PRISM: Feminist Materialism within Physical Cultural Studies

– By Katie Esmonde and Meir Lewin

Katie Esmonde and Meir Lewin are Ph.D. students in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.  They recently submitted the following essay, arguing that Megan Warin’s 2014 article “Material Feminism, Obesity Science and the Limits of Discursive Critique” should be added as a prism in the PCS program.  The program unanimously voted for the article’s inclusion.

In the introduction to the essay “Material Feminism, Obesity Science and the Limits of Discursive Critique,” Warin (2014) discusses her experience at an interdisciplinary symposium on the intergenerational influence on obesity. She describes her sense that there was a separation of biological reality from discursive language” (p. 2); essentially, the social scientists were unable to communicate with the biological perspective due to their understanding of the body as a purely socially constructed entity. While perhaps evoking some defensiveness as we read along, this anecdote resonated with our experiences as physical cultural studies students (PCS) in a kinesiology department. While we do not wish to diminish the importance of social and discursive theorizations of the body, we have found that these perspectives can be limiting as they can deny the materiality of the body. Just as the physiologists in kinesiology must consider the significance of socially constructed elements of the body, PCS scholars will further a socially focused analysis by considering the interwoven and interactive nature of biology and culture.

We will begin this Prism proposal by outlining the poststructuralist tradition of critical obesity scholarship. This will be followed by a discussion of the limits of the discursive critique, and the ways in which a new materialist approach can extend these critiques. As a corrective, we will draw on Warin’s (2014) concept of material feminism. Finally, the ways in which material feminism aligns with the physical cultural studies imperative will be expounded upon.

The Critical Obesity Scholarship Discursive Critique and the New Materialist Intervention

Much of critical obesity scholarship has drawn on poststructuralism to discuss the “truth, power and knowledge” (Mills, 1997, p. 16) of fatness or “obesity.” A poststructuralist analysis makes discourse, or “defined and coherent ways of representing and discussing people, events or things” (Lupton, 2013, p. 8), central. These discourses “are contextual, embedded in particular historical, political and cultural settings” (ibid.). Within body studies, a discursive approach examines the ways in which bodies are constructed through “symbols, codes, signs, signifying activity and discursive practices” (Blackman, 2008, p. 22). Power is conceptualized not just as a repressive force that prevents people from acting in the ways that they wish; instead, power has productive powers that produce subjects and subjectivities (Blackman, 2008; Foucault, 1978). Drawing largely on Foucault and his theorizations on power and discipline, this critique “presents the body as malleable, as an unfinished entity that can be sculpted, moulded, altered, and transformed through disciplinary practices” (Blackman, 2008, p. 134). While the body can be at the centre of the analysis, much of the focus is typically on the social construction of bodies.

In the case of critical obesity scholarship, the discursive critique largely centres on what Rail (2012) refers to as the dominant obesity discourse, which “offers a mechanistic view of the body that emphasizes an assumed relationship between inactivity, poor diet, obesity, and poor health” while also positioning “obesity” in “moral and economic terms” (p. 228). Critiques such as these have not only exposed the assumptions often inherent to discussions of the “obesity epidemic,” but further, they highlight the contingency of the assumptions and suggest alternative possibilities.

While this discursive critique that has been put forward by critical obesity and fat studies scholars has played a very important role in challenging fat discrimination, it is important for researchers to build on this critique and to move beyond the discursive. First, despite some exceptions, according to Warin (2014), “Nearly all other work in this area has been confined to the analysis of discourses about the body” (p. 7, emphasis in original). This reproduces what Blackman (2008) has referred to as discourse determinism, where the body is positioned as an “inert mass” upon which power acts, while “corporeal dimensions of power” are not taken into account (p. 134). Second, one might also question the degree to which the environment is engaged within these examinations of the biopolitical implications of labeling an environment as obesogenic. While Rich and Evans (2009) highlighted in their discussion of the obesogenic environment the ways in which this focus shifts from biological determinism to environmental determinism, the influence of the environment remains discursive only. Finally, the emphasis on the ways in which the fat or obese body is culturally produced and demonized eschews an analysis of the biological aspects of bodies and their weight (Lupton, 2013; Warin, 2014). Warin (2014) laments, “social analyses of the body concede no place for nature at all, and as a result the biological forces that change, transform, constantly renew themselves and remodel themselves in interaction with the world have been repressed, foreclosed and denied” (p. 11). In sum, “the materiality of fat bodies has been ignored, resisted and forgotten” (ibid., p. 8).

Material Feminism

In an effort to reassert the materiality of the body while eschewing biological essentialism, Warin (2014) calls for a turn to new materialism. New materialism broadly centres on the notion that “bodies are never singular” (Blackman, 2009, p. 105). Instead, “bodies are open systems that connect to others, human and non-human, so that they are always unfinished and in a process of becoming” (ibid.). This not only poses a radical challenge to the contained and singular body, but further, it challenges the “sense of mastery bequeathed to the thinking subject” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 8). In other words, matter within this conceptualization matters. Materiality has agency in that it can act, produce, and be unpredictable.

