Good Consumers and Bad Foods: Identity Construction and Moralizing Discourses in Whole30's Digital Spaces

Alisha Wilkinson


As I made my way through the grocery store, I quickly passed over the dairy section, heading straight to the butcher’s counter. Looking over the meat, neatly packed in styrofoam containers, the uniformity and sterility hardly seemed compatible with the ideas I had read about across the Whole30 website. After quickly selecting a chicken breast, I moved onto the produce. Weaving my way through the aisles, list in hand, I began to consider the fruit and vegetables I was gathering. In my time on the Whole30 forums the importance of selecting “good” foods had come up repeatedly, although the exact definition of that remained obscure. The Whole30 organization outlined official rules, but there was much more to consider. Some people emphasized the importance of free-range meats and organic produce, believing it was not good enough to simply follow the rules. Did it matter if I purchased the organic bell peppers? There was no free range chicken… should I try the other grocery store? I began to wonder where the lines could be drawn and what constituted “good” food products. If following the rules was not enough, how were people supposed to select their food and define their understanding of “good” foods? I opted for the organic peppers, adding them to my basket while my mind wandered and I considered organic certifications, social responsibility, and worker protections. I pushed these thoughts from my head and began to search for compliant mustard in the prepared food section. Reading through the labels, picking out ingredients that might indicate the presence of added sugar, I grew more and more frustrated. Even the brands with no sugar were filled with ingredients I couldn’t pronounce or identify. I stood in the aisle with the mustard for what felt like 10 minutes before placing my basket down and walking out empty handed.

When I embarked on a digital ethnography of the Whole30 diet movement and the online content associated with this program, I will admit I had not considered the ways this might play out “offline.” Although the Whole30 program now includes books and other content across many platforms, it originated in a digital space, and Whole30 has a large online presence, including a popular, active, and well integrated online forum and other social media platforms. This made it an ideal subject for a digital ethnography of consumption practices. While my online ethnographic activities consisted mainly of reviewing forum posts by participants, as well as postings on blogs and social media by official Whole30 contributors, additional participant observation, including the preparation of Whole30 compliant meals, was also undertaken to connect these immaterial online activities with the embodied aspects of my work. I was drawn into Whole30 as a modern dietary practice that was constantly evolving in a digital space. Through a combination of interviews and online ethnography, this paper attempts to understand the Whole30 phenomenon, but more specifically how it is impacted and integrated with online technologies and spaces in an effort to understand how ideas of consumption could be shaped in the digital world.

That afternoon in the grocery store was just one of a number of times throughout this research that I was confronted with a situation where I had to reconcile my understandings of Whole30 from the online sphere with my “real life” as I attempted to better understand the program. Whole30 is a recent diet phenomenon similar to the Paleo diet, both of which are meant to be reminiscent of the consumption practices of early human ancestors (Maxfield and Rissing 2017, 141). Whole30 was founded by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig in 2009, and Melissa remains an active contributor to social media and online platforms. The program is proposed as a “cleanse,” a “short-term nutrition reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system” (“Welcome to the Whole30.”). For 30 days participants stop eating sugar, grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol, and any baked goods, junk foods, or treats. Extensive rules, clarifications, and explanations can be found across Whole30’s websites and social media pages.

