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Weighing In: Assessing the Heaviness of Obesity

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Obesity has come to the fore in all sorts of debates, from public health to the environment, from food justice to child development. The topic is discussed with an increasing sense of urgency -- if not emergency -- that has given rise to the pervasive use of the expression "obesity epidemic." Analysis of this rising and often unchallenged discussion constitutes the core of Julie Guthman's book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. Her main argument is clearly stated in the introduction:

The problem of obesity is an artifact of particular ways of measuring, studying, and redressing the phenomenon so that existing assumptions about its causes, consequences, and solutions are built into existing efforts to assess it independently as a problem. (p.23)

The phrasing might not be the most direct, but her position is clear: She does not deny that many American citizens are getting bigger, but wants to tease out the factors behind obesity that for political, economic and cultural reasons are often underestimated or outright ignored. For instance, Guthman points out the incidence of "noncaloric pathways to obesity," such as environmental toxins and pharmaceuticals. In addition, she examines the tendency for overproduction and the lack of regulation in contemporary food systems, as well as the complex -- but chronically oversimplified -- connections between built environments and social structures.

Guthman is not afraid to engage with received wisdom, even when that challenges her own political leanings. In her previous book Agrarian Dreams, which focused particularly on California, Guthman explored the paradoxes and contradictions between the realities of organic farming and the popular portrayals of anti-industrial small farms, farmers, and landscape conservation. Her analysis of the economic pressures, the environmental risks, and the ideological pretenses that underline organic production challenges widespread convictions. In doing so, she uncovers issues that often fly under the radar of public opinion.

In Weighing In, Guthman, who readily admits to being a "privileged" and a "not very thin" foodie, candidly reflects on the beliefs and behaviors of the current food movement, which often frames obesity within a lack of education and access to alternative food networks. Small farmers, artisans, restaurateurs, demanding shopkeepers, activists, media professional and, last but not least, conscientious consumers with enough financial and cultural capital establish sustainable ways of producing, distributing, and eating based on the conviction that personal choices will eventually send a message to the food system, generating a systemic change.

Guthman disagrees that this approach, although well-intentioned, does not challenge social inequality, and that it instead creates segments of population that find themselves not only excluded from the alternative networks, but also victims of the very discussion that frames the issue. As the author bluntly puts it, "We are being presented with a self-serving, self-congratulatory discourse that exalts certain ways of being and disparages others, and places blame in many of the wrong places."

The author argues that our economy produces cheap food and underpays people, who are then forced to buy the cheap food. Although this cycle keeps the system afloat, the underpaid workers are ultimately blamed for consuming the wrong kind of food. The recent debates on the availability of soft drinks in NYC restaurants give us an idea of the emotional reactions that these topics elicit.

Overall, Guthman suggests that creating alternatives by focusing exclusively on individual consumption risks being counterproductive: Such an approach can take political momentum and necessary funding away from efforts to change the overall system and reform agricultural policies beyond subsidies. The author explains these dynamics as determined by the prevalence of neoliberal theories that value individual choices, personal initiative, and free enterprise while downplaying the role of public spending, common goods, and labor. As a consequence, even liberals assume that the only way to change things is by operating through the market and "voting with our dollars" rather than through social struggle that can affect policy-making. Guthman's book requires attention and reflection, as it raises legitimate questions about very important issues and they are discussed in contemporary debates.