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Review: Governing Bodies

In "Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique," Rachel Louise Moran draws from history and women's studies to consider if the federal government should have a say in what you eat, or how a body should look.

Published onJun 16, 2019
Review: Governing Bodies

Rachel Louise Moran. Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, 224 pp.

Do you think the federal government should have a say in what you eat? What about how your body should look? In Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique, Rachel Louise Moran draws from history and women’s studies to consider these questions. This book outlines the use of federal research, programs, and standards on food, nutrition, and bodies to influence citizens’ physiques. She particularly focuses on white male bodies to show how the modern state prioritizes whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality as attributes of the ideal citizen, and to unpack how these norms and ideals are constructed. Moran makes a compelling argument that the United States government has been influencing its citizens’ bodies and eating habits through advisory state projects.

Moran effectively moves her readers through the history and concepts her arguments are based on, with interesting anecdotes and examples to draw readers in. However, one drawback is in the introduction, where she notes the theoretical literature drawn on in connecting the advisory state to politics and national development, but does not expand on some of the concepts introduced, such as “weight and physique culture, biopolitics, and feminist body history” (6). While this helps the author to avoid theoretical jargon, it is potentially confusing if the reader is not well versed in or aware of these frameworks. Additionally, an academic audience might hope that Moran would show exactly how she drew on these frameworks to elucidate how she connected them together.

Central to the author’s argument is this concept of advisory state projects, which do not legislate—and thus, force—changes in bodily physique, but produce them through suggestion and advice. The advisory state comprises a mix of tools (measurements, programming, broadcasts) and implementation techniques. Moran contends there is a long history of state investment in such projects which focus around the literal ‘reshaping’ of citizens, but which are typically packaged in terms of individual citizens’ autonomy. Tracing and tying together advisory projects from the 1920s through the late 1970s, Moran examines the multiple ways that state power has been transformed and exercised in connecting bodies to dominant discourses and ideologies of health and good citizenship.

Throughout the book, Moran argues that the quantification of bodily processes through the creation of nutritional science helped to bring bodies within the realm of policy and state management. Numbers, tables, and statistics allowed for the production of bodies as normal or abnormal through constructions of objective criteria for health. Additionally, she highlights how these constructions become moralized through different agendas—such as, national security and geopolitics, capitalism, racial and hunger politics, and tropes such as the “welfare queen.” The author’s trail from the 1920s to the 1970s is simultaneously divided by time period and interlaced, helping the reader to understand the creation and effects of individual projects along with how they all come together to form overarching and subtle interventions upon bodies over time. Throughout the book, the moralization of poverty and weight is touched upon, particularly how these discourses disproportionately affect those in the population who are not white males.

Moran’s examination of the American Progressive Era (1890s–1920s) and the beginning of nutrition advice programs in the United States is reminiscent of the analytical approaches taken in other recent scholarship—such as, that by Biltekoff[1] or Veit[2]—although it does not engage with them directly. Like Veit, Moran examines how the creation and implementation of nutrition science during the Progressive Era and its ties to issues of morality not only impact the way we eat, but helps to create certain types of citizens along lines of social identities. However, Moran follows Biltekoff’s lead in following these discourses past the progressive era, though not into current times as Biltekoff does. Moran’s potential contribution to this debate is to illustrate how the burgeoning science of nutrition filtered into government programs and everyday life, focusing on how these messages came to be moralized and internalized in efforts to become ‘good citizens’. Moran elucidates this through concrete examples of narratives and accounts of different state advisory projects. These not only showcase her rigorous archival work, but also help to strengthen her arguments while simultaneously drawing the reader in. This work augments Biltekoff and Veit by further adding an analysis that is singularly focused on bodies. Moran’s arguments are sound and well backed up by the presented evidence. However they could be made stronger through an explicit engagement with previous literature in critical nutrition studies, along with elucidating her theoretical framework and how it connects to each of her chapters.

Governing Bodies is an excellent book for those interested in the extension of government power into bodies and populations, along with the changing ways bodies have been viewed and produced in the United States. Moran makes her argument in clear steps, with the included visuals of government posters and photographs adding to the text. The book’s accessible language makes it an engaging read not just for academics, but also anyone interested in the topics of food and nutrition policy, biopolitics, and feminist body history. Taken together, this book would make a valuable addition to classes or research in geography, sociology, anthropology, or policy, as well as the bookshelf of anyone attentive to food and nutrition policy in the United States.


Alanna K. Higgins is a University Provost Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Geology & Geography at West Virginia University. Her research interests center around food sovereignty and food justice, the political ecologies of health, and feminist geographies and epistemologies. She is currently developing her dissertation; researching the medicalization of local foods through examining questions of food and social justice, biopolitics, and ontological “givens” within public health and alternative food.

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