While restrictive fad diets can be traced far back in human history (Chen 2009), something about the intensely interactive engagement of participants with each other online struck me as distinctive: a mode of sociality and subjectification still in coalescence but evidently powerful. Using ethnographic data gathered over a period of four months including interviews with participants, online observation of Whole30 sponsored forums and social media pages, and experimentation (albeit sporadically) with the program itself, this article explores how online spaces are used to facilitate and promote identity construction and transformation amongst Whole30 participants. While Whole30 is the real name of the program, and I use the publicly available names of the company’s founders, all other names in what follows are pseudonyms. Throughout this article I will consider how new media and online platforms provide community support, and create spaces to experiment with new identities, as well as establishing communal norms and beliefs. Like other fad and restrictive diets, Whole30 perpetuates moralized discourses surrounding food choice, and creates subjects of good and bad consumers through this process. These perceptions of food and consumption are entangled with genuine concerns about personal and familial health and well-being as people become more and more aware of how food systems are complex, and hidden from view. However, like many diet and alternative food movements, Whole30 requires time, access, and a certain freedom to choose what and when one eats that marks classed privilege. For Whole30 participants, food provides an important outlet for self-expression and self-understanding, understood here as normative ideals of the contemporary, North American middle-class (Wilf 2011). Participants undertake work on themselves and construct identities in relation to the program and communal understandings of food and consumption, in what is usually seen as a means of self-improvement. The moralizing discourses and communal spaces are key components of participants’ “technologies of self “(Foucault 1997), which incorporate ideas of nostalgia and authenticity to legitimize food choices, reassure participants, establish control in the food system, and outsource anxieties about health and diet.

Literature Review

The study of food practices and consumption has been central to anthropology throughout the history of the discipline. The works of Bourdieu considered class and taste, while Levi-Strauss and Douglas, “made important contributions to a structuralist vision of food and eating” (Mintz and Du Bois 2002, 99). Food serves as an important cultural tool for defining individual and group identity, as well as one’s place within the social system. According to Anderson, food can be used to associate oneself with a particular group and communicate class, ethnicity, and social position (Anderson 2005, 172).  Food is essential to social identity, and conveys a position within social systems and hierarchies (Fischler 1988, 175). Understanding what are “preferred” and “non-preferred” foods is at the heart of anthropological studies of nutrition and eating, and an examination of the Whole30 program, is part of a larger body of work reflecting on the contemporary and historic role of restrictive diets in shaping individual and group consumption patterns. The decision to engage in extreme voluntary diet restriction can be seen as problematic or disordered by some, but Scott argues that, “socially acceptable instances of food restriction are not modern inventions” (2017, 157). Early examples of restrictive diet, often focused on religious practice or presumptions about health and well-being which are linked to ideas of, “morality, goodness, worth and proper performance” (Scott 2017, 157) Common restrictive diets, such as veganism, extend beyond the realm of health and well-being and to address other social issues, demonstrating that good citizenship can be demonstrated, “through proper consumption” (Scott 2017, 159).

Much of the research on these restrictive diets focuses on the moralized discourses surrounding food choices, and how people establish good versus bad foods. Michel Foucault’s works have contribute greatly to understandings of power dynamics, and his work on discourses can be applied to numerous fields, including health and well-being, where competing and often contradictory discourses exist within the mainstream and specialized online spaces that shape conceptions of food as well as the way individuals constitute their own identity. The goal of examining these discourses is not to determine one single or dominant idea, since “multipl[e] discursive elements . . . can come into play in various strategies” (Foucault, 1978, as cited in Thorpe 2008, 202). Rather, it is important to understand the multiplicity of forces shaping understandings of food, nutrition and well-being. Foucault’s later work, including the second volume of The History of Sexuality, turned to the concept of subjectification: how individuals are not only shaped by others, but how they “think about themselves, act for themselves, and transform themselves within power relations” (Thorpe 2008, 208). This adds to discourse the relations, acts, and spaces through which one becomes a subject. Before being published in book form, the concept of “technologies of self” was elaborated in Foucault’s lectures and talks, notably one at the University of Vermont in 1982 on which I will rely (Foucault 1997). I will elaborate more through the ethnographic material that follows, but, in brief, these technologies can be thought of as those that “permit individuals to effect… a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being” so as to positively transform themselves (1997, 225).

