Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Eileen E. Schell


Citizenship, Fat Studies, Feminist Rhetoric, Neoliberalism, Rhetoric of the body

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation focuses on specific discourses within the rhetoric of the "obesity crisis" that position the fat body as a threat to U.S. military power and national identity. Since 9/11, there has been a growing rhetoric that frames obesity as a threat to national security that is weakening U.S. military forces and straining the U.S. economy through increased health care costs and lower worker productivity. Drawing on research from rhetorical studies, transnational feminism, and disability studies that highlight the way that discourses surrounding the body are used to limit access to citizenship and rhetorical agency, this research analyzes the material and discursive effects of nationalist rhetorics of obesity.

The project begins with an analysis of John F. Kennedy's 1960 article "The Soft American," which worried that declining rates of fitness in the U.S. would lead to defeat in the Cold War and ultimately led to the development of the Presidential Fitness Program. This analysis of Kennedy works to contextualize the analysis of a variety of specific contemporary sites where a nationalist rhetoric of obesity emerges, including the work of the lobbying organization "Mission: Readiness," the Centers for Disease Control-funded documentary series Weight of the Nation, and the First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. The analysis of these sites shows that a nationalist rhetoric of obesity has developed as a response to the contradictions of neoliberalism, deflecting attention from the failures of the neoliberal state and encouraging citizen-consumers to buy their way to a thinner body. A nationalist rhetoric of obesity further normalizes the body and creates thinness as a condition of citizenship, ultimately reinforcing and deepening existing marginalizations based on race, gender, class, and ability.

Through its methodology, this dissertation project builds on rhetorical work in transnational feminism like that being done by Rebecca Dingo, Jennifer Wingard, and Eileen Schell. The project also draws on the work of rhetorical disability scholars like Jay Dolmage, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, and Margaret Price as it highlights the way discourses surrounding the body are used to limit access to citizenship and to rhetorical agency. In addition to blending transnational feminist and disability theory as critical frameworks, this project works to bring rhetorical studies into conversation with the relatively new field of fat studies-a field that challenges the medicalization of fat and deconstructs the stigma surrounding fatness in order to promote more just body politics.


Open Access