Body Shame, Neoliberalism and Rhetoric

I’ve been reading about how bodies (as in, your body) and neo-liberal politics (like those of your government) interweave. I think its really important. Governments convince us of their plans and ideas by telling us stories with very specific language. Sometimes these tricks are transparent and silly, other times they are hidden and subliminal. When they work, we get the message without even realizing that we got it. In politics, these are called social narratives. There are tonnes of examples in how language is used to change the message. Kinda like economic and political refugees became ‘boat people’ and then ‘queue jumpers’, then, in the language of folks like Donald Trump ‘rapists’ and ‘terrorists’. This is where things get really scary and insidious.

One really clever trick of neo-liberal policy is shame. This is stolen from the Advertising industry. Advertising gives us images of beauty that most of us physically can’t meet then shames us into consuming stuff with the promise of reaching that impossible ideal (like surgery, gym memberships, cosmetics, shampoos, etc). This is the idea of ‘body shame’ and the advertising industry uses the language of ‘health’ and personal responsibility to sell their product. The neo-liberals use it to sell their agenda. We can all agree that most of us can do things to be more healthy. We can’t control everything, but generally, we can eat well, exercise, meditate or do a whole bunch of other things to make ourselves healthier and fitter. There is a level of personal responsibility involved. Like advertisers, the neo-liberal system uses the language of health to push aside real reasons behind peoples economic difficulties. It promotes the idea of discipline and merit as the only reason that a member of the public might be in economic strife.

Obviously, this isn’t true. I’m a migrant, and I saw from the experience friends and family how substantial an obstacle an accent can be when a person is looking for work. Or how difficult it can be to get that gig if you can’t afford a suit for that interview or the fare for the bus to get to the job. Countless studies show that class, race and sex play into economic success in major ways. This is a truth that is so well documented it is impossible to deny. It is very inconvenient to the neo-liberal world view. Since denial is impossible, the task becomes to silence the complaint. To get people to not talk about the real issues that challenge the neo-liberal ideal. The solution that is used is shame. If personal responsibility is drawn in, people can’t help but feel that their failures are their fault. Talking about it directly is bad, because if the neo-liberal establishment comes out and directly accuses everyone of their failure people will talk back about circumstance… an argument that wouldn’t play out well. So, instead the analogies begin. The reasoning goes, most people already have body shame, lets move this shame into the political realm:

“Neo-liberalism is a political rationality that tries to render the social domain economic and to link a reduction in (welfare) state services and security systems to the increasing call for ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-care’. In this way, we can decipher the neoliberal harmony in which not only the individual body, but also collective bodies and institutions (public administrations, universities, etc.), corporations and states have to be ‘lean’, ‘fit’, ‘flexible’ and ‘autonomous’: it is a technique of power.”

The genius of this is that it implicitly turns people into fat. If you get messed over by an unjust social or political system, clearly the system is to blame. If that system is ‘fit’, ‘lean’ and ‘healthy’ the whole thing turns on you – you are the waste, fat and decay. A trick of language that effects our thinking.

While there is always a level of personal responsibility for health AND ones place on the ladder of economic success, this tactic is designed to swing that balance into the realm of impossible ideals. In reality we know not elements of health can be controlled. Illness is conditional and inherent as much as it is controllable. So is economic success. We can’t all be Steve Jobs, because we don’t have his specific skills, networks and privilege, just like we can’t all look like Scarlett Johansson because we don’t have her bone structure. Nor can we all swim like Ian Thrope because we don’t have his body type and his big feet. We need to understand the rhetorical weapons used to sell dangerous ideas. Otherwise, we reach the increasingly common reality: people start to fall by the wayside because of their circumstance and we are all too ashamed to talk about the true nature of their, and our, social troubles.


The quote is from: ‘The birth of biopolitics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality Translated by Thomas Lemke


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