Moralizing discourses surrounding food and consumption

The first part of this paper focuses on the ways in which Whole30 participants moralize consumption and food. Compliant foods and the Whole30 diet are seen as healthy and authentic making them “good”, while other diets and non-compliant foods are seen as detrimental and are labelled “bad.” These ideas are outlined in the Whole30 rules, a strict set of guidelines that are written in plain and conversational language, seeming more like advice from a friend than nutritional science. These rules are often quoted by forum posters in support of their responses or opinions, which legitimizes individual interpretations of the program. Although the rules set out fairly rigid parameters, participants still must navigate the “unofficial” rules and guidelines of the diet, which can be found in online spaces. The rules, which were formulated within the Whole30 corporate structure and program, are taken up by users and are actively defined over time and through collaboration with other participants online. Aside from introductions and daily “diet log” postings, the bulk of discussion on the Whole30 forums centres around interpreting and negotiating these rules. The “Can I have ____________?” section of the forum contains over 25,000 posts with queries about the compliance of products, ranging from questions about certain brands or types of foods to specific ingredients, including a post titled, “Are foods and supplements with sucralose allowed?" The flexibility of what are seemingly rigid rules becomes clear in these forum threads where the compliance of foods is often discussed, debated, and contested amongst participants. In a discussion on protein supplements, some responses support the idea and attempt to identify compliant products, while other posters dismiss these products. Although protein powders may exist that comply with the technical requirements, for some posters these products do not seem to align with the spirit of the program, which in turn makes them non-compliant. It is this flexibility and negotiation amongst members online that can create conflict, but also serves to enhance the program for many participants who are seeking a clearer understanding of what nutrition means and how one can eat healthy. Interview participants and online contributors identified the forums as an important feature that attracted them to the Whole30 program.

The ongoing negotiation amongst online community members creates communal conceptions of food, a central component of which is their morality. One of the functionalities of the Whole30 forums allows contributors to tag their posts, and popular tags include “good food" and “bad food.” This clearly illustrates the extent to which moralized discourses surrounding food are the norm on the Whole30 forums and within the program. Some posters voiced opposition to moral distinctions, saying, “I do not use the word "clean" with either "food" or "eating" as I don't regard any food as “dirty.” However, these distinctions are widely used across the site and other Whole30 platforms.

What I want to underscore here is that through this process of discussing and evaluating food as good or bad with other participants, and by extension, consumers as good or bad, the Whole30 sites serve as spaces of subjectification. I will emphasize two central aspects of the online community and its role in generating and deploying moralized conceptions of food. The first concerns the problems of doing the Whole30, including feeling negatively judged and negatively judging others, while the second examines how positive reinforcement for good shopping and eating is provided.

The complexity of contemporary food systems and the competing messages about health and nutrition create a desire for a simpler understanding of food which Whole30 participants seek out, ironically, in the complex of guidelines and the online community’s shared values surrounding consumption. The forums were often utilized as a way to discuss problems in everyday life amongst a group of people who felt similarly about food consumption. Many voiced the struggles of interacting with those that do not understand the program. Kelly, a teacher in her fifties whom I met online and then interviewed and shopped with in person, expressed that she disliked going out during Whole30 because she grew tired of explaining Whole30 to those around her, and she positioned herself in opposition to those that did not understand the program. Kelly and Jane, another Whole30 participant, also reinforced the idea that online forums create a space with shared beliefs and values, as well as little fear of backlash or questioning. These spaces could be used for support and to help cope with opposition from those who do not understand the program.

