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Somatosphere Presents

a book forum on
Emily Yates-Doerrs

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Contributions from
Rebeca Ibez Martn
University of Amsterdam

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With a response from


Emily Yates-Doerr
University of Amsterdam

Marianne de Laet
Harvey Mudd College
Simon Cohn
London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine
Jeannette Pols
Academic Medical Centre of Amsterdam

Edited by
Rebeca Ibez Martn
University of Amsterdam

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Somatosphere Presents
A Book Forum on

The Weight of Obesity:


Hunger and Global Health
in Postwar Guatemala
by Emily Yates-Doerr
University of California Press
2015, 248 pages
Contributions from:

Rebeca Ibez Martn


University of Amsterdam

Marianne de Laet
Harvey Mudd College

Simon Cohn
London School of Hygiene and
Tropical Medicine

Jeannette Pols
Academic Medical Centre of Amsterdam

Emily Yates-Doerr
University of Amsterdam
Edited by

Rebeca Ibez Martn


University of Amsterdam
It is a pleasure to convene this forum for The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in
Postwar Guatemala. Marianne de Laet, Simon Cohn, and Jeannette Pols, have provided spirited
commentaries on Emily Yates-Doerrs ethnography of metrics, weight, and care in highland
Guatemala. The authors talent to illustrate the complex choreographies that produce the
problem of obesity makes this a truly delightful piece of work to collectively unpack. We
hope you enjoy the discussion.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
http://somatosphere.net/2016/11/book-forum-emily-yates-doerr-weight-of-obesity

Response to The Weight of Obesity


REBECA IBEZ MARTN
Researcher, Health, Care and the Body Research Group, University of Amsterdam

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
narrativesnot 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 foodsand especially of
fatsthat are at work in cooking practices. I did not study obesity precisely because I
didnt 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 womens 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 exercisebut 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 discourseso
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

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

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 Emilys text
as well, is not only that nutritionism is moralizing and normalizinga dangerous, deadly
new way of making racial distinction. It is also that it doesnt work very wellit doesnt
make people healthier in its own terms or in terms of health that matter in peoples lives.
The clinical framing of fat as an abstractablenecessarily unhealthymolecular structure
is far too ignorant of the ways in which fat helps families and communities to cohere and
thrive. Attending to the valuations in cookingwhat I have elsewhere called caring for food
mattersdoes 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 knowingby opening up
lugares comunes (things assumedly known by everyone). She takes a stand not by settling
the question but through the questions she asksand 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.
[Online: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/response-to-the-weight-of-obesity]

Rebeca Ibez Martn 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 Valds 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.

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

Response to The Weight of Obesity


MARIANNE de LAET
Associate Professor, Anthropology and Science, Technology & Society, Harvey Mudd College

I AM INSPIRED by The Weight of Obesity. In the short few weeks that I have had it on my desk,
I have come to consider it as a text to think with, an approach to learn from, and material to
teach. The text will inform my own practices as an anthropologist, a science studies body, a
teacher, andon a good daya writer. Just to wrap up my praise: like very few others, this
text accomplishes what any book should: it makes one live with it, through it, and see the
world through its eyes. If a book has eyes, that isand of course, not to over-privilege the
visual among the senses.
In these few short weeks that I have lived with this text, I have come to think somewhat
differentlyor, to be more precise, I have become differently awareof my transactions in
the store. Do I pin or do I pay in coin, when and why, and how if at all does it matter? When
my cheese goes on the scale, whats on or in the balance? What is balance, or a balance,
anyway? When I buy my bread at the French bakery and my dairy at the farm fresh store
next door, rather than at the Albert Heijn supermarket, what am I buying for the extra
costwhat is my balance, there? When I refuse to buy a scale (any scale) for my new house,
what is it that I am resisting? When I decide to embrace the challenge of vegetable week and
confine myself to a diet without meat, how do I balance nutrients, calories, and pleasure;
cravings and satisfactions; needs and tastes; belly feel and shifts in body image; motivations
and considerations; relationships with or to people, animals, knowledge, numbers, and
things? And what does that very phrase: confine myself to a diet without meat reveal
about my normal; how is it or has it become normal to eat in this particular, meat-oriented
way?
Its not as if, as a science studies anthropologist, I wasnt looking at everything in life as
an experiment in knowing, anywaybut The Weight of Obesity has re-animated my curiosity
about the materialities of the transactions of the day-to-day.
In what follows I will name just a few aspects of the book that I think are strengths.
There are many I wont dwell on. For instance, I am not attending here to the many ways in
which the book demonstrates how the global is made in the local; I am eschewing its
nuanced discussion of economics and economies; I am leaving aside the connections drawn
between terroir, taste, and the genetic dispositions of raceall areas close to my own work.
One other caveat: some of the words I am using here may sound critical, as they do not
usually connote praise. So let me say upfront that my comments flow from respect for the
author and pleasure in engaging her text.

