Friday, March 18, 2011

My interview with nutritional anthropologist Leah Baskett

I happened across Leah by accident- she was a member of r/bodyacceptance on and she had responded to a post with "as a nutritional anthropologist". I had no idea what that was or that it existed, but it sounded fascinating and I asked to know more. She told me that it had made her totally passionate about body acceptance and, happily for me, she's a fan of my blog and agreed to let me ask her some questions. Leah studied at the University of Arizona with a focus in nutritional and medical anthropology.

So what is nutritional anthropology? According to Leah, "Nutritional anthropology studies the nutritional requirements of humans, as well as how different populations meet those needs with their food. NA also looks at foodways: how foods come to be developed and adopted and how they spread throughout and between populations. In addition to basic nutritional requirements, one must also take into account a culture's perception of what health entails as well as what foods are encouraged or are taboo to use. A good book for anyone interested in learning more about NA is Everybody Eats: Understanding Food and Culture by E.N. Anderson. It gives great info into the discipline. "

Like most people, Leah was entranced by the fantasy of thin and originally took nutritional anthropology as a way to figure out the best diet to make her thin (because thin is better, right?), but she was surprised to learn that our beliefs on thinness and health were, indeed, cultural beliefs, and not hard fact. Leah told me that "All cultures have a set of beliefs that are just accepted as fact, as reality-based and these beliefs feel "natural," but are actually very much artificially constructed. This is easy to see in some traits, such as racism or xenophobia or homophobia. It's why you will get very illogical reasonings for holding a belief: for example, a racist will say, 'People naturally want to be with their own kind,' insinuating racial phenotypes are the only natural way people divide themselves into their groupings. They may be able to pull out some bogus research to prop up their opinion, but they do not understand that their viewpoint is subjective, that it is not necessarily true, that it is an opinion." Considering this, it is fairly easy to see how sizists and people who who are fatphobic can easily justify their hate and violence against non-ideal people. It's not a stretch to say that one group of people feeling superior to another is the basis for quite a bit of history's violence and oppression nor is it difficult to recognize the violence against fat people if you're able to step away from your own culturally indoctrinated sizist beliefs- whether about yourself or someone else- in the form of psychological, emotional, and yes, even physical abuse. 

Leah told me, "My training thus far in my academic career had already pointed out that as anthropologists, we had to challenge our cultural biases and strive to be as un-ethnocentric as possible. Yet I had failed to ever challenge the belief about weight and health. This blew me away. I started seeing this same belief go unchallenged everywhere around me: in conversations between friends, at the doctor's office, on television shows, commercials, films, etc. This really made me get passionate about NA because I felt it was a huge problem and extremely dangerous to have bad info and downright lies being constantly spread. To me, these should be viewed as propaganda. The first time I read an article telling me that being fat did not mean I was headed straight for the damnation of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, I sighed happily and shut the book, smiling. I wanted to do the same thing that author did for me for others."  I can relate. When I got into the fat acceptance movement and even when I got more into feminism I noticed the sexism and sizism everywhere. You know all of those feminists that people complain about? Noticing sexism everywhere even when there supposedly isn't any? Well, it turns out that they see it because it's actually there. It's just so pervasive and so entrenched in our culture that even men and women who consider themselves to be free of sexism and even feminists themselves often overlook it because truly seeing all of the sexism in our culture means finding inequality virtually everywhere you look.. and let's admit it- that's exhausting and terrifying (especially if you're a woman). Nor do they want to admit how much society is against them as it is- they'd much rather believe everything was more or less fine- it's easier that way on so many levels. Sizism is no different."

But what about the scientists? They're supposed to be logical, objective, and develop conclusions based on the facts. But what are the facts? Paul Campos in his book, The Obesity Myth, points out that a large number of studies on weight and weight loss are funded by the diet industry or related industries- meaning that, as with all corporation controlled studies in which the industry benefits from a specific outcome, the data is generally skewed.  Newer studies and reviewed studies often find that there is little or no actual causal evidence between weight and negative health effects. Leah agrees that cultural bias interferes in scientific conclusions on weight. "Cultural biases are a huge problem within the scientific community. This is a big, gigantic point in both NA and in medical anthro. This is an argument anthros continually give...We have study after study flying in the face of this belief, but we still have doctors and academia just throwing out the info while embracing poor and shoddy research, often simply "checkbook science".... I think the good research gets ignored and even actively attacked because it violates our cultural understanding. It tells us that we're wrong. No one wants to be wrong. And fat people act as a valuable stereotype for us: fat people are a wonderful "visual shortcut" allowing us to transmit certain ideas visually. As we become more and more attached to visual media, we become more and more attached to our stereotypes in my opinion. Hence, fat people must be lazy, ignorant, stupid, slovenly, ugly, wasteful, slobby, greedy, insatiable, and (increasingly) poor or poverty-stricken, or else our visual shortcut no longer works. Often, when we need to visually show what a greedy, stupid and inefficient man looks like, what do we do? We hire a fat guy. The fat woman can barely find a piece of clothing without a cartoon character or other childish insignia. Why? To remind them that they cannot be sexy at their size, and to infantalize them. A fat man and a fat woman equal the same thing: a big baby. And babies are not tolerated in our society unless they are a trendy accessory or are "seen and not heard." "

Leah also points out that our idea of what's healthy and what body type is "good" or "bad" is fluid and changes from culture to culture and time period to time period. Many fat bloggers have pointed out that the fuller figure was often preferred and seen as healthy in ancient cultures- from fertility goddesses with large rolls of fat, to rubenesque ideals of femininity. In the one season TV show, Huge, one character posts historic art clips on her bed as "fatspiration" (a counter to the "thinspiration" other girls were putting up). Leah's study as a nutritional and medical anthropologist has led her to the same opinion that many others have reached- and that is that body ideal is often linked with wealth. In days long past being fat meant that you had the money to eat well and the means chillax a little- inside out of the sun which made fair skin also the preferred ideal. Now fat often symbolizes being poor. "To hypothesize for why fatness would not always be bad: prior to modern medicine, and now among poorer populations that must live without access to such medicine, illness and malnutrition was common. A higher BMI could allow for longer periods without food during illnesses when one can't stomach food or couldn't do the work to obtain the food." 

