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[Shannon Craigo-Snell] The Goodhousekeeping Panopticon, or Why I Don’t Do Yoga

Today’s guest post, another contribution to the recent festschrift, comes from Shannon Craigo-Snell, who is currently serving as Professor of Theology at  Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  Many thanks again to Shannon for her wit and wisdom.

At this point in my life, my aversion to yoga has become visceral. When someone extols the virtues of daily yoga practice, both my stomach and my fists quietly clench.  Yoga itself isn’t the problem; I have taken yoga classes in the past, practiced at home, and found the experience wonderful. My adverse reaction is more complex than simple dislike for yoga, and I came to understand it through Amy Laura Hall’s evocative phrase: “the good housekeeping panopticon.”[1]

So brief, pithy, and insightful, this phrase is classic Hall-speak. Hall’s writing rarely spells out abstract concepts in minute detail, guiding the reader through uncharted academic terrain. Instead, it explores well-travelled paths, persistently exposing the crossings, snares, and obstacles that have grown invisible through familiarity. In this particular phrase, Hall challenges the reader to overlay two distinct discourses and note the connections between them.

“Good housekeeping” evokes a kind of homemaking that necessarily includes motherhood. It conjures ads from the 1950s with a smiling, slender woman in a full-skirted dress tending her nuclear family. On a somewhat deeper level, it harkens to an ideal of labor divisions in which women keep house while men go off to work. This ideal, often appearing as nostalgia, is deeply coded by class, race, and sexual orientation. It is inaccessible to working-class women who must work outside the home, inapplicable to African-Americans who didn’t inherit their mothers’ pearls, and inconceivable to generations of homosexuals who have been excluded from normative paths of family formation.

All that is evoked and erased in the term “good housekeeping” is inscribed in Good Housekeeping magazine, which has advised women on topics such as decorating, fashion, and cooking since 1885. Perhaps most importantly for Hall’s coinage, the people at Good Housekeeping have been rigorously testing various domestic products for over a hundred years, diligently evaluating the performance of consumer goods and judiciously awarding their coveted Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.[2]

In two words, Hall points to an ongoing historical reality in which there is a communally recognized ideal of motherhood that is normalized and homogenized through cultural productions such as magazines. Furthermore, the ideal excludes several groups and requires diligent, well-advised effort for even the most privileged to attain. Finally, there is a test. Approval is meted out sparingly.

“Panopticon” began as the architectural vision of Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. It is a circular building with a structure in the center. The person in the central structure would see all of the people in the outer circle, while the occupants of the circle could not see the person in the center.  Bentham imagined that his design could reform schools, hospitals, poor-houses, and prisons.  A panopticon prison, he believed, would be cheap to run in comparison with old-fashioned cellblocks. Instead of many guards pacing up and down long rows of cells, there is only one guard who can see everyone.  Each isolated prisoner knows he is being watched, but cannot see the watcher. The onus of observation is shifted from the guard to the prisoner, so much so that the guard could even be absent and the prisoners would still experience themselves as observed.[3]

Bentham’s vision of social reform through architecture never came to be, but his idea influenced many. Foucault uses the panopticon as a metaphor to understand processes of normalization and observation present throughout modern Western culture. Instead of publicly displaying the criminal in the gallows or the scoundrel in the stocks in order to punish and deter unacceptable behavior, modern cultures make everyone’s lives increasingly visible to others. Various authorities and experts–including teachers, psychologists, librarians, and so forth—observe and respond to our behavior, disciplining us into culturally normative patterns. Ultimately, the onus shifts here, as well, and modern citizens become self-disciplining in the knowledge that we are always under observation.[4]

With the word “panopticon,” Hall invokes this historical conversation in social theory, along with contemporary iterations regarding privacy and technology. By simply concatenating “good housekeeping” and “panopticon,” Hall invites the reader to consider these two discourses together. More specifically, she suggests that contemporary mothers are being observed, compared to a pseudo-nostalgic and exclusive ideal, and judged as to whether or not we merit approval. Furthermore, we have become self-disciplining; We know that others are observing and judging our mothering, so we hold ourselves to unreachable and highly dubious standards.

This happens differently, and to various degrees, in different communities. It is, perhaps, most rampant in upper-middle-class white heterosexual families, where the Good Housekeeping ideal seems remotely possible and businesses have identified a major cash cow. For example, at the bus stop, we strive to make sure our children are clean and presentable, with healthy lunches in cute yet environmentally-friendly containers. We strive to be prepared at the playground, with tissues, hand sanitizer, BPA-free water bottles, and organic snacks. We strive to grant our children every opportunity, shuttling them from soccer and gymnastics to piano and language lessons. Spending money hand-over-fist, we are vigilant in caring for our children, lest someone find us wanting, not approved.

Who’s watching? We are. We are watching each other. The approval we seek, the disapproval we fear, comes from other mothers. This is a bit of a twist from Foucault’s view of the panopticon, where professionals of various stripes are the observers. In the good housekeeping panopticon, no professionals are required. As mothers, we have become self-policing in two ways. First, we each discipline our own behavior. Second, we discipline each other’s behavior. The watched watch themselves and watch each other.