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

What I like about this book is that it is a little raw. I didnt make an error; I purposely
didnt say that it is still a little raw. For I dont mean to say that the text isnt polished. Make
no mistake, this texts rawness is the result of a lot of painstaking, careful authorial work.
What I mean is that The Weight of Obesity succeeds in showing, attending to, respecting the
conditions of its production. It has achieved this rawness; it is a feat.
Let me explain. At every turn, we learn from Yates-Doerr how she learned. How she
learned from, about, with, the women she lived with, the patients she helped treat, the
families she helped cook for, the markets where she spent her Quetzales, the forces that
turned obesity into a Guatemalan problem to be solved. It is this learning, and the visibility
of the work of finding her feet, grappling with contradictory circumstances (contradictory
for anthropologist and interlocutors, both), resisting the pressures of taken for granted
questions, understandings and interpretations, and undermining the terms that are
mindlessly used in measuring, calculating, and intervening in metabolic conditions, that
make this book such a fascinating but also such a richricaread.
Meanwhile, the argument is extremely carefully crafted. By articulating her doubts but
also her meanings and certainties, the author leads us through a landscape of her own
devising that we have no problem believing is the landscape we would recognize, were we to
be in her shoes. In her shoes. Carefully qualifying, positioning, and calibrating whose shoes
we are in, without hedging or apologizing, she gives us the sense that this is how it is while it
might at the same time be or be understood differently.
The result is that this text profoundly destabilizes ones sense of knowing anything
forever. That may not be what we typically demand of a book, that it undermines our sense
of knowing anything forever or for sure. While in anthropology and science studies we are
surely less forgiving of books that project certainty, that doesnt mean that we are
necessarily sold on the idea that it is in the doing of the making of the stuff that finds its way
onto the page, that actualities emerge. And surely when weighing a books potential use in
the classroom, as I am seriously contemplatingto throw it at college-age engineers-in-the
makinga books destabilizing features may not be what one is looking for. But its precisely
this sensibility of shifting actualities that I come away with after reading The Weight of
Obesity and its precisely this shift in our understanding of what reality is made of that I
would like to impart to my engineers.
For it is a profound, and profoundly important, achievement, to rattle our certainties, rat
them out, shake them to the bones. What I appreciate here is that the book undermines
conventional wisdoms gently, incrementally, one at a time, weaving its destabilizing web
cautiously, carefully, and devastatingly, until by the end ones faith in calculatory logics
even if it were solid to begin withis no more. What one comes away with, meanwhile, is a
profound trust in the world-making powers of ethnographic observation (and so of the
ethnographer/author/authoritys complicity in actualizing the actualities that solidify in
her text), and a sense that if anything is real in this world its the connectivity of the
relations that, through living together, one builds.
Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