As part of the new materialist approach, Warin (2014) proposed that scholars draw on what she termed “material feminism.” Material feminism, according to Warin (2014), “ brings ontology (rather than epistemology) centre-stage in an attempt to register the inextricable entanglements of bodies in time and space, with histories, the socio-political and the material” (p. 5). While new materialism as an umbrella theoretical framework is concerned with power and politics (Coole & Frost, 2010), material feminism is overtly committed to a feminist perspective. While Warin (2014) does not explicitly outline what is feminist about material feminism, her focus tends towards the ways in which the interconnections between bodily materiality and power shape our bodies in a gendered dimension. In this case, Warin (2014) drew on Barker’s hypothesis regarding “the gendered, socio-economic effects of maternal under-nutrition in pregnancy” (p. 14) in order to re-centre the focus on how women and children are adversely affected by poverty. In so doing, Warin (2014) articulated the importance of understanding the complex interactions between biology and culture that leave the marks of power on our bodies. Thus, material feminism reiterates the feminist commitment to changing our social realities, and how bringing the material into our work is integral to this goal.

Material Feminism as a PCS Prism

Warin’s (2014) discussion of material feminism, as it pertains to critical obesity scholarship in particular, can be important contribution to PCS. Drawing on Andrews’ (2008) three core elements of physical cultural studies scholarship, Warin’s (2014) essay extends the work of PCS scholarship in three important ways. First, material feminism can be a theoretical lens through which to view the body in ways that are ontologically complex.  As Coole and Frost (2010) explain, new materialist scholars “often discern emergent, generative powers (or agentic capacities) even within inorganic matter, and they generally eschew the distinction between organic and inorganic, or animate and inanimate, at the ontological level” (p. 9). Indeed, new materialism and feminist materialism call upon us as PCS scholars to question what constitutes a body, as well as what actors (and actants) are integral in constituting the body.

Second, material feminism extends the concept of radical contextualism in important ways. As Silk and Andrews (2011) assert, radical contextualism for PCS

means recognizing that physical cultural forms (e.g., practices, discourses, and subjectivities) can only be understood by the way in which they are articulated into a particular set of complex social, economic, political, and technological relationships that comprise the social context. (p. 9)

We suggest that biological relationships should also be considered as social context. When considering fetal origins of obesity, “food is a bridge or pathway that makes the uterus a social and relational space, not just a biological space” (Warin, 2014, p. 15). In this way, considering the inextricable linkages between biology and society can be vital. And finally, material feminism inherently attends to power and politics. By focusing on how intersecting oppressions impact the fetal environment, and by extension, the biological and social lives that spring from this environment, she is bringing attention to the ways in which power can be located in our DNA. By situating the body as it reciprocally interacts with its surroundings that are always imbued with power, this theoretical framework links to the political project outlined by Andrews (2008) in the formation of PCS.

Furthermore, the topic of Warin’s (2014) essay, obesity, is an important one for PCS scholars. For many of us, an engagement with “obesity” and “obesity” scholarship is often vital since sport and physical activity are often positioned as antidotes to the “obesity epidemic” by advocates for physical activity, physical education, and sport (Gard & Wright, 2005). However, material feminism is not limited to examining fatness as a topic of study. For example, scholars have highlighted the ways in which epigenetic processes of gene expression are impacted by oppression (Davis, 2014), as well as the impacts of environmental epigenetics with a focus on toxins and endocrine disrupting chemicals (Guthman, 2012; Guthman & Mansfield, 2012).

In sum, PCS should take up Warin’s (2014) call for a material feminism that integrates the social and the biological. By conceptualizing the body as open and porous, and thus locating power within our biology, the discursive critique can be complicated and extended. Given that PCS is inherently political with an unrelenting commitment to social change and making a difference, material feminism is very much aligned with this project. Including it in future PCS work will strengthen our ability to participate in an increasingly integrative critical study of obesity.


3 thoughts on “PRISM: Feminist Materialism within Physical Cultural Studies

  1. Not sure why I didn’t include this!

    Works Cited
    Andrews, D. L. (2008). Kinesiology’s inconvenient truth and the physical cultural studies imperative. Quest, 60, 46-63.
    Blackman, L. (2008). The body: The key concepts. New York, NY: Berg.
    Coole, D., & Frost, S. (2010). Introducing the New Materialisms. In D. Coole & S. Frost (eds). New materialisms: Ontology, agency and politics (pp. 1-43). Durham and London: Duke University Press.
    Davis, N. (2014). Politics materialized: Rethinking the materiality of feminist political action through epigenetics. Women: A Cultural Review, 25(1), 62-77.
    Gard, M., & Wright, J. (2005). The obesity epidemic: Science, morality and ideology. London, UK: Routledge.
    Guthman, J. (2012). Opening up the black box of the body in geographical obesity research: Toward a critical political ecology of fat. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(5), 951-957.
    Guthman, J., & Mansfield, B. (2012). The implications of environmental epigenetics: A new direction for geographic inquiry on health, space, and nature-society relations. Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), 486-504.
    Lupton, D. (2013). Fat: Shortcuts. New York, NY: Routledge.
    Rail, G. (2012). The birth of the obesity clinic: Confessions of the flesh, biopedagogies and physical culture. Sociology of Sport Journal, 29, 227-253.
    Rich, E., & Evans, J. (2009). Performative health in schools: Welfare policy, neoliberalism and social regulation? In J. Wright and V. Harwood (eds.), Biopolitics and the ‘obesity epidemic’: Governing bodies (pp. 157-171). New York, NY: Routledge.
    Silk, M. L., & Andrews, D. L. (2011). Toward a physical cultural studies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 28(1), 4-35.

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