A “bad” association with certain foods and by extension consumers is often voiced through discourses surrounding concern for family and friends that do not participate.  One forum poster spoke of her failed attempts at involving her mother in the program, saying it is, “sad because I really think she'd benefit from the program. She's always been an emotional eater and it kinda shows. I love her but I want her to be healthy.” This concern is also often a way to establish the moral superiority of participants in opposition to the “other,” or those that do not participate in Whole30 and look down on the program. The way in which mainstream ideas of nutrition, are taken up and shaped online, and subsequently reinforced, shows the role of these online spaces in helping individuals navigate competing discourses about nutrition without allowing one dominant discourse to emerge. The flexibility of the program ultimately requires participants to navigate competing discourses surrounding what is compliant and non-compliant, and how this can differ from what is “good” and “bad”, within an existing power structure and societal understandings of health and well-being. Individual participants are forced to ultimately decide how they will limit consumption, creating individual subjects within communal spaces. Kelly talked about establishing her own understanding of “good” and “bad” food within the program, saying that although potatoes were allowed, for her they were a “bad” food because they negatively impacted her well-being. Having done multiple Whole30s and after discussing the topic with other participants, Kelly strayed from the parameters in a way she felt was acceptable, because it aligned with the core tenets of the program and prioritized her well-being. However, not all individual conceptions of the program are accepted and some decisions to stray from the rules are met with backlash, particularly when it relates to the vague areas of the Whole30 rules. One woman was critiqued for continuing a very restrictive Whole 30 diet after the end of the one month period, with one reply saying that without reintroducing foods it is, “just another crapshoot in the dark and it then becomes about weight loss and secret dieting,” and this is seen very negatively by participants. While most interview participants described their reintroduction process as informal, for many forum posters failing to reintroduce foods was violating the shared rules that made Whole30 a “good” health practice. These disagreements were part of the process of defining shared values and rules within the community, which seems to be an important part of the online platform, particularly the forums.

In addition to collaborating in opposition to conventional food systems, many forum posts also illustrate a sense of community that is fostered amongst participants online by positioning themselves in opposition to non-participants who threaten individual success within the program. Aligning with the communal understandings of health and ensuring compliant consumption is prioritized, and when participants accidentally consume non-compliant products and breach the rules of the program, there is an extreme sense of guilt and disappointment. This is not only seen as failing to remain loyal to the program, which can negatively affect results, it is also creates distress because individuals have strayed from the desired behaviours of a good consumer. When Kelly talks about straying from the program she describes it as a form of self-sabotage, and she expresses disappointment at having failed to maintain a “good consumer identity” by following the program. Forum posters also voiced guilt and disappointment over having failed to maintain their diet. Upon learning that the tea she had been drinking was not compliant one poster said, “it is incredibly frustrating, I feel like I can’t trust anything and no matter how hard I try to be 100% compliant I keep slipping,” while others voiced similar emotional distress upon learning that they had or had potentially consumed non-compliant products.

If first function of these forums is to provide support for problems and perceived outside denigration, the second is one of positive reinforcement. The forums contain many examples of participants receiving praise and encouragement after posting their progress, or using the advice of other participants to help guide them through difficult parts of the program. Kelly, when I interviewed her, identified the online Whole30 resources as providing information, support, inspiration and a sense of community, and outlined her usage, saying that when she’s doing a Whole30 she is on the website nearly every day. Kelly also said she enjoys following people’s stories and found that the forums brought together similar communities that shared common goals and interests. By bringing together people that celebrate the accomplishments of those within the community, participants found a sense of security and encouragement on the forums even if they did not post their own results. However, it is worth noting that for those that stray from the commonly held beliefs on the online forums these spaces can be detrimental. Interview participants all discussed times they had witnessed posters being attacked for the perspectives on, which made many uncomfortable and detracted for the positive online experience.

Both the negative and positive reinforcement processes of food’s morality demonstrate the creation of what Foucault (1997, 225) described as a “mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself” (or usually in this case, herself), based on purity, restriction and self-control, and the moral authority associated with “good” consumption practices, by way of contrast with bad ones. In the online forums, communities come into being where participants are able to reinforce views of themselves as good consumers in contrast to what they see as poor consumption practices.

Food and identity construction

            It became clear in my observation of Whole30’s online spaces that participants do indeed shape their relationship with food based on moralized discourses surrounding consumption, and that these relationships with food served to facilitate a construction of self. Similar to other popular diets and consumption practices, Whole30 is not just an effort to change body image but to undergo a transformation of self that aligns with ideas of self-care and self-understanding (Heyes 2007). Many participants talk about Whole30 being a life changing experience that they feel cannot be understood by those that haven’t completed the program, and Jane said, “It gave me a whole different perspective… I have a different relationship with food now.” Kelly also emphasized the profound impact Whole30 had on her lifestyle, extending beyond just what she ate, including encouraging her participation in fitness programs like cross-fit. While describing her first Whole30, she said, “my mind was clearer, I had more energy, and my sleep improved. Everything improved and so that was motivation to keep going.” Partly as a result of this positive outcome, Kelly has entirely restructured her views of food and the way she eats to align with Whole30. The idea that the power of “good” foods extends beyond the realm of consumption is seen across Whole30 platforms, which claim the program can improve lifestyle and resolve numerous medical issues, including arthritis, diabetes, allergies and infertility (“Welcome to the Whole30.”).