What conventional wisdoms are we talking about unsettling here? What is it that I would
like my engineers to learn a thing or twoor threeabout? Among other things, what Id
like to them take away is the triple nature of numbers: (1) a sensitivity to the arbitrariness of
numbers, standards, measuring practices, and the interventions that flow from them. At the
same time, (2) a sense of the performative work that these numbers and the interventions
that are based on them do in and on the bodies of the Guatemalan citizens whom they
diagnose with obesity or metabolic disease. And then (3) the awareness that the priority of
numbers in the practices of the social sciences invites the ethnographer to mobilize them
while also pointing, always, to their conditions of production.
Numbers are everywhere in this book: numbers indicating the size of the population, the
size of the body, the size of a bunch of tomatoes, the size of the price paid for the bunch of
tomatoes, the size of Guatemala vis--vis the rest of the world, the size of the problem of
obesity in Guatemala and elsewhere. Numbers are about relative size. But Emily insists on
asking where these numbers come from, how they are made, what they are used for, and
what they bring about. What they perform. So not only do numbers point to relative size;
once you make it a practice to take them seriously, they are and are made of relationships.
After a few chapters, its impossible to see a number, any number, without asking questions
about its relationships.
I have done some similar things in my work on the calorie. On calorIES, as the conditions
of production of the calorie, and the use of calories in a variety of practices, showing that
there is not one calorie (M. de Laet 2017). If there were a starting point for collaboration
between myself and The Weight of Obesity (or its author), it might be there: a joint effort at
destabilizing the calorie, this metric that in certain day-to-day practices of eating, cooking,
and measuring the body machine, is such a fixture and appears or is made to seem such a
fixed, known entity.
But then Id have to have materials such as these! I am blown away by the materials that
make this book and that in turn are made by the making of this book. Which means that I
truly esteem the author and her nuanced, careful attention to and patience with relations,
relationality, and the materiality and actuality that these effect. Care and patience shine
through in the Weight of Obesity and it is the weight of the responsibility that flows from this
care that makes the book, in the end, such a gift. So, thank you.
Id like to conclude by posing a question about problems and solutions. To do so, let me
first quote an exchange on Facebook with my friend A:
A: If you cant describe a problem accurately, you cant solve it
B: The answer is 42
A: OK, you have found an exception. You are correct, sir.
Marianne cant help chiming in: Its the other way round.
A: Sil ny a pas de solution, cest que il ny a pas de probleme
Marianne: Cest la solution qui construit le probleme.
Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

A: Absolument. That's how I feel about solutions to climate changeas if


climate change is THE problem, rather than a symptom. The solutions
construct and obscure the problem(s).
Marianne: So nice to have friends in this uncomprehending world
Funny. I turned that back into a relationship without even realizing it. Anyhow. I dont
want to make this an issue of causality or construction, really. What my French didnt allow
me to say is that once a solution has been articulated, it is as if the problem is a fixed,
stable, and known entity. So the solution runs ahead of the problem, and the problem, in a
way, is an artifact or an intended consequence of the solution. And I wonder if obesity in
Guatemala isnt the solution that then frames what is wrong with the country, with its
citizen body, with its body politic, and with globalization in general. The Weight of Obesity, or
so it seems to me, insists on the unbearable weight of obesity as a solutionor
explanationof wrongs. And it does a nice job of destabilizing obesity and confronting it
with its others. But then what? To put this otherwise, Im intrigued to see what doors
this kind of insistence on instability might then open.

References
de Laet, Marianne. Personal Metrics. In B. Littig et al. (eds.) Methodological Reflections on
Practice Oriented Theories, Springer Verlag 2017; paper available upon request.

[Online: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/response-to-the-weight-of-obesity-2]

Marianne de Laet is an Associate professor of Anthropology and Science, Technology, and Society at
Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, as well as a research associate in the Eating Bodies
research project at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. Her work, which lives in the
realm of Science and the Senses, especially geared towards connections between tasting, sniffing, and
knowing, concerns the work of categories. Always interested in destabilizing frameworks that are
easily taken for granted, she investigates how categories are made, how they do their work, how they
get stabilized and even essentialized, and what is produced if we investigate their conditions of
production and their consequences, so as to imagine how ordering might be done differently.
delaet@g.hmc.edu

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

Response to The Weight of Obesity


SIMON COHN
Professor, Medical Anthropology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

