Syracuse University Magazine


Q & A: Harriet Brown

A Weighty Issue

Harriet Brown is a professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In her award-winning memoir, Brave Girl Eating (2011), she tells the story of her family’s struggle with anorexia. Syracuse University Magazine associate editor Christine Yackel spoke with Brown about her latest book, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It (Da Capo Press, 2015), in which she examines how “fat” has become a four-letter word.

Body of Truth book coverWhen and how did you become interested in exploring America’s obsession with weight and thinness?

It’s been a subject close to my heart for a long time. Like a lot of other girls growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I thought I was too fat. So I started dieting at age 14 and then embarked on 35 years of gaining and losing 30 or 40 pounds four or five times. No matter where my weight actually landed, I was miserable about my body. Then my daughter developed anorexia when she was 14 and that showed me another side of the issue. It radicalized me around the topic of body image.

How have science, history, and culture driven our quest for thinness?

I think there are issues that are particular to this country. I teach a course in body diversity and the media at Newhouse, and one of the first things I help my students understand is that your idea of what you think is the ideal body is not hard wired—it’s cultural and changes constantly. I also think the economic and social status of women plays a huge role because every time women have been making a leap forward in terms of their economic or social power, their body ideal becomes punishingly thin—I think that’s interesting and disturbing.

What are the myths of the “obesity epidemic” in America today?

One myth is that obesity is an epidemic. That is not supported by the evidence, which shows our collective weight gain has plateaued, and we’re not all going to be obese by 2030. Another myth is that thin is always healthy and fat is always unhealthy, but the science doesn’t support that. People who are heavier when they develop chronic diseases tend to do better and live longer than thinner people. This is known as the obesity paradox. There’s robust research that shows physical activity is far more important than weight when it comes to health and predicting disease.

Why is yo-yo dieting bad for a person’s health?

We’ve known for over 100 years that yo-yo dieting, also known as weight cycling, leads to weight gain for a lot of people and is linked with all sorts of health problems. It raises cortisol, blood pressure, and glucose levels, and people who do a lot of weight cycling have higher mortality. It’s much healthier from what I’ve seen in the research to maintain a stable weight rather than to be bouncing all over the place.

What is the Body Mass Index (BMI)?

The BMI is a simple ratio between height and weight that was developed by a Belgian mathematician as a way to measure populations, not individuals. It doesn’t take into account lean muscle mass, age, gender, or genetics. Researchers like it because it’s simple to use, but there’s little scientific evidence to support its effectiveness in predicting health outcomes. Many insurance companies will use a person’s BMI to deny coverage or charge higher rates.

What role do the diet industry and media play in our obsession with fat?

The diet industry in this country is a $60 billion-a-year business that funds most of the obesity studies. And the media constantly bombard us with photos of how we’re supposed to look. Although we know these photos have been heavily Photoshopped, they still form our perception of the ideal body image.

How do you answer your critics who cling to the concept of obesity as a disease that must be treated?

I’m not trying to tell people what to think. I’m pointing out some discrepancies between what we’re being told and what the facts appear to be. I’m hoping to motivate people to consider the science and make sense of it for themselves. Dieting is such a big industry in this country. If we could just be less stressed about our weight, we’d probably be healthier and thinner.

Photo © Jamie Young