You Are What You Eat: Orthorexia, Purity, and Health in the Digital Age

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Boss, Shannon
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University of Guelph

In this project, I offer a critical ethical analysis of orthorexia to understand the social processes and forces that create and sustain this “pathology.” Orthorexia names a putative eating disorder where individuals develop an unhealthy obsession with eating right, usually understood in terms of eating ‘healthy,’ ‘pure, or ‘clean’ foods. Most of the growing literature on orthorexia attends to issues of definition and diagnosis, leaving a large gap in our understanding of how and why this putative eating disorder has emerged in the 21st century. Drawing on and working within a feminist phenomenological framework, my project aims to better understand clean eating discourses in the United States that facilitate the emergence of orthorexia and how individuals fashion themselves within these systems of meaning. Through an interdisciplinary methodological approach that combines historical and theoretical analyses with qualitative research, I draw connections between shifts in nutrition paradigms, public health, and the rise of digital technologies, as well as offer insight into how purity discourses tend to operate in the West. In Chapter Five, I shift to a deductive-inductive reflexive thematic analysis of selected food tracking apps and food blogs to flesh out a critical analysis of the biopolitical and infopolitical trajectory of clean eating discourses in the United States. Using this Foucauldian framework, I argue that orthorexia is best understood as a technology-of-self that we are all increasingly primed towards. Understanding orthorexia in this way demonstrates the extent to which pursuing health via purity is exactly what is valued and expected of a good eater in the United States. Ultimately, by highlighting how individuals understand and fashion themselves through digital technologies in relation to expectations to eat clean and be healthy, I show how clean eating discourses draw on, reify, and sometimes challenge the idealized healthy, thin, white, middle-class, and post-feminist feminine/masculine subject that dominates health discourses. These insights offer the beginnings of a framework from which to better approach definition, diagnosis, and treatment of orthorexia beyond individual pathology, in addition to drawing much-needed attention to individuals’ embodied engagement with digital technologies in the pursuit of health.

orthorexia, clean eating, biopedagogy, healthism, infopower, reflexive thematic analysis