Professor Harriet Brown publishes book about culture's obsession with weight

Juliana LaBianca

April 9, 2015

Newhouse associate magazine professor Harriet Brown recently published a new book, “Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It.” Brown hosted a book-signing event at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University recently and took a little time to talk more about her latest work.

What is “Body of Truth” about?

The book looks at the forces that support our obsession with weight in this culture. It considers how valid they are and where they come from, and suggests a different way for us to go forward.

How long has it been in the works?

I’ve probably been thinking about it for five years. I actually didn’t want to write it at first because writing about this subject always attracts a lot of criticism. I don’t mind debate, but it usually gets very personal. People are very emotional and well defended on this subject and can get very hostile. That can be tiresome.

What was the most shocking thing you found in your research?

One thing that was shocking to me was that we have known for a long time that diets don’t make people thinner. That has been known and talked about in the medical establishment for at least a hundred and some years. So that immediately made me think, well why are doctors still telling us to go on diets and to lose weight. Doing that is very hard for most people, and almost no one who does lose weight in the short term keeps it off in the long term.

In several parts of the book you reference the Body, Diversity and Media class you teach at Newhouse. How did teaching that class influence you?

It was perfect timing that I got to create and start teaching that class just when I was really heavily into the research. So I’d be researching on the weekend, and then I’d come into class on Tuesday with something new to talk about. It also gave me the chance to talk to young women about this stuff. I was kind of hoping that maybe this was just a problem for my generation and that you guys had it all worked out, but no. In fact, I think it’s harder in some ways for you because you’re surrounded by media all the time. The push for being thin now comes from everywhere.

What types of feedback have come in so far?

Some of it has been very validating. I’ve gotten feedback from people saying thank you for telling my story. And then there are other kinds of feedback, like the email that came into my personal account that basically said, you’re a horrible person because you’re denying the severity of obesity, and children are going to die because of you. I expect that the feedback has only just begun.

What was some of the more validating feedback?

I’ve gotten a lot of tweets and Facebook messages from women saying things like “Thank you for putting words to my experience.” That’s honestly why I write the kind of stuff that I write.

Juliana LaBianca is a senior magazine major at the Newhouse School.

Photos by Paul Sarconi, a sophomore broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.