Oscar-winning actress and self-styled lifestyle adviser Gwyneth Paltrow has featured in the press recently, coinciding with the launch of her second book It’s All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes that Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great. The book reportedly presents a range of healthy recipes from Gwyneth’s own kitchen, accompanied by salubrious photos of the actress. The impetus for book, the second by the actress, was a health scare and consequent reassessment of her lifestyle – including diet.
However, it is less the book itself – which I point out I am yet to read – but more the responses in which I am interested. Among these are comments that criticise its author for the diet she advocates, the ingredients, time and resources needed to prepare the food, and her general authority to speak on such matters as diet and lifestyle.
While I don’t agree with all the principles Gwyneth advocates in her book, the criticism is interesting. Here is a woman who, motivated by a health scare and subsequent concerns for her own health, the potential impact of her ill health on her family, and her own family’s health, has set out to make changes. She has since shared the ingredients and results of her positive transformation in a public forum, and as a result of her pre-existing status will no doubt make some money in the process. True, her means and resources are far above what most of us have to contend with, but at the end of the day her goal is admirable - do the best you can for your health and that of your family. Make a commitment to improving your health, especially diet. Invest the resources, and enjoy the benefits.
It is interesting to compare this scenario to other celebrities who similarly promote a certain lifestyle and its ingredients. Beyonce for instance recently netted $50million for endorsing Pepsi. Yet, while this deal was widely reported in the business press, and the singer was urged to reconsider the deal by health advocates, among a more proletariat audience the deal seamed to pass without much attention. Another celebrity endorsing another processed food product for major financial return. Alternatively, we can read this as a celebrity lending their pop-cultural capital to help boost sales and consumption of products that are connected with ill health, increased health care costs and decreased quality of life at an individual level, and predicted catastrophic consequences at a population level. Yet we seemingly take the latter scenario for granted. It’s the norm within our society.
Bourdieu used the term doxa or “that which is taken for granted” to refer to situations where control of one group in society over another occurs through a process of symbolic and cultural manipulation. Through this process the more powerful group in society is able to ensure that social structures are maintained to serve their interests. This process is often subtle, to the extent that we may be unconscious of it. It therefore often goes unquestioned.
The two examples involving celebrity endorsement highlight this principle in action. Within our current neo-liberal environment, major industries such as the food and beverage industry and the media which supports their promotional activities, enjoy a powerful position within our society. Through a variety of subtle and obvious forms they have established a legitimate place within our society and culture, even when their activities are associated with questionable social outcomes. As a society we don’t criticise celebrity endorsement of unhealthy products because it’s the norm.
Obesity researchers use the term obesogenic environments to explain the circumstance whereby the broader social, economic and cultural environment which surrounds a population is conducive to obesity. The default option is not the good option in terms of our health. Perhaps this is why Gwyneth advocating a diet that is healthy, requires investment of time and sacrifice, but ultimately yields positive rewards, gets our attention. It also highlights the alarming extent to which health lifestyles have been sidelined in our society. Pursuing health is no longer the norm.
Bourdieu encourages us to explore the dynamic behind cultural phenomena, question who is involved and the broader social framework in which they operate. This example highlights that we need to take the issue of both obesity and health lifestyles out of the doctor’s office or the health journals and explore the implications of everyday scenarios for our health and society. That is at least until the kale and quinoa industries can pay Beyonce $50 million to promote healthy products.