Accepted paper:

The state, the individual, and the contest to define the healthy body


Bridget Jay (University of Adelaide)

Paper short abstract:

The personal, community or cultural embodiments of healthy bodies are often at odds with state prescribed, public health oriented, objective measurements of health. "Healthiness" is caught in contention between state standards and individual, social and culturally determined ideas around wellbeing.

Paper long abstract:

The relationship between the state and the individual in the sphere of public health is fundamentally prescriptive. The state circumscribes certain patterns of behaviour and ways of being, informed by an image of "healthiness", that people either embody or fail to embody in how they choose to live their lives. This dynamic emerges again and again in a range of settings: in the provision of medical services and in schools, in supermarkets, the community services sector, and even fast-food restaurants. Underpinning all of this is a strong notion of personal responsibility; to the extent that the individual does not reflect the image of the healthy self, it is because of a failure in their character or commitment, rather than the policy model itself.

Following ethnographic research with families in Adelaide, South Australia, I suggest that health is a strongly subjective concept that is embodied by participants in everyday social practices and routines. The body is representative of how people understand and achieve health in different geographic, socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Embodied practices around food, eating and activity emphasise that people understand and experience "health" in highly personal forms shaped by varied priorities, references and life histories. These embodied experiences of health are essential in examining why Australian public health policy fails, particularly in promoting nutrition and activity guidelines and in addressing rising obesity rates.

panel P38
Embodied rituals, symbols and performances: embodiment as a negotiation of the state, and state negotiations of embodiment