Scholarly Adventures in Self-Help, Dieting, and Therapeutic Culture
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Some of my current work

I’ll Tell You in the Car: And Other Lies I Still Believed in my Twenties

I’ll Tell You in the Car is a full-length memoir manuscript currently under agent consideration. Read the Modern Love essay based on this project!

Millennials, such as me, came of age during a powerful cultural movement. Studies published in academic journals and popularized via TED talks claim that happiness depends on optimism. Passion. Grit. Curiously, at a time when millennials have it worse than their parents did (more student loan debt and unemployment, less real income and social support), attitude is everything.

Raised on self-help books and The Secret, I thought anything was possible: becoming a child star, finding true love, even finishing Ulysses. Then, at the age of twenty-eight, I’m diagnosed with a disease I’ve never heard of and told I have thirty years to live. Why did I think I was destined for greatness? Looking for an answer, I retrace my steps, from appearing in a sex education video at ten to writing a women’s column in Wisconsin; from (almost) marrying a man I wasn’t attracted to, to falling in love with one I’d never seen. Along the way, I explore the history of self-help culture in America and reckon with the legacy of my new age family.

Self-Help, Science, and the Pursuit of Happiness

I am developing an introductory undergraduate course about self-help culture that I will teach in the American Studies department at Brown University. Here is a brief course description: self-help literature, including diet books, constitutes a $549 million market in the U.S.—and scientists are at the forefront. What exactly is self-help, and why is it so popular? How does self-help function in U.S. culture and politics? How have scientists become the moral authorities on happiness? Aided by scholarship in fat studies, disability studies, science studies, and Black feminism, we will examine a variety of cultural texts, including makeover television shows, TED Talks, and children’s books. We will explore together how self-help produces difference along the lines of class, gender, race, and (dis)ability.

Feeling Fat

I’m preparing for publication a journal article about “feeling fat” on Twitter. The widespread phenomenon of feeling fat, hitherto unexplored by scholars, saddens many of us because it normalizes body shame and imbues fat with moral meaning. I suggest, however, that to treat feeling fat as an ersatz emotion or individual pathology forecloses a feminist analysis that would historicize feeling fat.

About Me

We live in a culture that compels us—especially women—to feel bad about our bodies. Many of us believe that if we find the right diet or purchase the right products, we will acquire health and beauty once and for all (starting Monday!). As a cultural and intellectual historian of the twentieth century U.S., I study the history of these ideas about self-improvement and examine how they contribute to broader social narratives about gender, selfhood, and citizenship. My research interests include science and popular culture; the psychological self; history of medicine and the body; diet, fitness, and self-help culture; and narrative. I am a PhD student in the American Studies program at Brown University.


Feedback from my students.

“One of the few classes I wish was longer."

“What most contributed to my learning? Jenny. Her enthusiasm and laid back yet extremely informative teaching style really helped me to feel comfortable in the class."

“You changed my English experience completely. Thank you for an excellent class. Definitely my favorite teacher I’ve had in a long time.”

“Probably the first English class of my life that I’ve enjoyed.”

“Jenny is extremely well researched and intelligent, and is not intimidating at all. I felt like almost everyone participated.”

“Jenny did a great job pinpointing valuable lessons in writing and teaching them effectively through examples. I’m very sad this class is ending.”

“Jenny was very sensitive to different learning atmospheres and the variety of things that work for students by having a mixture of small group, large group discussion, online postings and one-on one meetings.”

“Jenny is an awesome teacher, and I learned a lot. She was very fun and outgoing, too.”


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