The American “obesity epidemic” has been all over the news -– from stories about the viability of the Atkins diet to tabloid profiles of 100-pound toddlers.
It’s pretty clear that Americans are fixated on fat. But conversations about weight are often about much more than health; they’re about deeper personal, social, and political questions. In Thinness and Salvation independent producer Sarah Yahm interviews everyone from Christian dieters to California foodies to fat activists and tries to untangle what we talk about when we talk about fat.
Sarah Yahm is an independent radio producer, oral historian, and educator trying to figure out how those three things can actually equal making a living. Her work has aired on a variety of NPR affiliates, on WBAI in New York, through various Internet venues (including Transom.org), and in the Reel Work Film Festival. Yahm recently graduated from the new social documentation program at UC Santa Cruz. She's interested (or more accurately obsessed) with finding ways to replicate people's internal worlds through sound.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Sarah Yahm
What inspired you to make "Thinness and Salvation"?
I was a teaching assistant for a class called The Politics of Obesity at the University of California at Santa Cruz taught and conceived by professor Julie Guthman, and it really blew my mind. I was politicized about fat politics and body politics before teaching the class, but I hadn’t started to think about the way fat and fear of fat was actually a mask for larger social anxieties. It’s a great topic because it’s both very abstract and very personal. When you look at the politics of food you can get into people’s personal thoughts when they sit down to dinner and U.S. agricultural policy, neoliberalism, and the destruction of the welfare state. I really like to work at the intersection between the personal and the political, and obesity seemed like a great way to do it. I also had access to the fat activist community and so that was a great jumping off point. And once I started noticing the obesity epidemic coverage in the media, I really wanted to counteract it.
Moving from the east coast to the west coast made me aware of food and my body in a completely different way. I was always part of health-focused, food-focused communities, but Santa Cruz was above and beyond anything I’d experienced in New York. I was intrigued by the nearly religious zealotry I witnessed every week at the farmer’s market. I think it was the religious undertone of the raw foodies and others that I encountered in Santa Cruz that prompted me to seek out the Christian dieters. I wanted to really explore this idea of food and faith, fitness, and salvation.
How set were you in your own ideas about fatness in America when you began work on the piece? How did your ideas change as you worked on the story?
Well, I wish I could say that I went into this project with different politics than I came out of it with, but honestly, I went in with a feminist critique of body politics and came out with a feminist critique of body politics. That said, I did gain a great deal of insight about my own relationship with my body from making this piece. I’m a bit of a theory nerd and I always took the political position that bodies are socially constructed, but I had no idea what that really meant. Let’s face it, in our daily lives we walk around in bodies that don’t feel socially constructed, that are undeniably real with very real limitations and pleasures and pains, etc. The great thing about this project was that I started to really feel like my body was socially constructed. While I was interviewing a broad range of people with a broad range of body types, my body, in empirical terms, remained the same. But that wasn’t how it felt. My body felt completely different to me based on the context.
You spoke with California foodies, dieters with religious motivations, and fat activists. How did you come across your sources? What surprised you as you did your reporting?
The Christian dieters were surprisingly easy to access and eager to have some media coverage. I had access to the fat activist community through friends and when I wanted to talk to foodie types I would just bring my microphone to the farmer’s market.
You know, it’s interesting to listen to this piece again post-Obama and post-economic collapse. This piece was very much made before the election, before Obama received the nomination, when the red state/blue state divide seemed insurmountable. I didn’t think there were really many commonalities between the left and the right, the coast and the center. But as I was conducting these interviews I was overcome with the similarities I heard across the spectrum. It seemed to me that left and right were united by a culture of fear, and by a conviction in personal responsibility instead of structural change. Yes, members of the left gave lip service to changing the food system, but when it came right down to it they believed that your worth as a person was determined by what you chose to put in your mouth. And that this was written visibly on your body. The Christian dieters state that explicitly, "If you’re fat you’ve sinned and you’re going to hell," but the left says it implicitly over and over again.
We had to have an economic collapse to change this type of rhetoric, even though it’s still out there for sure. Luckily I think we are moving away from talking exclusively about personal responsibility and shifting to questions of social responsibility, structural change, etc.
There are so many voices, archival sound clips, and field recordings within the piece. How did you go about organizing the voices and sounds? Were there any stories or sound elements that were particularly hard to leave out of the piece?
This piece was different than any of my previous docs because it wasn’t driven by characters or a story, it was driven by an idea and an argument. I have lots of other tape about obesity and fat politics that I’m using in other pieces, but it became kind of clear to me that I was making an explicit argument and so scenes that didn’t further that argument had to go.
It was especially hard to exclude the tape I collected from the Academy of the Sierras, which is a weight-loss boarding school in Fresno, California. But now it’s being shaped into its own piece so I feel okay about it.
My favorite section of the piece are the obsessive food thoughts at the end. I really wanted to make a documentary about these forms of self-regulation and connect our internal obsessive process to larger social structures. I also have to give my friend David Elkins some credit for the organization of the piece. I think that everything really came together once I found an editor who I trusted and he’s a great editor. He was very good at pointing out what was self-indulgent and what worked.
It’s really interesting to hear the fat activists talking about their experiences without seeing them because it allows you to really focus on their voices alone without prejudging their appearance. Do you think this story is particularly well-suited for radio given the absence of a visual prejudice?
Yup. I’m a fan of all different documentary mediums but I really believe that certain stories are best told using certain mediums. I try to pick pieces that are best suited for sound and I think fat and fat politics is definitely one of them. In our culture fat people are dismissed instantaneously because of their size. That couldn’t happen as easily in this piece because you couldn’t see them, and so hopefully that created a space where they could be heard.
How have listeners responded to your piece?
Really well. People have told me that I succeeded in creating something that’s intellectually rigorous and accessible at the same time, and that’s what I wanted to do. I of course have no perspective on the piece now at all so I just have to hope that’s what I accomplished.
My biggest anxiety was that my friends, who sent me their obsessive food thoughts, would be angry at how they were represented. But everyone felt really respected and was glad to be part of the process. And so that was a big, big relief to me.
Thinness and Salvation was your thesis project from the new social documentation program at UC Santa Cruz. Do you have plans to keep working in radio? What are you up to now?
I do have plans to keep working in radio! So, what am I going to do with my life? That’s a very good question –- are you in cahoots with my mother?
I’ve been adjuncting on and off at UCSC, working on some exciting new projects (an oral history/audio tour of Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake), looking for work in radio, and in the meantime trying to make some money.