SO MUCH OF current obesity discourse relies on conceiving the body as fixed and bounded,
to be represented numerically, and compared to the average. Increasingly made known
through measurement and calculation, this particular conception of the body produces an
entity that can be owned, sold, worked on, or worked against. Crucially, this way of thinking
about the problem of obesity is not only infused with an economic logic, but a capitalist
ideology. The Weight of Obesity offers a plethora of wide-ranging ideas that emerge powerfully
from an ethnography that is subtly grounded on the rupture of political change and the
inequities of a global political economy.
One of the key anthropological messages is that local context can radically alter what
might be taken to be a universal absolutesuch as, there is no iron in sugar, or carrots are
better for you than crisps and ultimately that weight is bad. In other words, within a
particular context these claims might not, in fact, be true. But rather than this simple being
dispersed geographically, as though some places are more local than others, universal
claims remain vulnerable, wherever they are made. The point is that claims concerning
healthy eating are always going to be perilousnot because they are necessarily in conflict
with capitalism and the constant production of cheap and convenient foods, but because
now that health has become one of the selling-points in many products that sit on
supermarket shelves, it can be manipulated just like any other ingredient. So the forces of
economic logic help divide the body from the personnot as completely separated entities,
but entities bound together in a relationship of need and aspiration: Capitalism has focused
increasingly on making its new market the desires of the self, as distinct and internal needs
that can be fulfilled by new products and services.
A common feature of this is that food is imagined to make the body in its own image
rich, fatty, sweet and hedonistic foods create a body accordingly: obese, sedentary, slovenly,
heavy. In contrast, the same cultural machinery that sells unhealthy sauces under the guise
of authentic home cooking, heralds the physically active, super-lean, toned bodyits owner
is agile, adept, light footed, a player. So it is not surprising that fasting, starvation, and
constant dieting are all now ways to both be seen, and to be successful; it is not simply that
the healthy body is now conceived of being made from such foods, but that a successful
person chooses to make these foods (and not others) their own. So it is equally not surprising
that so many weight-loss interventions are designed to promote physical activity and
active transport and address the new evilsedentarism. The target is not merely obesity

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

and ill-health, but the itinerant deviant behaviour of people who have surrendered. Once
again, Public Health and commercial capitalism find places to align.
One might assume that the idea of nutritional balance, much like a similar homeostatic
model of metabolism, runs counter to these static depictions of the body. But through a
particular language of inputs and outputs, and the central place of zero between pluses and
minuses, Emily shows that even this kind of balance is only ever achieved through a series of
deft abstractions. The point is that this version of balanceas a summative calculation
can only occur outside and beyondwhen the ongoing realities of living are sufficiently
bracketed off such that they dont suddenly intervene to undo the maths. Such moments of
balancing the books are consequently, paradoxically, static, requiring everything to be
spread uniformly across a single table or spreadsheet.
An alternative view is that balancing is, by its very nature, a dynamic state. From this
perspective, it is not only a constant process, but enlists lots of diverse elements to
continuously fine-tune a centre of gravity. So balancing is achieved not by demarcating the
body from its environmental, but instead by constantly being in dialogue with it. And is here
the full force of the Weight of Obesity: it does not only penetrate the cultural construction of
categories, but describes in rich detail the situated ways in which diverse activities and
materialities become entangled together.
Reading this book has helped me think about how semantic orderings of the world
often built upon ideas of continuums, opposites, and absolutesseductively take shape. And
it has made me think about the central place of stability and constancy in biomedical
knowledge, and how rigid categories not only fail to do justice to complexity and
interaction, but their application can do violence to the inherent variability of peoples
everyday liveswherever they are. What Emilys book shows is that it is not simply that our
job is to draw on ethnography to show others alternative ways to think about health
problems and solutions, but that, in addition, it can show the extent to which variations
already exist, and that the compulsion to put everything into a singular order through the
application of static categories and universal calculation strips away the inter-relational
richness, the contradictions and ambiguities, and the different histories and presents, of
peoples everyday lives.
[Online: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/response-to-the-weight-of-obesity-3]
Simon Cohn is Professor of Medical Anthropology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine. His research focuses on issues related to diagnosis, contested conditions, and chronic illness
in the UK and other high-income societies. He has recently become fascinated by the role of fluids,
both inside and outside the body: how they relate to health, their general absence in medical
anthropology and sociology accounts, and the extent to which their constant movement and flow
might demand a new way to think about old problems.