Forum posts illustrate that the preoccupation with moralized judgements of food can come from uncertainty and genuine concern with contemporary food systems, another arena of contemporary self-expression. Jane, a middle aged office worker and regular Whole30 participant said, “You never really know what’s in half of the foods now. I don’t think I’d want to eat most of the things I find in stores.” In response to these concerns, some participants focus on supporting alternative food systems and buying foods with local, organic, or fair-trade designations as part of their Whole30 participation. Throughout the online community there was a general agreement that high-quality products should be sought out, but most participants struggled to define what this meant. Labels, such as fair-trade and organic, were generally accepted as desirable, but not essential to the program, and some others strongly supported local production. In discussions of free-range meat providers, the companies with animal welfare practices were praised, with one provider being lauded for having, “every grass-fed beef and free-range chicken product you can think of… and Alaskan wild caught salmon (if you can afford it)” Similarly, my interview participants expressed a desire to reconnect with food producers and seek out quality products, including prioritizing organic produce even though this is limited in some regions. This alignment with alternative food movements serves two additional functions amongst the Whole30 community. First it legitimizes the movements and connects it to other common consumption practices. Despite scientific evidence supporting this meal plan, there remain many questions about the safety and efficacy of Whole30. Articles questioning the program are posted on the forum and can spark debate, and posters have shared stories of doctors and medical professionals questioning the program. However these concerns are universally dismissed by participants, who cite other research or personal experience. Aligning with alternative food movements also allows Whole30 to increase its credibility and legitimacy as a way of changing one’s lifestyle and relationship with food. As discussed above, the online communities provide a space where people can determine a shared understanding of good and bad foods, making these online communities important tools for Whole30 to reinforce its legitimacy amongst members. Achieving moral superiority and legitimacy through connecting to “authentic” manifestations of food production evidently raises the specter of embodied class and privilege, which can be seen in the varied, but often uncertain, responses to those seeking advice on how to participate in Whole30 while on welfare or food stamps. The connection to alternative food movements and a simpler past remains an important tools for Whole30 participants to legitimize their dietary choices amidst criticism.

This ensemble of practices and normative positioning can be understood using Foucault’s concept of technologies of self, which “permit individuals to effect by their own means … a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immorality” (Foucault 1997, 225). Foucault refers to the process of individuals undertaking work upon themselves as subjectification. This transformation takes place within existing power structures, and it is shaped by the moralized discourses of Whole30 and the social norms in the online community. Holly Thorpe suggests that, in this Foucauldian framework, “the first step in the technologies of the self involves the individual gaining an ability to problematize his or her identity and the codes that govern him or her. Only after such problematization can the individual engage in ethical work and practices of freedom, and develop practices of transformation” (2008, 209). These steps were illustrated in both interviews and online content. Kelly often questioned the food system and found that she did not enjoy the way certain food choices, such as fast food, impacted her lifestyle. It was this problematization of her own dietary practices that led Kelly to Whole30. This allowed Kelly to start the Whole30 program and undertake what Foucault would call ethical work. Through the program, participants undertake work on themselves in pursuit of transformation. This work is designed to create an ethical subject within the existing power structure through the inherently political act of care and knowledge of self, which for Foucault is not seen as a distraction from the political (Thorpe 2008, 208). Once many participants were able to problematize their diet and consumption, Whole30 provided the tools needed to undertake the work on oneself that is required to transform and construct an ethical identity within the contemporary food system. Whether it was restricting consumption, supporting alternative food systems or adopting new exercise plans, these activities serve to facilitate the transformation. By drawing on the rules and norms of the Whole30 program participants are able to actively constitute themselves in a way that is appropriate within this community.

