Book ReviewsComptes rendus critiques

Digesting Femininities: The Feminist Politics of Contemporary Food Culture, Natalie Jovanovski, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 213 p.

  • Emily J.H. Contois

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In Digesting Femininities, Australian sociologist Natalie Jovanovski explores a confounding contradiction: adopting a feminist identity does not protect against eating disorders or body dissatisfaction. To understand women’s anxious relationship with their bodies, Jovanovski proposes decentering the body, focusing instead on food. She conducts a feminist critical discourse analysis, drawing from a modest corpus of four diet books (Skinny Bitch and its accompanying cookbook by former modeling agent Rory Freedman and former model Kim Barnouin, as well as Losing the Last Five Kilos and Crunch Time Cookbook by Australian television fitness trainer Michelle Bridges) and five cookbooks by Nigella Lawson, Tana Ramsay, Julie Goodwin, and Poh Ling Yeow. Unearthing contradictory femininities and body-policing narratives in these texts, Jovanovski also examines less obvious messages in two iconic, mainstream feminist works: Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978) and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990).

Reading these sources through canonical feminist theory, Jovanovski asks, “How do discourses on food and eating employ gender stereotypes to construct and perpetuate a culture of body-policing attitudes among women?” (8) She asserts that despite a “veritable smorgasbord” of femininities and feminisms for women to chose from, body-policing practices continue to exert their destructive power, as they have been merely disguised in “a thin veneer of empowerment” (185). Positioned within a “bulimic cultural consciousness of food and eating” (12), these femininities fail women in part because they reduce the collective action of feminist politics to individualist and often consumerist feats. Jovanovski concludes by proposing “a genderless food culture,” one “where women [are] encouraged to consume a visceral, embodied, empowering and nourishing message about food, without the bitter aftertaste of gender and its rigid proscriptions of what being a woman should mean” (200).

While important in its aim to explore the forces of body policing through food and to critique contemporary feminisms, this book’s main shortcoming is an issue for the author as much as it is for the field of food studies. Digesting Femininities bases its thesis upon the claim that “neither the feminist nor the psychological literature has adequately addressed the way food discourses instantiate and normalize body-policing narratives which are aimed at women” (20), which may be true, but the feminist food studies literature certainly has. A rich set of texts, published over the last thirty years, would have added considerable depth to Digesting Femininities’s shallow reliance on primarily Elspeth Probyn’s Carnal Appetites: Food/Sex/Identities (2000) and Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston, and Shyon Baumann’s 2010 article “Caring About Food: Doing Gender in the Foodie Kitchen.” As Sara Ahmed argues, citation is a political practice of memorialization and responsibility: “It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way.”[1]

The feminist food studies trail includes Food, the Body and the Self (1996), in which Deborah Lupton reinforced how food, eating, bodies, and subjectivity are socially constructed and inextricably linked.[2] Arlene Avakian’s edited collection, Through the Kitchen Window: Women Writers Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking (1997), revealed the significant variability in these linkages for women, themes expanded upon in Avakian and Barbara Haber’s edited volume From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food (2005).[3] Indeed, feminism fueled food studies as a field, afforded it legitimacy, and multiplied its focus, as Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik wrote in the second edition of Food and Culture: A Reader (first published in 1997): “The recognition of food as a feminist issue has expanded beyond the subject of eating disorders…to cover the wide diversity of feminist approaches to food and women’s food stories.”[4] To this point, Food and Culture featured essays from Susan Bordo (who is cited often in Digesting Femininities), and also Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Caroline Bynum, Marjorie DeVault, and Anne Allison. Counihan even addressed Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue in a 1985 review essay, later republished in The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power (1999).[5] Providing further material, Sherrie Inness published three edited volumes on food from a feminist perspective in 2001, taking into account the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexualities.[6] Laura Shapiro’s widely read food histories have also spanned exactly the topics that Digesting Femininities investigates: cookbooks and cooking, dieting and restrained eating, women, femininities, and feminisms.[7]

Although far from a complete bibliography, these texts have been among those compiled in other essays that celebrate their publication—along with field-specific journals, edited series, conferences, and professional organizations—as institutionalized evidence that food studies has arrived. I cannot help but worry, however, that Digesting Femininities—a book subtitled “The Feminist Politics of Contemporary Food Culture”—could be published without acknowledging the presence of food studies, as a feminist enterprise in both theory and practice. The stakes of “citing yourself into an academic existence”[8] remain high for food studies, a precarious state that scholars writing on food—and their editors and reviewers—should recognize and address.

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