Books Features

Response to “The Weight of Obesity”

The Weight of Obesity documents weight management practices in both clinical and daily life settings. The richness of the book lies in its attention to detail. Emily demonstrates a lovely care for language throughout, showing how specific words are not just embedded in but elicit social contexts. For example, the book opens with a discussion of rica, which means something akin to “delicious” in practices of cooking but “economic hierarchy” in practices of dieting. From the start we are on ethnographic terrain where meanings cannot be abstracted from what people do with them. That language is embedded in practices is something Emily is carefully appreciative of throughout the text. She gives us situated narratives—not essentializing narratives.

In my own work about cooking fat in Spain, I argue that an essentializing approach to nutrition fails to attend to the multiple “registers of valuation” of foods—and especially of fats—that are at work in cooking practices. I did not study “obesity” precisely because I didn’t want to begin to approach cooking fat with an orientation over-determined by illness. But, like Emily, I was concerned about what obesity policies were doing to women’s kitchens and, like Emily, I conclude with a message for the design of obesity policy. The argument I make is that for dietary recommendations to transform eating practices, they must account for the various forms of valuation in which actors engage. It is interesting to me that ethnographic work in kitchens as far apart as Madrid and Xela reaches a similar observation: too much policy has been designed with the sciences of the laboratory in mind. Focusing instead on la cocina provides a different, more practice-based, collectively oriented approach to dietary recommendations that leads more effectively to ‘healthier’ eating.

Both Emily and I spent a lot of time living and being with women. This meant, for both of us, a lot of time in markets and a lot of walking, which likely contributes to the similarities in the stories we tell. Emily describes how Guatemalan women were taught to reframe their activity in terms of exercise through a metabolic logic that assumed that calories in could be balanced evenly against calories out. For the rural chicas I spent time with, walking was already exercise—but this had nothing to do with “health.” Even though they may be overweight, they walk to keep the heritage of their village active. They walk because they want to make trails, memories, and social networks. Instead of focusing on physiology they were rather invested in working the land and maintaining reciprocity with food.

Nutritionism has become the pervasive approach to food in public health discourse—so much so that it becomes hard for policy makers to think food, health, and bodies outside of nutrition. Meanwhile, though the women we worked with may have been concerned for health, the health at stake very often had little to do with calories or scientific nutrients. The problem I saw in my fieldwork, and which I see materializing for people in Emily’s text as well, is not only that nutritionism is moralizing and normalizing—a dangerous, deadly new way of making racial distinction. It is also that it doesn’t work very well—it doesn’t make people healthier in its own terms or in terms of health that matter in people’s lives. The clinical framing of “fat” as an abstractable—necessarily unhealthy—molecular structure is far too ignorant of the ways in which fat helps families and communities to cohere and thrive. Attending to the valuations in cooking—what I have elsewhere called caring for food matters—does not yield fixed rules, yet this is precisely why it may help to fix failing policies.

There are different styles of doing theory. One style is to take a concept as stable and see how it applies. Another style, the style of Emily, is to start by not knowing—by opening up “lugares comunes” (things assumedly known by everyone). She takes a stand not by settling the question but through the questions she asks—and the alliances through which she explores these questions. By asking the seemingly too obvious question of what obesity is, we learn that what we thought was stable may not have been stable all along. As becomes clear in the commentaries that follow, it is from this position that we are better equipped to begin to make meaningful political change.


Rebeca Ibáñez Martín is a researcher at the Health, Care and the Body research group in the University of Amsterdam. She is the editor of the book Cuerpos y Diferencias (Plaza y Valdés 2012) and author of the manuscript Bad to Eat? Empirical Explorations of Fats as Food (2014). She is currently studying an experimental nutrient recovery system from wastewater developed at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO). She is concerned with the normativities and responsibilities involved in the system under development and with mapping the shifting moral landscapes of water treatment.