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

10

Response to The Weight of Obesity


JEANNETTE POLS
Associate Professor, Principle Investigator (Medical Ethics), Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam

THE WEIGHT OF OBESITY is a wonderful book. It is a book that invites the reader to read aloud
brilliant insights and moving, sometimes truly piercing observations. The book contrasts
myriads of local intricacies with the global health attempts at treating obesity. The book
links eating practices to such heterogeneous things as pesticides, traditional social
obligations of food preparation, the workings of bodies, global politics and hunger, fortified
sugar, the beauty of fatness, and racism. This is done with great sensitivity for the particular
ways the language of her informants frames practices of eating, health, and happiness. The
book is rica, the Guatemalan word for delicious, tasteful, rich.
I am honored to be put in the position of the wise discussant. But I admit that I am also a
bit daunted by it. Because: How can I summarize for you what this book is about? Certainly,
it is about obesity concerns and practices in Xela, Guatemala. But what are obesity concerns
and practices in Xela, Guatemala? It is exactly this question that is crucial for grasping the
intervention this book makes.
I will give you some context why it is difficult to summarize what this book is about.
Particularly in the first part of the book I was sometimes put on the wrong foot. Sometimes I
wasnt sure if the author thinks that obesity is actually a problem for the people in Xela. Is
her attempt to criticize global health programs and science as creating problems that are
not really there? Is obesity not really a Guatemalan problem, but constructed through
globalized forces and uniformators and metrification? What exactly is the relation between
the hunger of the past and the metabolic problems of today? And what is the relation to
violence? Why does the author, at one point, contrast medical dietary practices with
beliefs? Are the Xela people wrong after all?
Another message could be: obesity is a real problem in Guatemala, but there are better
and worse ways to respond to this problem.
A blurb on the back of the book suggests this. The blurb tells us that the book provides a
tough analysis of how one resource-poor Guatemalan population responds to an increasingly
globalized food supply as it transitions rapidly from widespread hunger and malnutrition to
the increasing prevalence of obesity and its health consequences.
This is a very good and gripping blurb. I am sure it helps in selling this book. But I dont
think this is exactly what the political message of the book is. It is too clear, the variables are
too fixed, and the bad guy (globalized food supply) too well delineated.
The statement is too general.
So here is my suggestion for a title that could summarize the message of the book:

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Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

11

Against generalization!
If obesity is not one thing that can be defined on a singular scale, you cannot say
something general and coherent about it. Obesity is indeed a problem to the people in Xela,
but it manifests itself in very different ways. So we need to ask how it is a problem, where and
for whom. We need to ask: what is obesity, in this particular practice? There is no general
thing called obesity. There are only local practices in which obesity is shaped through the
ways it is framed and handled. There are many different problems of obesity. As there are
many kinds of health.
I dont know if the author agrees with my reading of her book, but I would like to think
with these ideas for a moment, obviously because it shows some of my own preoccupations.
It puts on the agenda the question of what is ethnographic knowledge and how this
contextual knowledgeknowledge that does not add up to a wholecreates generalities
while it resists generalizations. In other words, how can we theorize ethnographic
narratives?
This question is addressed most clearly in the wonderful concept of metrification that
Emily has coined. She circles practices of metrification, by probing dietary practices, and by
living their consequences. She traces metrification in the wild. For instance, by recounting
the story about the woman who got the message that it is she who is the problem, not the
calories. Or the heart breaking story of the woman who eats toilet paper in a desperate
attempt to make her body fit through dieting. Metrification, we learn, is about
quantification. It is about adding and subtracting fixed properties and calculating the
precise result. It is about invariables that make some foods good and others bad, always and
everywhere. It is about making things seem equivalent, such that skipping breakfast can be
swapped for a loss of pounds. It is about making things simple: eat less, exercise more. It
reduces food and eating to the certain functionalities of nutrients. This, Emily shows, erases
endless complexities when put to practice.
So there is a lot to learn about metrification and its workings in this book. But the book
also shows very nicely how Emily puts together the others of metrification, quantification,
and universalization. Not with a recipe, of course, but by trying and tasting, mashing and
mixing unexpected ingredients, carefully mapping tensions and contradictions, and by
bringing together stories and elements that may or may not add up. This includes ruptures,
layeredness, incommensurabilities and contradictions that can be observed. The book serves
many high quality dishes, but never adds up its elements as if they could be equivalents or
wholes.
So I understand this book as a radical plea for situated, localized ethnographic research
in care for health. For the importance of nonmetric forms of rica and health in concrete
lives and practices, as Emily writes.
The book also shows the urgency of attending to these concrete practices, by illustrating
how metrification can be a violent way of colonizing these different forms of life and rica
through its singular mode of theorizing through quantification. Instead, we learn about the
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Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

