CAS SEE Seminar with Catie Gressier on Illness, Obesity, and the Rise of Health Populism, in conversation with CAS SEE executive deputy prof. Sarah Czerny

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Rates of chronic illness and obesity have increased in tandem with neoliberal policies that have created precarious working conditions, an increase in polluted, toxic environments, and the unregulated sale of ‘junk’ foods. Yet, the foregrounding of individual responsibility within neoliberal healthcare ideology has resulted in those whose bodies do not conform to the healthy, slender ideal being blamed. Stigmatization, and growing distrust of the mainstream system, is leading the ill and overweight to seek alternative health and dietary practices. Drawing on ethnographic research with Australian Paleo dieters in Sydney, Melbourne, and online, Gressier argues that health populism is characterized by a shared sense of crisis, and the rejection by ‘the people’ of the elite, who are seen as having created, or at least having failed to prevent, said crisis. With its nostalgic appeals to an idyllic past, the Paleo diet movement constructs itself as oppositional to contemporary society’s ills broadly, and mainstream medicine’s perceived failings particularly, through offering ‘common sense’ solutions to health challenges. Favoring the anecdotal over the evidence-based, populist Paleo diet leaders tap into consumers’ anxieties and frustrations through social media platforms that provide a sense of community for dietary adherents, and a source of considerable revenue for their founders. From the anti-vax movement through to climate change denial, such forms of epistemological populism are flourishing. These ways of thinking are critical to understand given the potential implications of disregarding science for individual through to planetary health.

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