight.
Paper 3: I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again: The Dialectic of Failure and Success as Gendered Authenticity on Women’s Healthy Living Blogs
In the third paper, I study the construction of authenticity, a highly-valued trait in contemporary culture. I find that an authentic healthy persona is produced on healthy living blogs through “calibration” a gendered self-presentation process whereby women continually work to position themselves away from pathologized extremes of feminine excess (e.g., obsessiveness perfectionism) and apathy (e.g., laziness, insufficient self-monitoring) (Cairns and Johnston 2015). I argue that this calibration work must be done in order for healthy living bloggers to present themselves as authentically and successfully feminine.
I have presented earlier versions of the first paper at the American Sociological Association annual conference (2015) and Canadian Sociological Association annual conference (2014).
Other research projects I worked on while at the University of Toronto are described below.
The Innovation Hub
I was the co-lead of two operations support teams at the University of Toronto's Innovation Hub, a project that uses the principles of social innovation and human-centered design thinking to better understand the needs of students. As co-lead of the Design Operations team, I oversaw collection of over 100 interviews with students and conducted analysis in order to generate insights and identify unmet needs in these interviews. I have also produced a variety of communication materials for the project including the project plan, blog posts, reports and presentations to a variety of stakeholders. This position has also involved creating and facilitating professional development activities for Student Services staff. As co-lead of the Organizational Learning team I participated in conducting interviews with 16 staff members, analyzing data, generating insights and presenting findings to the Student Life leadership team.
I have delivered presentations about the Innovation Hub at the University of Toronto Scarborough's International Development Conference (2017) and Civic Tech Toronto (2017) and will co-facilitated workshops on design thinking to UofT student leaders and to and student affairs professionals at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services meetings in June 2017.
Alternative Food Consumption in Toronto
From 2011 to 2013 I was the project manager for a research project, designed by Dr. Josée Johnston, on alternative food consumption practices in Toronto. My duties included managing a team of three research assistants, project design, survey design (print and online using SurveyMonkey), recruiting 1200 participants, administering surveys to these participants and supervising data entry.
I presented a paper on this research work (with Sarah Cappeliez) at the Cross-Disciplinary Graduate Students Conference (2014).
Family Food Practices in Canada
I was a lead RA on a Canada-wide project designed to understand how local food cultures and socioeconomic status impact families' nutritional health. As part of this project I recruited and interviewed 40 parents and teenagers about their food practices. I also thematically analyzed the data using Atlas.ti and worked with the Toronto team (led by Dr. Josée Johnston) to develop project papers and conference presentations.
I have co-authored three published papers (Sociology, 2012; IdeAs 2012; Journal of Consumer Culture 2012) and two book chapters (in Acquired Tastes: Why Families Eat the Way They Do, 2014) from this line of research.
Emerging Health Care Professions
I was a research assistant on a project looking at the statutory regulation of homeopaths in Ontario. This work involved a literature review on provincial regulation policy and legislation, interviewing alternative health practitioners, designing an online survey (using SurveyMonkey), managing data collection including online archiving and participating in interdisicplinary team meetings. This project was a CIHR-funded collaboration between the Sociology and Pharmacy departments at the University of Toronto (Dr. Sandy Welsh and Dr. Heather Boon).
I co-authored a conference presentation based on this data, presented at the annual International Congress on Complementary Medicine Research (2013).
Integrative Health Care Clinics: Patients and Practitioners
I was a research assistant on a project examining the perspectives of patients and practitioners in two contrasting integrative health clinics in the Greater Toronto Area. My responsibilities included interviewing health practitioners (e.g. medical doctors, naturopaths, massage therapists), analyzing data, preparing research briefs and participating in research team meetings. The principal investigator for this project was Dr. Merrijoy Kelner of the University of Toronto's Institute for Aging and the Life Course.
Human Resource Policy Creation in Canada
I worked as a research assistant to conduct a literature and federal policy review of human resource policies in Canada. This data was analyzed and thematically coded using NVivo qualtiative analysis software.
I presented a paper on this data at the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference (2010).
I worked as a research assistant to create a literature review on reverse discrimination and neosexism (reverse sexism) practices and policies (at the state and provincial level) in workplace and postsecondary institutions in North America.