This quote from the well-received young adult novel The Summer of Jordi Perez (And the Best Burger in Los Angeles) by Amy Spalding vividly captures the essence of the novel: The main character’s (Abby Ives’s) striking line pictures the tensions between her mother and herself that are based in their different approaches to how to live a good life—and the good life is immediately connected to a healthy and slim body. While Abby stridently points out that her fat body visibly contradicts her mother’s lifestyle, the name of her mother’s business, “Eat Healthy with Norah!”—more order than invitation; and yes, the flashy exclamation mark is an integral part of it—is an emblem of her approach towards food, and that is postfeminist healthism.
What exactly is postfeminist healthism? Postfeminism, in a nutshell, describes the all-encompassing notion that Western societies have moved beyond sexist and sexualized discrimination and that gender roles are stable and fair. Therefore, our societies are no longer in need of feminist critique, activism, and (body) politics. Essentially, this leads to the assumption that whether women are successful or not is on them and them alone. Sociologist Rosalind Gill conceives “postfeminism as a sensibility” (148) to emphasize the omnipresence of postfeminism as it influences every part of daily life. Healthism, first coined by Robert Crawford in the 1980s, denotes the equally widespread conviction that health is a lifestyle choice that can be easily managed by each member of society through their conscious food and exercise habits. This turns health into a valuable goal that everyone should want to acquire. Postfeminist healthism, then, ties both notions together and reveals their similarities and synergies: It encapsulates a neoliberal stance in that it moves away from a structural critique of societal systems to lifestyle choices, which increases the individual’s responsibility and accountability. In their collective volume Postfeminism and Health, Sarah Riley, Adrienne Evans, and Martine Robson illustrate that this amalgamation of postfeminism and healthism is pivotal to understanding the complex hunt for well-being that women at the beginning of the twenty-first century are (supposed to be) engaged with if they want to live the ‘good (healthy) life.’
Due to the disruptive potential of coming of age, young adult fiction often becomes a space in which this pressure of finding the good way to live is discursively portrayed and discussed. In The Summer of Jordi Perez, Abby’s feminism, which strives for further critical feminist engagement and questions the mandate to live healthily as a lifestyle, exposes and resents her mother’s postfeminist healthism.
Postfeminist Healthism, Marketing Strategies, and Motherhood
In a postfeminist healthist fashion, mothers who (to a certain extent) effortlessly raise their children in the name of health will be considered good mothers. That is why Norah Ives’s business may seem like a good thing: Norah is an up-and-coming businesswoman (including a signed book and TV deal), whose husband even quit his job in order to work for her in a field that is largely dominated by men. With ease, she breaks many of the glass ceilings on her way up the career ladder. Central to her business model of marketing a healthy lifestyle is that she encourages her followers to avoid carbohydrates at all costs because they are, according to Abby, Norah’s “big enemy” (86). It is not only the name of her brand but also Norah’s relationship to and more significantly her promotion of food rituals that show her embodiment of postfeminist healthism.
In many ways, the fictional Eat Healthy with Norah! business model shares postfeminist and healthist approaches with the real-life company Hello Fresh, which delivers fresh (and thereby healthy) ingredients alongside shiny recipe cards to your doorstep so that ‘all’ you have to do is cook the meal for yourself and your family. Hello Fresh’s strategy to focus their online advertisement largely on the in‑vogue aesthetic of the meals hides the postfeminist and healthist aspects of being ‘smart’ about calories, and it leaves the gendered realities of meal preparations out of the picture. One exception of this omission and focus on the food itself is actress Mindy Kaling who is the current spokesperson of the U.S.-American branch of Hello Fresh. In short and witty videos, she is portrayed as the well-organized mother who is living the good life and, with Hello Fresh’s support, only spends a short time in the kitchen. Instead of cooking, she uses her new spare time “scrolling her phone,” brushing aside the pressures of motherhood in today’s family life. In a postfeminist and healthist manner, living a good life (read also: successful, cool, career-orientated, well-fed, balanced, with time for phone scrolling, etc.) means being a relaxed mother who is ‘smart’ not only about calories but who also chooses what to do in her spare time wisely. What Hello Fresh thus shares with Eat Healthy with Norah! is the deployment of postfeminist healthism as a marketing strategy that leads both of them to their self-made success.
Rebellion through Food: Teenagers and Bad Mothers
And yet, the YA novel The Summer of Jordi Perez comes with a twist: in contrast to young adult novels whose protagonists concentrate on eating less or nothing as a form of rebellion against parental guidance (examples of this phenomenon are How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson), Norah’s daughter Abby revolts against her mother (and her business) by enjoying foods rich in carbohydrates. Abby’s coming of age is thus represented by her ability to make her own decisions about what food to eat and where to enjoy it—for instance, she often dines out with her friends, and, opposing her mother’s good intentions, her food choices are not centered around considerations of health or nutritional value. Abby’s food habits thus match the weight-neutral and intuitive eating approach advocated by the Health at Every Size movement, which focuses on enjoying of food instead of concentrating on its health benefits (the movement’s name has often been criticized for including word “health” in the first place). Abby’s rebellion further resembles what fat studies scholar Charlotte Cooper labels “micro fat activism” (78)—to just eat something, not measuring and weighing it, and thus to actively challenge postfeminist healthism. From Abby’s perspective, Norah’s embodiment of postfeminist healthism unmasks her as a ‘bad mother’ because she imposes her normative understanding of healthy food onto her daughter without considering what her adolescent daughter may want or need. The Summer of Jordi Perez thus illustrates the generational conflicts in the coming-of-age phase that arise out of the tensions between postfeminism healthism and feminist fat activism. Through Abby’s eating habits that follow the ideas of Health at Every Size and weight neutrality, the novel manifests a complex and demanding mother-daughter relationship. Despite Norah’s efforts of doing ‘everything’ for her children’s and family’s well-being, her postfeminism and healthism turn out to be the unhealthy option on Abby’s menu. Considering The Summer of Jordi Perez, maybe Hello Fresh is missing a rebellious teenager in the company to act as a counterbalance to its superficial postfeminist healthism.