Friday, January 20, 2012

Hey, Mothers, Have Some Spare Time? We Need You to Stop the Obesity Epidemic.

This Los Angeles Times article presents the views of Melinda Sothern, a fitness and nutrition expert at Louisiana State University who believes that the current rising obesity rates can be attributed to the parenting practices of women in the 1950's:
The obesity epidemic has multiple causes, Sothern acknowledges. Food has changed in the last five decades. Americans have become much more sedentary. But she thinks that obesity rates soared just when they did — in the 1980s — because a generation of young women decades earlier smoked, spurned breast-feeding and restricted their weight during numerous, closely spaced pregnancies.
But her theory doesn't end there. See, these women then gave birth to babies who were likely to become large and have large babies themselves:
Over-nourished kids grew up to be over-nourished women, producing large babies. Large babies, just like too-small babies, are at heightened risk of obesity, says Sebastien Bouret, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the USC Keck School of Medicine. 
And, since she's dubbed her theory the "obesity trinity," we need a third wave of women to finish it off:
If yesterday's young women may have gotten us into the obesity epidemic, today's must be counted on to help us get out, Sothern said. She doesn't mince words when describing the necessary changes. 
"Significantly overweight women should not have babies. Women should be physically active and have a healthy diet for at least a year before pregnancy," she says. "I do think we can de-program, but you have to be very aggressive." 
Women should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed. They should not smoke. 
And after those babies become toddlers and enter preschool, they should have 60 minutes a day of recess plus a 40-minute physical education class. 
Reproductive-age women are, in fact, becoming attractive targets for change. 
Bettina Seigel over at The Lunch Tray responds to this post by scoffing at the amount of responsibility this puts on mothers and mothers-to-be:
There’s a fine line between giving women legitimate prenatal counseling and saddling them with responsibility for a public health epidemic that has its roots in everything from agricultural policies to food manufacturing practices to portion sizes at restaurants.  A woman’s weight during her childbearing years is certainly important and needs to be monitored, but bluntly telling significantly overweight women, as Sothern does in the article, that they “should not have babies” and that they “should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed” (an economic impossibility for many women), is only likely to raise hackles.
Consider my hackles raised. 

First, Sothern's entire argument seems pretty circuitous. Yes, many of the things she attributes to a typical 1950's pregnancy have been correlated with obesity (and general unhealthiness), but those are cultural norms that have since changed. Yes, the past does influence the present and thus the future, and I take no issue with looking to our past mistakes to prevent our future ones, but the dots she's connecting don't seem as clearly lined up to me as they do to her. 

While I'm skeptical of the rhetoric surrounding the "obesity epidemic" because of the way that it promotes body shaming and bolsters an industry of products designed to tell people how they should look, I'm fully convinced that fitness and eating habits of our culture as a whole could be much, much better. The factors suspected of contributing to these patterns are incredibly complex and diverse: food deserts, artificial sweeteners, sedentary jobs, GMOs, fluoride in drinking water, the rise of fast food, corn subsidies, and so on.

With a list of causes that vast, it's very difficult to tackle them all, and so--when we make individual decisions about our health and our lives--we inevitably pick and choose. This is exactly what Sothern did in her own life. Though she says that her own family is a perfect example of the 'obesity trinity,' she is able to combat the long-term damage of her mother's parenting decisions by making some lifestyle choices of her own:
Sothern, at a healthy-looking 5 feet 3 and 129 pounds, has spent her adult life beating down a tendency to pack on weight by sticking to a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fish and a regimen of dancing, biking, housework, gardening, sailing and strength training.
So she's focused on diet and exercise, and it's working, even with the burden that the "evil '50s" placed upon her.

To make the recommendation that "significantly overweight women should not have babies" and that women should "take one year off from work and breastfeed" is not only condescending and out of line, it is also elitist, dripping with privilege, and morally reprehensible.

Even if Sothern is right about her claims that the cultural norms of the 1950's contributed to some of today's societal problems, that is a macro-level analysis. To then break that down to making proscriptive judgments on the actions of individuals is problematic. The problems with BMI, for instance, are well documented. So while collective BMI might be helpful in showing obesity trends across the nation, they're not very helpful in determining the health of an individual. A person can have a high BMI (and thus be "significantly overweight") and be perfectly healthy. To then tell this person that she "should not have babies" is misguided and cruel.

Since obesity disproportionately effects minority populations (which would seem to suggest Sothern's theory isn't all that accurate to begin with, but I digress) making such a proscription has highly racialized implications as well.

Finally, to imply that women must take a year off from work to breastfeed their children ignores the fact that women can successfully breastfeed while working, de-emphasizes efforts to create policies to make breastfeeding on the job easier, and--most offensive to me--suggests that women's work is always optional, which both trivializes the work that women do and ignores the fact that many women's incomes are necessary for the sustainability of their families.

I wish Sothern well in her dancing, biking, gardening, fruit-filled life, but perhaps she needs to step outside of her bubble and into someone else's shoes before she places such a burden on the women of the world.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, and also I noticed something interesting while reading the article. It clearly states that women who took part in these unhealthy behaviors were following their doctors' advice. So, why don't we say doctors are responsible for the "obesity epidemic?" Oh right, that would mean we can't blame pregnant women for yet another thing...