Monday, December 26, 2011

Julie Guthman: Weighing In

Once upon a time, I believed Michael Pollan. I'll be honest, that once upon a time and long ago and far away wasn't actually that long ago- it was last year, in this same bed that I'm writing in now. He has a pretty unassailable slogan, after all: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I'm not very good at following the majority of his instructions, even as a vegetarian: I'm very good at eating food, but not at the "not too much part," and even as a vegetarian, I eat a lot of non-plant matter. I'm pretty sure diet coke is not a plant, no matter how hard I try to wedge it into that food pyramid in the "vegetable" category. But something has been bugging me ever since the anti-obesity campaign hit stride a few years ago: it feels like a fad. I grew up when eating disorders were rampant, and now it seems like eating disorders were a fad. And I don't think either of these things are true: body image issues and weight issues are so much more than fads or trends, but the current focus and attendant billboards about healthy snacks and books and magazine articles and talk shows seem like we've moved from an age of plenty (the late 1990s) when the issue was rich people with too much, trying to starve themselves to look too thin, to the late 2000s, an era of a lot less, with poor people being seen as too fat. And all of this seems really simplistic. In the late 1990s we were told (without much to back it up) that people of color (excluding Asian Americans as usual) didn't have the same issue with eating disorders because of cultural acceptance of different body weights. Now, we're told by experts, including Pollan, that weight issues are especially prevalent in low income neighborhoods (read: people of color and poor whites) because of lack of education about and access to healthy food.  These people can be thin and healthy, too, they too can "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," with the right programs and policies in place, and less subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup, the enemy.

Well, not so fast. Did eating disorders (the kind leading to starvation and binge/purge, not the over-eating kind) go away because people were educated about eating more and/or lost their money in market crash? Sidenote: Julie Guthman has written an amazing book in "Weighing In," but it's not at all about eating disorders. I picked up the book, though, because of the way the back of the book (yes, I judge books by their covers) manged to say both "obesity" and "obesity epidemic" in quotes in three sentences. And I was not disappointed. Well, a little, because I do feel like there is a connection that Guthman left unmade between the anorexia decade and the obesity decade, but I understand why she left that alone: "Weighing In" takes on (and conquers) much bigger topics, and if you understand and apply Guthman's arguments, eating disorders can be explained, as well.  Guthman takes on a lot- Pollan is a formidable foe with lots of influence- so I forgive her for not getting to this detail. After all, eating disorders are my hangup, and this book is about a lot more: the subtitle reads "Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism." Yeah, that's a big one.

I am not going to be able to sum up Julie Guthman's very big, very cogent, and very persuasive take on why Pollan et al's tactic falls short and perhaps even is dangerous.  It's too multifaceted, and she's an expert. I've tried, and failed to explain to my family, avid foodies and Pollan fans (remember,  was one of them till last week), though in my defense, I hadn't finished the book. This short piece from 2008 gives a sense of some of Guthman's main points (though not all): Pollan's critique of corn subsidies is great, but his argument fails dangerously when the discussion turns from farm policy to fat bodies. First, the evidence between food consumption and size is weak. Second, discussion of weight serves as "admonishment" and creates anxiety about weight, leading to obesity. (Guthman drops this argument in the book and picks up a much more solid argument about the missionary zeal with which the Pollan-ites go about their health mantra in a new form of the white man's civilizing project.) Third, authors like Pollan, Jane Goddall and Marion Nestle along with Morgan Spurlock of Supersize me take on a holier-than-thou position: if they can control themselves around the enemy (HFCS) and fast food, surely obese people must be of a weaker strain.  
At best, fat people are seen as victims of food, genetic codes, or metabolism; at worst, they are slovenly, stupid, or without resolve. Meanwhile, she notes, many thin people can indulge in all manner of unhealthy behaviors without being called to account for their body size. In other words, fat people are imbued with little subjectivity no matter what they do, while thin people are imbued with heightened subjectivity no matter what they do.
These are only three short issues that Guthman brings up in this (very) simplified article. I won't convince you if you're sold that the end of food commodity subsidies and the bringing of fresh fruit to school lunches is the way to a Better Life and Skinnier Children.  
Guthman's book is divided into nine refreshingly easy to read chapters, each with a title in the form of a question.  Wisely, "What's Capitalism Got to Do with It?" is left till the very end (right before the conclusion) so that by the time Guthman gets to the meat of her argument- like what I did there?- we're left nodding along with the argument that capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal incarnation, causes obesity. Placed earlier in the book, we'd be tossing away "Weighing In" as a Marxist piece of trash cashing in on the Pollan fad (yes, I'll be here all week).  Guthman argues that "bodies have emerged as a growth industry in the context of contemporary capitalism." It's a complicated economic argument, but essentially Guthman uses a theory David Harvey's 1982 "Limits to Capital" where capitalism is self-limiting. Eventually capitalism runs out of ways to earn profit, and then comes the crisis of "overaccumulation." This is especially true in the case of food: there is a limit to what humans can eat. One of the ways to fix these crises, according to Harvey is the "spacial fix": "the displacement of the problem of overaccumulation elsewhere in space." Previously this could read as a new colony or globalization. Guthman argues that the new spaces are our bodies: "in the interest of economic growth, contemporary US capitalism has helped to create obesity as a material phenomenon and then made it a moral problem that must be resolved in a way that is equally kind to capitalism."  The way this works is complicated, but it starts in the food production and distribution chain: farmers all the way through food service wrokers are paid a tiny amount, thus creating demand for exceedingly cheap food (this is one of the main places she finds fault with Pollan's arguments that subsidies are the problem. Low wages are the problem).  Wages are kept low so purchasing power drops, creating a market for the credit and banking system that kept the economy running, until it didn't. The poor people who make this food were the vast majority of people who lost the biggest when capitalism hit its limits during the market crash. Not coincidentally (these issues were dealt with in previous chapters), this is the population most likely to be obese, and not to be able to afford the Good Food the Pollan advocates (and admits is more expensive). In the meantime, the health care, weight loss and pharmaceutical industries are all winning from this man-made epidemic: "weight loss itself is a commodity."

