Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Review of Hannele Harujnen by Alicia Ettlin

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Alicia Ettlin

The University of Western Australia 

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Neoliberal Bodies and the Gendered Fat Body

Hannele Harujnen, Neoliberal Bodies and the Gendered Fat Body, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2017; pp: 118; RRP $242.00 Hardback, RRP $78.00 eBook (VitalSource).

With the rise of a neoliberal, patriarchal, and highly visual culture in late modern societies, the body has taken a centre stage in various research areas, including social sciences and cultural studies. The body has been discussed in-depth as a disembodied entity that contributes to the functionalism of society in classic sociology and has now increasingly become understood as an embodied construct that is formed, moulded, and built by its social environment.

In Neoliberal Bodies and the Gendered Fat Body, Hannele Harujnen explores the relationship between fatness, health, gender, and the dominant neoliberal discourse in post-modern Western societies that is accompanied by a patriarchal and biomedical construction of the body. In her discussion, Harjunen applies different sociological theories and writings, predominantly Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Goffman’s Presentation of the Self, Crawford’s discussion around healthism, and Gill’s postfeminist sensibility.

Harjunen first outlines how the neoliberal rationale and the social conception of the body are interwoven with the social construct of gender in Western culture. She gives a cohesive introduction to the neoliberal philosophy that has its roots in the liberal economic theory. Neoliberalism first emerged in the 1930s and influences people, their choices, and the construction of their bodies to the present day. The neoliberal rational stresses the importance of free markets and market-friendly policies for the private sector, while pushing for a reduction of the public sector. In this environment, individuals are perceived to be given free choice; it is their responsibility to create and shape their lives by accepting self-responsibility. Consequently, the body has become a reflection of an individual’s morals based on which personal choices are made. The thin body is a signifier of morality, self-discipline and self-control, while the fat body is framed to be lazy and deviant.

Harjunen employs Foucault’s concept of biopolitics that refers to a government’s efforts to sustain people’s health in order to contextualise these divergent understandings of different body shapes. Biopolitics is supported by a medical discourse where the body has become measured in weight, size and biomedical paradigms people must comply with. Biopolitics and the discourse of self-responsibility that Crawford has termed as ‘healthism’ has consequently led to the medicalisation of fatness. Fatness is seen as a burden to the welfare state and the general public. The fat body is deemed to be sick, costly, cumbersome and deviant. It is however not only bodies that are perceived to be deviant but the individuals themselves who lack self-responsibility and self-discipline to monitor, manage and control their bodies. Fatness is framed as a purely medical and self-imposed condition, and therefore should and has to be cured through individuals’ change in behaviour. The discourse of the deviant fat body is further reiterated by the media whereby it has become compelling and socially accepted.

According to Foucault’s discussion around discipline and punishment, people internalise these dominant discourses and start to control themselves. Those who neglect to discipline their bodies are at risk of succumbing to social exclusion—a so-called hidden social sanction that replaces corporal punishments practiced in traditional societies. The discourse around healthism has thereby contributed to the strong and publicly accepted moralisation of obesity and is part of the neoliberal governmentality that aims to produce healthy and productive bodies. Harjunen further discusses some of the campaigns that ran globally under the notion ‘fight against obesity’ which draws on the established concepts of self-responsibility and the moral judgment of fatness.

Next to the medical discourse, the mediated discussion also plays a central role in creating and reiterating ideal gendered body images. Harjunen refers to Gill’s discussion on post-feminine media discourse that helps to construct the image of an autonomous, in control, sexually empowered female subject who, in reality, follows body ideals that are in line with the objectified, heterosexual male fantasy. Women are constructed as ideal subjects who seemingly have free choice, as long as these choices help to apply femininity to the body. Gill argues that what is known as postfeminism, if understood as a specific sensibility, is also a major contributor in creating neoliberal subjects who are always already gendered and therefore expected to accept responsibility and self-regulation to shape their bodies within acceptable boundaries of femininity. In this sense, postfeminism failed to reclaim the female body and to liberate it from the objectification of the male gaze. The docile female body is consequently still characterised by its skinny, sexy, and youthful appearance.

In conclusion, in Neoliberal Bodies and the Gendered Fat Body, Hannele Harujnen manages to address and discuss various important influences, discourses and challenges that shape, form and re-construct the female body in contemporary society—in particular, the neoliberal rationale in particular—and stream these into a cohesive and in-depth analysis.

Alicia Ettlin
The University of Western Australia

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Updated 25 Jul 2018


Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

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