On October 12, 2016 I will present a paper titled "Cultivating Health, Deferring Agency: Samoan Christian Perspectives of Chronic Metabolic Illness" at the MAGH seminar, University of Washington.
I will discuss instances when health maintenance practices––like diet, physical activity, and pharmaceutical intake––were interpreted through the lens of Samoan Pentecostal Christian ideas about wellness. Stories recounting illness and conversion experiences, healing prayers, or salvation prayers during hospital stays all provide viewpoints from which to understand how religious change––that is, being born-again––was measured through health. Here I draw a distinction between health and wellness to foreground how the everyday management of food, fat, and fitness required learning a new set of health techniques around weight management, diet, physical activity, and pharmaceutical use. Metabolic disorders require those living with them to develop an awareness of health that is metrics-centric, attending to how sugar, fat, and salt affect weight, glucose and blood pressure. Adopting a metric-centric notion of food, fat, and fitness privileges universally derived norms around the metrics of metabolic health––BMI, glucose, blood pressure––as key indicators of health at the expense of situational contexts like relationships, environment, and enduring inequalities that shape health. These health techniques include being mindful of nutritional intake––that is learning to see foods like taro, chicken, chips, or cucumbers in terms of nutritional elements like sugar, fat, or salt or nutrients and vitamins. Health techniques also include seeing the body as a system regulated by inputs and outputs––30 minutes of exercise is a way to balance caloric intake. The metrics of health, however, did not play a large role in everyday life in Samoa (e.g., there were no at-home glucometers and scales were not widely available), yet in clinical environments health practitioners still advised patients in a metric-centric way by encouraging patients to change metabolic metrics––lose weight, reduce sugar and fat intake. These kinds of techniques required individuals to act in ways that foregrounded their individual health efforts, for example, by using resources for pharmaceuticals or doctor visits or by changing family meals around individual dietary restrictions, which proved difficult in daily life. Instead, I found that people deferred to God’s agency as a way to change health techniques by placing these techniques within a broader effort towards creating Christian wellness.