            According to Foucault, the motivation to undertake this change stems from a problematization of existing food systems and consumption practices. Efforts to reconcile problematic conceptions of food systems often centred on seeking authentic food preparation and consumption experiences rooted in ideas of nostalgia. Additionally participants also sought greater control of food and consumption through values of individual choice and a desire to take responsibility for one’s own health well-being. Initial analysis of literature on Whole30 and the paleo diet revealed the idea of a simple and clean eating plan that mimicked that of earlier human ancestors (Maxfield and Rissing 2017, 141). Particularly amongst paleo diet participants, this is seen as a way of justifying dietary choices, and ensuring consumption was more authentic. These ideas were also displayed within the Whole30 program, particularly in literature produced by the Whole30 organization in support the scientific validity of the program. However, I found that the quest for authenticity was more often linked to ideas of nostalgia and childhood meals. In describing her way of eating, Kelly says, “we were raised that way…there weren’t a lot of processed foods, you know baking was limited, we ate more simple when we were kids. So for us it wasn’t a big stretch to go back to that way of eating.” Both the comparisons to the diet of early humans and a longing for the simple meals of childhood create a sense of legitimacy and authenticity through nostalgia and romanticizing the past. When discussing meat and food production, Kelly expressed a longing for a past where there was a greater connection with food, and she talks about the, “old days when they grew what they ate or they harvested their meat from the bush.” For these participants, reconnecting with producers and recreating romanticized ideas of the past in food choices further reinforces the moralized subjects of the good and bad consumer. Genetically modified products and other foods that do not fit the romantic image of authenticity are often looked down upon. Genetically modified products were described on the forum and in interviews as manipulating consumers, and Kelly expressed a belief that genetically modified products and other processed foods, '"actually toy with our psychology and trigger cravings.” However, this fixation on authenticity was also used to disguise the privilege and class divides amongst participants in a natural pursuit for “real food” and to ignore how these food practices are embedded in social hierarchies. While online discussions were focused on high-end brands and involvement with alternative foods movements that are often critiqued for perpetuating social and class divide, questions about doing Whole30 on budget were often met with skepticism (Alkon 2013, 671). Many participants felt it was not possible to do Whole30 with a limited income, while others felt that those that lacked financial security should not be concerned with their dietary choices. Although the quest for “real food” is portrayed as something that all should strive for, by providing few resources and discouraging participation by low-income individuals “good” consumption becomes limited to those who are perceived as being financially secure and possessing the necessary financial flexibility to spend more on “non-essentials” like organic produce and free-range meats.