Historian Tudor Sala identifies this kind of disciplinary observation in his study of surveillance among monks. Sala argues that surveillance in monasteries in late antiquity was not as vertical or hierarchical as Foucault’s panopticon. The monks watched each other’s behavior, in what Sala terms a “rhizomatic” surveillance.[5]

The good housekeeping panopticon is rhizomatic. We watch each other, and we are trained to do so. Consider Angelina Jolie. This beautiful, professionally successfull, mother of six seems to be on the front page of the tabloids every time I go to the grocery store. The photographs vary only slightly; She always looks wonderful. The headlines, however, vary wildly in their extreme praise and condemnation. “Child Protective Services Called: Jolie an Unfit Mother?” “Pope Takes Initial Steps to Beatify Jolie: World’s Best Mother.” However individual articles might portray Jolie’s parenting, they are all roping readers into the practice of observing and judging how other people parent.

Recall that good housekeeping includes far more than parenting—the magazine also doles out advice on beauty, fashion, health, and home decorating—and all the various aspects are part of the rhizomatic surveillance of the good housekeeping panopticon. In each of these areas (and others besides) we are trained (disciplined, if you will) to watch our peers and to know that others are watching us.

Which brings me back to yoga. I don’t have a problem with yoga per se, but I can’t stand it when other women tell me I should be doing yoga as if yoga is integral to contemporary motherhood. And the reason, I have discovered with the help of Hall’s insightful phrase, is that such exhortations feel like the good housekeeping panopticon. When some no doubt well-meaning soul encourages me to try a sun salute, what I hear is, “We are watching and you should be doing more. You don’t quite merit the seal of approval.”

Often the suggestion that I take up yoga comes when I show some sign of weakness. If I seem tired, or stressed, or my back cracks when I stretch at the end of a meeting, yoga is mentioned as the cure. It will give me focus, patience, serenity, energy, or whatever other characteristic I seem to be lacking at the moment. When I try to respond honestly to such encouragement by explaining that I don’t have time for yoga practice in my life right now, I am often met with increasingly zealous exhortation. I am told that it does not take long—even 15 minutes is enough! When I had a back injury and explained to one enthusiast that my doctor had told me I could not do yoga, she exclaimed the virtues of yoga breathing, enormously beneficial even if I couldn’t do the poses.

Truth be told, I am barely getting by. Trying to be a mother and a professional theologian, I feel that I am working constantly to fail at everything. My kids are fed relatively healthful food, their teeth are brushed with some semblance of regularity, their clothes almost fit, and I have completely given up hope of ever getting any of them to an afterschool activity. At work I am constantly behind on deadlines and every email I write begins with “so sorry for the slow response.” I cannot meet the ideal of good housekeeping, and, indeed, I reject it completely on philosophical, theological, and feminist grounds. Yet even as I analyze and reject the good housekeeping panopticon, I cannot fully evade its disciplinary processes. When another busy mother suggests I take up yoga (not as an intentional religious practice, but as a part of mothering), I feel inadequate. The policewoman in my head says I must be doing something wrong if other women have time to spend on yoga, while every minute of my day is already taken up meeting the minimum requirements of work and family.[6] I must be slow, or perhaps weak, or maybe I should sleep even less. The self-disciplinary processes of the panopticon spring into high gear the moment yoga is mentioned.

While I now understand my own response to suggestions that I do yoga, I am still somewhat confused by the evangelical fervor of the pro-yoga crowd. Women who would never see themselves as proselytizers, would never try to convince someone else to change their religious affiliation, feel perfectly comfortable insisting that I try yoga. Since yoga does not seem to require its practitioners to proselytize, I am becoming suspicious. Perhaps the good housekeeping panopticon fuels their fervor. Maybe when I say “no” to yoga, these women hear a challenge to their own life choices. The good housekeeping mother isn’t supposed to spend time on herself, you know. Every minute of her day is spent caring for others, or possibly getting her hair done so she will look good for her husband. Certainly her spiritual and physical well-being should never be a priority. Perhaps when I say I don’t have time to do yoga, the mother I am speaking with hears, “We are watching you and you should be doing more. You should not spend your time on yoga when you have not yet met the ideal. You don’t quite merit the seal of approval.”

Thanks to Hall’s insightful phrase, I have realized I have no problem with yoga, or even with its enthusiasts, but I have had enough of the good housekeeping panopticon. Given that I can’t escape it completely, here is my provisional plan: I will never evaluate Angelina Jolie’s parenting. Save for situations of suspected abuse, I will attempt to celebrate the multiplicity of parenting styles. I will try to bite my tongue every time I am tempted to say something snarky about another woman’s mothering, hairstyle, clothing choice, or furniture. Finally, I will not bend to the pressure to do yoga. And if the pure merits of yoga someday lure me in and I start practicing daily, I promise I will never tell.




[1] Hall uses this phrase in at least three places.

Amy Laura Hall, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2008), 391.

Amy Laura Hall, “A (Bad?) Mothers’ Day,” Purpose Driven Connection, accessed on September 26, 2011,

Amy Laura Hall, “Hospitality Spelled Background: Is Martha Stewart in League with the Devil?” Re:generation Quarterly, Winter (2001) accessed on September 26, 2011,

[2] Good Houskeeping, accessed September 26, 2011,

[3] Jeremy Bentham, “Panopticon,” in Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings (London; Verson, 1995) 29-95.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage, 1995).

[5]Tudor Sala, “Dismantling Surveillance in Late Antique Corporate Monasticism” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2011).

[6] See Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, trans. Adrian Jackson (New York: Routledge, 1995).

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