This book reads like a butterfly and stings like a whole bunch of bees.  I was convinced by Pollan and Raj Patel and now feel like a racist dupe. It's not enough to go to the farmers market, which Guthman points out, makes those of us who can afford it feel like we're Doing Something- shopping local isn't enough. And I've been humbled when thinking about my passion regarding food justice and food deserts: I try to be aware of how activism affects agency, but Guthman called me out.  Bringing a box of organic okra to black people in the ghetto is not really going to change the system. It's insulting. The only place Guthman falls short is ending without real constructive Next Steps. She criticizes Pollan for this very shortcoming, but I'm left not knowing what next. I am left like it doesn't matter what I eat- both biologically, ecologically, and ethically- though I don't think that's what Guthman would tell me. The conclusion, "What's on the Menu?" is a blank slate. Looking forward to ordering the chef's special.


YesBiscuit! said...

It seems as if the author is doing more to frame the conversation about obesity and less about explaining how the idea that poor people do not have access to quality food is wrong. I'm curious as to how this book left you believing that Michael Pollan et al are wrong in that idea.

themacinator said...

Thanks- I *really* cut down the argument, because Guthman packs about seven disciplines and 1000 pages into <200 readable pages. I agree that the main focus of her book is not about access and education to quality food, rather that's one of the places she explicitly calls out Pollan.

Guthman doesn't argue with healthy, local, quality food (and neither do I), it's the idea that that will solve the problem. She argues that when the alternative-food people frame the debate this way, they do a couple of things: 1. The focus stays on what is eaten (and who eats it) rather than how the food is produced, 2. The alternative-food "solution" still works through the existing market and the existing market policies (there's entire chapters on the fallacies in Pollan's corn-subsidies-as-root-of-all-evil that I'm not gonna even TRY to explain here), which leads to 3. The idea of access to healthy food as a solution totally avoids rather than challenging the inequality questions.

Bringing healthy food to schools is awesome. It is also a token nod to structural inequality. Here's Guthman's words:

"To be clear, my issue isn't with activists' amount of effort or even their accomplishments. Changing the dynamics of the food system is a tall order, and it is unfair to hold this movement alone to such a high standard. Nevertheless, as a set of strategies (italics hers), the alternative-food movement has been far too complicit in the neoliberal agenda, with the effect (not the intention) of producing self-satisfied eaters."

I really can't recommend this book enough if these questions interest you. Buy direct from the publisher or your local bookstore :)

mamagotcha said...

It was a challenge to get through Julie's article and your review with my 7yo "helping" me all morning, but I finally did it and wow! Why the hell don't you live next door to me?! Thanks for the pointer and now I'm gonna plow through more of your blog. Big hugs from Lilith!

Anonymous said...

wow you are awesome for writing such an amazing review