            The rules and strict guidelines of the Whole30 program are valued by many and seen as a integral part of the program’s success, because they make healthy eating clear and accessible. This message is reinforced throughout the Whole30 website and social media pages, and it can be attributed to a desire to control the uncertain. Kelly stated that, “the biggest challenge would be stepping out of your… relinquishing control over your food when going on a trip or visiting friends.” Kelly notes, “there’s a whole section in the book and online about going to restaurants and eating Whole30, but I just don’t.” For Kelly the stress of not being in control of your food at a restaurant was undesirable, and when she does, “a Whole30 I want it to be as pure as possible, and if I go to a restaurant after a Whole30 I’ll have a steak and a salad and not worry what seasoning they put on the steak.” It is worth recognizing that the program does not encourage people isolating themselves from members of their social group, but this is one way people maintain control, and sections of the books and webpages are dedicated to navigating restaurants and other situations where food preparation is outside one’s control. Forum posts often ponder how to handle non-compliant food gifts and difficult dining experiences at parties and other social functions. Diet and nutrition are uncertain areas for many people, and Whole30 participants felt (non-Whole30) expert advice seemed to be constantly changing. In response to these uncertainties, many people appear to create arbitrary boundaries, such as dietary restrictions, as a way of outsourcing anxieties about having to decide what is best for one’s health. By aligning with a group such as Whole30 that holds strong beliefs and clear guidelines, participants seem to reduce anxiety about personal health by becoming part of a group. Although anxieties surrounding health and food choice remain within the Whole30 community, the collective identity of Whole30 members is seen as providing an assurance of success and well-being for all participants, which is why it may draw many participants with chronic illness who face a great deal of uncertainty. Kelly felt that the diet provided her greater control and relief from her Lupus symptoms, saying “because I have a diagnosis of Lupus and I thought maybe this will help to keep that in check.” This idea is echoed by many on the forums and official Whole30 blog posts.  By aligning oneself with the Whole30 community participants are reassured about their health and well-being, and are simultaneously empowered as individuals who can choose to make dietary changes and join programs like Whole30in pursuit of overall well-being. While being part of the group outsources anxieties, participants are able to make the individual choice to join Whole30’s group of “good” consumers, which gives participants a sense of individual ability to control their well-being. Whole30 participants are able to choose their own destiny by simply making changes to their diet, while dismissing larger worries about well-being because the Whole30 program addresses nutritional uncertainty. By simply following the rules individuals are empowered to care for themselves while larger concerns about how to do so appropriately are lessened by the support of a community created in opposition to “bad consumers” with strongly moralized conceptions of food. The choice to join the Whole30 program is an effort to transform oneself and address anxieties about the authenticity of food and the uncertainty of nutrition, health, and well-being.

Technologies of Self in Online Spaces

What I have illustrated above is the desire to maintain control through individual choices in pursuit of health and authenticity, as well as the desire to reduce uncertainty and the need to understand the complexities of consumption practice and nutrition by aligning oneself with a community. While Whole30 may seem restrictive in its food options, it is viewed by many as a way of exerting values of individual choice, and an opportunity for people to make decisions to prioritize their well-being. These choices led many participants on a path of self-improvement, which was facilitated by expanding knowledge of self and improving care of self, in an effort to achieve a more healthy and authentic identity.

Figure 1: The Whole30 website homepage.

Whole30’s Digital Space and the Role of New Media

Online spaces were a key component of the Whole30 experience and the transformation process. Despite the strong links to the past, Whole30 also attempts to maintain an image of legitimacy through modernity and science. This is reinforced through its heavily integrated online content, and the modern aesthetic of its website and social media pages. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate Whole30’s desired aesthetic for online content, with clean, simple, modern design. As participants enter the website, they are greeted by calming colours and clean lines accompanying clear text that addresses the reader in a familiar way. The website grows busier on the forum pages as different participants contribute their opinions and experiences. The forums are divided into sections, including “Can I have? “and, “Sourcing Good Food”, and posting titles, such as, “Can I change my carb-loving teen daughter?” Although the forum breaks from the generally minimalist and simple aesthetic of the webpage, it organizes participant contributions into sections, and reinforces modernity through its interactive online content and engagement with participants through new media. Whole30 draws on both romantic ideas of the past, as well as minimalism, simplicity and modernity in its digital
design features to convey authority and legitimacy.

Figure 2: A graphic form a Whole30 social media page.

These forums provide a digital space for individuals to experiment with new identities while the community negotiates shared norms and values. An entire section of the forum is dedicated to issues dealing with integrating Whole30 into daily life with friends and family, while smaller sections deal with more specific issues of integrating Whole30 with exercise plans or work travel obligations. Many posts are used as a way of exploring how participants will share Whole30 with those around them, face opposition from naysayers, and address challenges. Kelly found that many people do not understand the program, and common responses she receives when people learn about Whole30 include, “you’re crazy! How can you do it? I could never not eat bread.” These responses can create a distance between Kelly and others in her social group, and she uses online spaces to overcome this distance and maintain social connections. It is difficult for Kelly to interact with others over meals, which are important social settings in most cultures. She says, “I personally find when I do a Whole30 it’s much easier for me to stay home and just do it than it is to go anywhere. If I go to a friend’s for the weekend, and I just have an egg for breakfast it freaks them out …To me it’s just too much.” While fad diets pre-date the internet, the level of support and available information on forums makes them valuable tools to help reinforce identity construction amongst participants. The forums and other online spaces provide an environment where participants can immerse themselves in a community that is entirely supportive of the Whole30 program, which is often lacking outside these internet sites.