But if being fat equaled being well off because you weren't starving in the streets, why is is fat connected with being poor now? The fact is that we now all have access to plenty of food- in the US and other industrialized countries very few people are actually starving. There are a few possible reasons why poor seems to correlate with fat. Firstly, as Leah says, "we really are just starting to study how things like stress, anxiety, etc. directly affect the processes of the body through hormones and other factors. " but we do know that some studies have linked both depression and stress with weight gain. Combined with the fact that fat people receive lower quality of health care- meaning that other issues that cause weight gain often go undiagnosed or untreated, and that fat people make less money and are less likely to even be hired to begin with- it seems the system kind of sets fat people up to get pushed down. I have a personal theory too that being bullied your entire life makes you less likely to be ambitious or to take risks that would provide opportunity. Many fat people are afraid of getting too much attention or of being noticed. Of course, that's just a personal theory.. all of the articles I looked through seemed to think poor people were fat because they consumed more calories- odd since fat children eat less than thin children and that there are plenty of thin people who can over eat and never become overweight. 

I asked Leah why she thought obesity was increasing (or if it even was) and she replied, " I would say it is a tough call. I would point out that we know that pregnant rodents, when put on a diet with limited fat and protein, have offspring that are far more likely to develop obesity as well as diabetes. Women have been put on diets for many decades now, and when a woman gets a positive pregnancy test she immediately gets her list of "don't" foods. this is considered normal. She will often be told how much weight to gain and encouraged to keep from gaining too much. This means that our pregnant mothers are dieting. I would guess this is one reason why we see an increase in obesity and diabetes outside of the stated fact that people generally have more access to medical care than prior eras and so we are seeing and diagnosing people that in prior generations, would not have been to the doctor in the first place. There's also the little problem of obesity being medicalized as an illness and therefore receiving more exposure."

"People are being told day in and day out that lots of illnesses are caused by obesity when we know that studies do not support this belief. I will be a scientist nerd here and stipulate that certainly, it is in the realm of possibilities that two people with the same exact height and weight and BMI could have very different health situations. I cannot just state that being fat is always good or always bad because the individual is unique and needs to be judged as such. I will just say that it seems highly unlikely to me that the level of obesity in this nation is much more than previous generations."

"I think rates of obesity are exaggerated by 1.) The classification of obesity increased to include weights that used to be only labeled as "overweight"; 2.) The instance of people being diagnosed increased because of better access to medical care; and 3.) Not having long term medical data for differing populations within our society as a whole. For the last point, white men have always been established as a norm that everyone else was just seen as auxiliary. They were targeted the most to participate in medical testing, in medical studies, for pharmaceutical studies, etc. So we don't really have a lot of data for anyone else. This is starting to change as we become more aware of this bias and I believe medical findings will change as well. "

"In other words, there is no obesity epidemic. I remember learning that following World War II, the average woman's dress size decreased dramatically from before the war. This is one example of how skewed data can be problematic. If we are measuring ourselves in comparison to a particularly brief period of time in which the population had a lower average BMI, we will seem huge and obese in comparison when we are not. It's all about context. I think the population fluctuates in weight overtime in response to both environmental and cultural cues. I think what's more important is how a culture looks at such normal variations in their midst and why they choose to villify and actively attack those who have said characteristic. Many, many groups have suffered under this phenomenon in our history and yes, medical science was used to justify, excuse and even approve such abuse. "

"We have better nutrition now which is suspected as to why we are taller and all around larger. We also have proper sanitation, water and sewer systems, something that stops the spread of disease. We have medications that lower dangerous fevers, kill dangerous pathogens, and surgeries that can save lives. All of these work together to explain why the Western world is at the best health its ever had. I would say all of these things interact to create this lengthening of the life span and certain physical changes."

"To me, the focus on attacking obesity and labeling it an epidemic (meaning in the general public understanding a great and serious threat, not its original intended use in epidemiology) is attacking what we find as a society as bad. To me this is embodied in the feminine. The feminine is associated with weakness, softness, roundness, vulnerability, "illness," fatter than male, developed mammary glands, etc. Masculinity is associated with strength, resolve, security, health, etc.  Misogyny is the root of fat phobia. We believe if we can eradicate these qualities, we will always feel safe, secure, and have great health, because what we are actually trying to attain is masculinity. This obsession with being thin is simply a mask for our true desire to eliminate the feminine."

"I think the best example of the above is in how the ultimate epithet in our culture is to call someone "fat." Fat not meaning being of a larger size, but meaning unattractive to the one doing the insulting, unlovable to them, and *gasp* unfuckable to them. Our greatest shame is that someone does not wish to use our bodies for their sexual pleasure. Sad, isn't it?"

Whew- that last one was a long quote, but Leah said it perfectly and I couldn't bare to only post part of it.  Leah's last paragraph touched on the desexualization of fat people which I may cover in another post, but for now we'll side line it. Talking to Leah gave me a unique and fascinating view of body shaming and a culture which, now, heaps that shame on fat people specifically. I want to say a huge huge thank you to Leah for talking with me and I hope that everyone else enjoys and benefits from her observations and expertise. 


  1. Truly illuminating. This makes one think about how our culture truly operates.


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