Consuming health: postfeminism, critical psychology & media perspectives

By Silke Schwarz, December 2019

In this Book Review, Silke Swartz provides her perspective and insights on Postfeminism and health: Critical psychology and media perspectives by Sarah Riley, Adrienne Evans and Martine Robson. This is the second review of the books from the Critical Approaches to Health  series co-edited by Kerry Chamberlain and Antonia Lyons, and published by Routledge, in association with the International Society for Critical Health Psychology. (ISCHP members receive a discount on the purchase price of books in the series.)

The authors of Postfeminism and health apply a novel transdisciplinary and critical approach to women’s health, informed by feminist and postcolonial studies, media and cultural studies, politics, psychology, sociology, history as well as philosophy. They develop postfeminism as an analytic tool to examine health issues related to women. Postfeminism refers to ideas about women’s rights and feminism circulating in media, linked to understandings of what it means to be a woman in contemporary western societies. Postfeminist ideas act as a resource that women can draw on to make sense of themselves and for others to make sense of them. The authors take a poststructuralist standpoint to postfeminism, drawing on ideas from Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. They place sex and gender into specific historical and sociocultural contexts and reject universal and essential assumptions.

In this text, the concept of postfeminism is linked with a critical perspective on neoliberal understandings of citizenship and healthism. Healthism refers to understandings that associate health with risks that individuals need to manage by lifestyle choices, at the same time blaming those individuals who are not able to attain the norm. Postfeminist healthism is described as

a way of thinking about women`s physical and mental health […]: a neoliberal imperative to be self-enterprising, risk managing and to treat oneself as a business; […] a construct of health as an individual responsibility that is manged through good consumer activity”.

p. 10

This includes an emphasis on individual transformation, on the language of choice and blame coming along with neoliberal consumerism, competition, choice and privatisation discourses, as well as on the tendency of psychologising in the form of pressure for self-management in the forms of self-love and self-care. This discourse normalises perfection and a flawless appearance.

The authors question prescriptions for women to work on themselves in order to feel good and to feel normal. These prescriptions also provide the message that women have a problem they need to work on. Using examples from the Anglophone world (the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), they cover typical women’s health issues in seven chapters: self-help, weight, female genital cosmetic surgery, sex, pregnancy, intimate responsibilities, and pro-anorexia communities. At the end of each chapter the authors offer alternative, creative approaches challenging neoliberal, sexist and racist positions identified in dominant postfeminist discourses.

This book provides a valuable addition to mainstream approaches in health and gender studies, psychology, sociology and related disciplines.  Postfeminist healthism is identified as unhealthy for both those women who participate in it and those whom it excludes and considers how more positive directions may emerge. It identifies a dominant theme across different topics: health is related to risks women are responsible to manage. For example, the moral imperative of self-control in relation to a ‘normal’ weight is critically analysed. Assumed connections between weight and health are questioned and obesogenic contexts influencing weight are considered. The book is not restricted to criticizing dominant discourses, but puts forward an optimistic outlook and possible journeys for escaping postfeminist neoliberal accounts of what it means to be a woman. Practitioners, researchers, students and lecturers will gain alternative, liberating standpoints to women`s mental and physical health issues.

About the author

Silke Schwarz, scientific assistant at Traumanetz Berlin, S.I.G.N.A.L. e.V., has a PhD in psychology from Freie Universität, Berlin. She also works as psychotherapist and has published about domestic violence and psychotherapy and on gender and disaster.

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