            Months after my first failed grocery store visit, I returned to make another attempt at preparing a Whole30 compliant meal alongside Kelly, a long time Whole30 participant. She moved with confidence through the store collecting produce and meat without voicing many concerns. Even when we reached the prepared food aisle and she paused, considering the label on two products, she quickly made a decision, pointing out that she had looked into these brands online before we came and was only reading the label to confirm what she already knew was a compliant product. With somebody there as a guide, someone I knew had a shared understanding of how to eat “the Whole30 way,” I was able to navigate the many questions I had previously struggled to understand. As we unceremoniously passed through the checkout, I thought back to the basket I’d left sitting in the mustard aisle months before, and it became clear as we talked and shopped the value participants saw in the online forums. Like other restrictive diets, Whole30 moralizes food choice and consumption, and many participants construct identities in relation to the program. Restrictive diets can be seen as an effort to control areas of life that are uncertain. This desire to take control of one’s well-being leads people to problematize their food systems and Whole30 provides the necessary tools to undertake a transformation that can be understood using technologies of self in search of healthy self-improvement and authentic consumption practices. This paper illustrates how Whole30 fits into the larger body of work on restrictive diets, and how people mediate their interactions with the subjectivising and moralizing forces of Whole30 through online communities and social media. The digital space in which Whole30 exists is an important part of the transformation process undertaken by individuals and creates a space where participants can deal with uncertainty about consumption with rules, moralized understandings of food, and shared values. Further, the very lack of clarity in some aspects of the rules generates discussion that facilitates the positive sociality of the online community. This work contributes to the growing trend of cleanses and other restrictive diets, as well as the methodology and growing field of digital ethnography, by examining the role of online spaces––often seen as immaterial––as part of embodied food practices in contemporary North America. While the role of these online spaces and how they are employed in support of restrictive diets, particularly in instances of disordered eating, will undoubtedly continue to develop, Whole30 provides an opportunity to consider the way modern consumers are addressing uncertainties in food and consumption practices using increasingly prevalent digital technology


Alkon, Alison. “The Socio-Nature of Local Organic Food.” Antipode  45, no.3 (2013): 663-80.

Anderson, E. N. Everyone Eats Understanding Food and Culture (Second Edition). New                York,   US: New York University Press, 2014.

Chen, Nancy. Food, medicine, and the quest for good health : nutrition, medicine, and culture, New York: New York : Columbia University Press, 2009.

Fischler, Claude. “Food, Self and Identity” Social Science Information 27, no. 2 (1988): 275-295.

Foucault, Michel. Ethics: subjectivity and Truth, Edited by Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley. Toronto, CA: Penguin Books Ltd, 1997.

Heyes, Cressida. Self-transformations Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies. Oxford, UK:    Oxford University Press, 2007.

Maxfield, Amanda, and Andrea Rissing, “Of Bananas and Cavemen.” In Food Cults: How    Fads,   Dogma, and Doctrine Influence Diet edited by Kima Cargill, 141-156. London, UK:   Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Mintz, Sidney, and Christine Du Bois. "The Anthropology of Food and Eating." Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 99-119.

Scott, Michele, “Eschew Your Food.” In Food Cults: How Fads, Dogma, and Doctrine                         Influence Diet edited by Kima Cargill, 157-172. London, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Thorpe, Holly. "Foucault, Technologies of Self, and the Media." Journal of Sport & Social Issues  32, no. 2 (2008): 199-229.

“Welcome to the Whole30.” Whole30. Accessed March 18, 2017.

Wilf, Eitan. "Sincerity Versus Self‐Expression: Modern Creative Agency and the Materiality of Semiotic Forms." Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 3 (2011): 462-84.