Life as a Work of Health: Women’s Healthy Food Blogs as Self-Help
Today, more than three-quarters of internet users in the United States read blogs. One type of blog is healthy food blogs which provide readers with recipes and diet, lifestyle, and health advice, generating profit through advertising and page visits. Additionally, eight in ten Americans look to the internet for health advice. Given the massive reach of blogs and ubiquitous use of the internet for advice on health, healthy food blogs must be considered a significant source of health, diet, and lifestyle advice. Scholars have paid scant attention to the messages on these blogs and their implications. In examining over 200 popular healthy food blogs, I find that these blogs disseminate messages about food, health, and diet to their audiences using a self-help framework, which treats “life as a work of health.” Viewing healthy food blogs through a self-help paradigm helps illuminate how healthy food blogs individualize and moralize messages about health.Overall, I argue that the messages on healthy food blogs collectively support an individual-centered self-help narrative which I call “life as a work of health”. The underlying messages and assumptions in this narrative holds that 1) thinness and healthy eating are individual choices, 2) chronic disease and poor health are individual problems addressed by healthy eating, and 3) happiness is a result of a thin, fit body. The first key contribution of this dissertation is a reconceptualization of healthy food blogs as digital extensions of the self-help literature that contribute to the framing of health in popular American discourse. This framing process is evident in my analysis of weight loss food blogs. I trace the presence and adoption of the “hero’s journey” in the healthy journey narratives of weight loss food bloggers as a form of self-help discourse that perpetuates an individualized and moralized approach to understanding food and health. In short, I argue that healthy food blog messaging places responsibility for weight and body size on individual people instead of on structural health inequalities, and it promises happiness as the ultimate reward for thin, healthy bodies. Individualizing issues related to health and body size may encourage dangerous or unsustainable eating habits while perpetuating fat phobia. Chronic illness healthy food blogs also present a concerning narrative, which begins with the failure of Western medicine, and requires chronically ill persons take control of their own health through diet and lifestyle change. While well-meaning and empowering for individual bloggers, messages on chronic illness food blogs play into the idea that one can overcome illness outside of traditional medical paradigms and may be risky for people suffering from treatable medical conditions. This poses a significant challenge to public health policy and personal understandings of health and illness. Although different in content, weight loss and chronic illness blogs share an individualistic approach, while ignoring structural health inequalities related to race, gender, and class. Popular healthy food bloggers not only disseminate healthy eating and lifestyle advice, but also comment on public social events. I examine how they frame two mass events - the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020 and George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protesting in May and June of 2020. Though these events do not concern food, the messages these bloggers post about these events are significant given the trust shown by their followers. I find that these highly politicized collective events are also approached from a self-help perspective, by centering the experiences of food bloggers who are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and financially secure. By implicitly undermining more complex structural understandings of social problems, healthy food bloggers divert focus from collective structural approaches to public health and safety.