"Weighing In": An Interview with Author Julie Guthman, Part I

By: Michael Engle

Last month, I attended the American Association of Geographers (AAG) national convention; the 2012 iteration happened to take place in New York City.  Of the countless seminars, discussions, and conferences I saw, one particular Saturday affair proved to be the most memorable.  I attended an "author-meets-critics" event, featuring Julie Guthman and her recent book, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.

Weighing In is Dr. Guthman's second book. She received her Ph.D. in geography in 2000, from the University of California at Berkeley, and is now an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz.   I got the chance to interview Dr. Guthman to discuss her book, her thoughts on the American food industry, and how and why calories and diets are not the be-all-end-all to healthier lifestyles.

What inspired you to write Weighing In?

I was very frustrated about hearing so much of the rhetoric of obesity, and the obesity epidemic, enter the conversations about alternative food.  I felt like there was a solution that had found its problem.  The alternative food movement, that I have been studying for years, does a lot of good things, but I felt like it was just jumping onto the obesity epidemic, and that really disturbed me.

So is this effort a follow-up to your previous book [Agrarian Dreams: the Paradox of Organic Farming in California] at all?

The books are related.  I started looking at the alternative food movement through my dissertation research on organics.  That book was one of the first to take a hard look at organics and its processes.  It was a sympathetic critique, but it's a critique that triggered a lot of responses from the organic movement.  This new book is more engaging with some of the post-organic manifestations...trying to get it right.  So it's a follow-up to that, but the first book focuses quite a bit more on food production and organic farming.  This one is more consumption-oriented.

Throughout the book, you quote your own students through their class journal entries.  Can you talk about the influence that your students and their journals had on your book?  Also, has your class ("Politics of Obesity" at UC Santa Cruz) changed in subsequent semesters as a result of this input?

In terms of that course, I've redone it twice, since the time I did it with those journals, and it's been much more successful!  I first taught that class after I decided that I was interested in obesity because of what it provoked.  I was trying to teach a class that would help me get me more immersed in the literature.

The student reaction to the class was so strange to me!  Because here are these students at UC Santa Cruz, they're pretty left-wing and pretty anti-corporate, but the vitriol about fat people really shocked me.  They shocked me in a way because they would actually go back on their anti-corporate rhetoric.  Some of the entries would say, "It is people's fault if they eat at McDonald's!  They should take responsibility for themselves!"  Their whole kind of way they thought about themselves crumbled in the class, and many of the entries would say things like, "I really thought I was liberal, but maybe I'm not," or "I'm really confused by this."  They couldn't reconcile their own politics around it.  So I really started thinking about what it is about people who consider themselves left or liberal (and who have strong critiques of corporations) and how they find obese people so easy to pick on, when they have strong cross-critiques as well.  It really made me realize what deep resentment these people of privilege would have about obesity, despite whatever they think politically.  That really shocked me and that was a big influence on the book.

Did it influence me to teach the class differently?  YEAH, the first time I taught the class, it was terrible!  I mean, some people really loved the class in the end, but other comments in the class were nasty...it was ugly.  So the next two times I taught it, I just kept on changing the syllabus and changing the way we worked through it to kind of moderate that.  Now, the last time I taught that class, the students told me I should teach that class all the time because they loved it, but I taught it really, really differently.

The first time I taught it, I talked about the different ways people see the causes of obesity: from personal responsibility, to corporations, to a medical problem, etc.  So they had the opportunity to see what they wanted.  The difference in what I did, particularly the last time, is that I had them make it much more about media analysis.  I had them analyze the role of the media and how we think about obesity and what they thought about that.  So they were able to get to a critique in a very different way. It was more like a cultural study: what are the means by which we think we have an obesity epidemic and what does that mean for us?

In your book, you use the term "obesogen," and portray it is an under-discussed factor in the study of obesity.  Could you define and elaborate on that?

"Obesogen," at this point, refers to environmental chemicals or other possible food ingredients that appear to make people get fatter, so it's not necessarily about calories.  These are things that interact differently, biologically.  One that I mainly talk about, in the book, are environmental toxins.  There are studies that show a range of environmental chemicals...the way it works is there are exposures at gestation, and these chemicals can create fat cells from stem cells, or replicate them.  The idea here is that before this child has exercised or eaten a thing, they are more pre-disposed to fatness because of a chemical exposure in utero.  I want to stress that these chemicals are not a matter of choice.  They are ubiquitous and unregulated.

You attack BMI for being a ridiculous benchmark for health.  After all, according to BMI scales, Shaquille O'Neal was morbidly obese while leading the L.A. Lakers to championships!  Why are Americans so obsessed with statistical benchmarks?  More importantly, if a better BMI should not be a goal for a healthier lifestyle, what should be?

BMI is used because it is useful for epidemiological purposes.  You can get a broad portion of the population to report their height and weight, and come up with a calculation for the BMI.  I hope I'm not encouraging people to be obsessed with their BMI and weight class!  One point the book is trying to make is that weight is not a good proxy for health, and that there are other pathological aspects of our food supply that we need to take seriously, whether is makes people thin or fat.  BMI is as good as anything for epidemiological purposes, but I am criticizing our obsession.

After all, BMI is just another statistic that can be used or misused in any way, shape, or form.


Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II of our interview with 'Weighing In' Author Julie Guthman.

What do you think? Do you think obesity should face personal or corporate responsibility?

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