12

value of familiarity and intimacy for gaining knowledge about eating. And about intimate
knowledge needed to distinguish beautiful fatness from disease related obesity. One of the
failings of global science is to ignore rather than build on traditional and situated
knowledges. Such as mixing limestone through ones maize, preventing the painful death of
pellagra. The book teaches us about the difficulties and the imperative of translating
scientific knowledge to lived practices, and shows the possible consequences when they fail.
So what kind of knowledge and handholds for action does this radical contextualism and
persistent ethnographic perspective bring? What is left for us to theorize about? Can we still
speak of theory if the general and coherent have disappearedor if they have been swapped
for a collection of salient differences?
I think a beginning of an answer could be to think about transportability. What can one
site or set of configurations of problems learn from another? How may things travel, not by
making them equivalent and general, but rather through attending to specificities? We learn
about crafting relations rather than assuming they come in one size only. We learn about
the importance of keeping bodies warm rather than starving them. About eating the maize
or harvesting it for the production of biofuel for cars.
So the quest for everyday eating practices, and the practices and objects entangled with
them can be as diverse as growing food, organizing labour, or balancing a basket on ones
head on the way through the market. This is a very different kind of balancing than that of
weight and counterweight, of adding 1+1. In the end this should lead to better care practices.
Not by some linear idea of implementing pre-given solutions. But by considering the
specificities one needs to attend to, in order to both design and care for the many different
problems of obesity.
[Online: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/response-to-the-weight-of-obesity-4]

Jeannette Pols is Associate Professor and Principal investigator at the section of Medical Ethics of the
Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam. She is appointed as Socrates professor Social Theory,
Humanism and Materialities at the Department of Anthropology, program Health, Care and the
Body, at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of Care at a distance: On the closeness of
technology (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), as well as articles on medical ethics and healthcare
practices.

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Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

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Reply
EMILY YATES-DOERR
Assistant Professor, Anthropology, University of Amsterdam

WHEN I BEGAN fieldwork over a decade ago, I thought I would be studying Guatemalan
understandings of obesitya term that had begun to circulate between global health
meetings in the capital and markets, classrooms, and clinics in the countrys western
highlands. But carrying out fieldwork made me suspicious of the understandings that I had
once been after. As obesity was not a naturally bounded thing, neither were Guatemalans.
The realities of contingency and heterogeneity began to call into question my ambition to
ever understand.
The respondents of this book forum have generously engaged with my deferral of
understanding. They have gone along with my insistence that knowledge, especially, cannot
be known once and for all but is reshaped by engagement, and they have unpacked what this
implies for a field and a text that contributes to the production and circulation of
knowledge. It has been a gift to read my research through their reflections. I am grateful.
An ethnographic adage says that fieldwork is over when you stop learning anything new
from the questions you ask. This has never happened with me. The slower I ran the audio
speed when transcribing dialogue and interviews, the more I could hear within words and
ideas I had previously taken for granted. Having the same comments repeated when people
spoke about obesity the problem is education! the problem is exercise! the problem is diet!
helped me see the endeavor to make obesity a problem in consistently different ways.
Fieldwork ended because it was time to write. I had stories to tell about the horrifying
and seductive calculus of metabolic reasoning, with its promises that exchange could be
even and quantified. Fieldwork ended because women were teaching me about the power of
changing the dominant narrative (of the value of obesity and of value more broadly) and I
wanted to participate in this myself. Fieldwork did not end because the story was complete.
If fieldwork did not have a natural start and stop, neither did my book. Do others share
this experience too?
Its over, I thought when sending the book to the publisher. My second son had just
been born and I saw in its pages a project documenting the impossible challenges men and
women must balance to feed families well.
Its over, I thought a year later when I held the book in my hands for the first time.
Having produced such an unabashedly economic object that I was nonetheless proud to have
produced, what stood out for me was the lesson about the liveliness of markets that Simons
commentary addresses. Capitalist systems may work hard to give the appearance that labor

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Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

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and weight can be fixed in metrics, but units whatever they may be working to stabilize
teem with gaps and excess.
Its over, I reminded myself the first time I was asked to describe what the book had
been about in a forum for medical anthropologists and I wrote about the ontological
violence of forcing fluid objects into fixed positions. For this audience I wanted to draw out
the message of the book that it is far too easy to think of fatness as a problem of structural
violence: how does this fail to address, I asked then, the violence in assuming that fatness is
a problem?
Now, one year since it was published, reading it through the commentaries of others
makes it different yet again.
So what is the book about? Jeannette asks this specifically but all of the contributors to this
forum take up this question in some way. Shouldnt I give them an answer? Yet because they
understand my deferral of understanding they are not asking for just one stable answer. I
have, in fact, learned from them that knowledge is active and they are quite okay with the
book being many things at once: a book about bodies, race, and power; a book about writing
practices instead of writing cultures; a book that is slippery, because living is slippery; and a
book about how even when living is slippery, sometimes it is not. Women whose tremendous
power in the kitchen makes the power of politicians seem small and meek still lost their
children to emigration and limbs to amputation. What privilege it must be to call this
contradiction when for so many this is not at all contradiction but a truth of life.
Shortly after my book was published I read Ta-Nehisi Coates memoir written for his son,
my own small son swaddled in my arms. The illustration of how white Americans have built
their lives upon the destruction of black bodies is clear, as is the desire to reclaim these
bodies from the institutions that destroy them. His text has made me pause upon the politics
of my book, for I tell a somewhat different story. Focusing upon time spent in the largely
Indigenous highland city of Xela, I show how turning persons into bodies fits a colonial
project there at work. Before fieldwork, I might have asked a rather nave question of these
seemingly divergent messages: But what is the right response to colonial violence? Reclaim the
body? Refuse it? Having now done the fieldwork and writing that Ive donehaving lived for
years among the anthropology of scienceIm wary of questions that are asked in such
general terms. As colonialism does not happen in a general way, neither can efforts to
unsettle it be built upon these kind of generalitiesa statement that I hope is open enough
to acknowledge that sometimes, when the situation calls for it, generalities may be
warranted too.
Marianne pushes me: what doors does the deferral of understanding help to open up, she
asks? I want to turn this question back to the professionals and patients in a nutrition clinic
where I spent my time. I may be trained in ethnographic methods, but they were well-versed
in ethnographic practice. Dont close things down; dont be too certain; dont think you can learn
while assuming to know; make space to listen; give relations air to breathe and time to flourish. This
was not an analytic exercise; this was not theoretical (or, in thinking with Rebeca and
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Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

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Jeannette, it is deeply theoretical insofar as it demands we rethink how theory is done). This
was the path people followed because strength and suffering happen in all sorts of
unexpected ways, and being ethnographic was the care-filled way to be.
It is from these clinical spaces as well as from the kitchens where women went back to
their work of living and feeding that I have learned how staying with the trouble
(Haraway 2016) need not itself be troublesome. The doors Ive tried, in the best of company,
to ever so slightly nudge, open upon worlds where we can better see that building upon
shifting instead of solid ground may be a vital way forwardwhen it comes to caring for the
social lives of health and theory alike.

[Online: http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/a-reply-3]

Emily Yates-Doerr is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. The


Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala is her first book.

Somatosphere | November 2016

Book Forum: The Weight of Obesity by Emily Yates-Doerr

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