Calibrating Extremes: The Balancing Act of Maternal Foodwork

By Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston and Merin Oleschuk

 

When it comes to feeding children, mothers today must avoid the appearance of caring too little, or too much. Either extreme garners social stigma, although the penalties are far from equal.

Theresa describes how becoming a mother brought heightened significance to her food decisions. “I really tried to avoid the junk,” she says, hosting a focus group of friends in her Toronto apartment. A mixed-race single mother raising three kids on social assistance, Theresa says the scarcity of time and money makes putting regular healthy meals on the table difficult. But occasionally her efforts pay off. She recalls with pride the time her five-year-old son “went to a birthday party at McDonald’s, came home and threw up because he just wasn’t used to that food.” For Theresa, her son’s intolerance for fast food was evidence of her devoted feeding work.

The specter of the “McDonalds Mom”

When we conducted interviews and focus groups with Toronto women, many mothers described ongoing efforts to feed their kids nutritious meals, while avoiding processed “junk.” In doing so, these women distanced their own feeding practices from an imagined “bad” mother who makes “bad” food choices. Carol (white, producer) admits that she sometimes scrutinizes other grocery carts with a “judgmental eye” when she sees “really awful stuff going down the conveyer belt with kids there.” Tara (a white single-mother who was unable to work due to chronic pain) expressed frustration that her son’s healthy lunches would inevitably be traded for junk because his friends were sent to school with “all this crap.”

As mothers in our study distanced themselves from an unhealthy “Other” who made poor food choices, we were surprised how frequently McDonald’s entered the conversation. McDonald’s seemed to function as a trope symbolizing “easy” meals, “unhealthy” choices, and “bad” mothering more generally. Gail (white, acupuncturist) contrasted her vision of healthy home cooking with a “stereotypical image of someone stopping at McDonald’s to get food for their kids.” Marissa (Black, project manager) confessed that as “busy people we do need to do fast food,” but clarified that “my kids will tell you that does not mean McDonald’s.” Lucia (Latina, social worker) said she and her son “talk about what’s junk and you know, McDonald’s and all that kind of food” in an effort to teach him “what’s healthy, what’s not healthy.”

Again and again, mothers distanced themselves from the figure of the “McDonald’s Mom,” a stigmatized “Other” they used to defend their own feeding practices. While this defense may seem judgmental, we suggest mothers’ efforts to establish this distance reflect the intense pressures they experience feeding their children. These pressures are especially penalizing for poor women who struggle to feed kids on a limited budget and racialized women who face enduring racist stereotypes about parenting and food choices. Indeed, the assumption that poor mothers make inferior food choices is evident in recent calls to restrict what can be purchased on SNAP benefits, undermining the essential role of government assistance in mitigating the effects of poverty.

Going organic… but not too organic

When distancing their own feeding practices from “bad” ones, some mothers described feeding their children an organic diet – a resource-intensive practice that has become a gold standard of middle-class motherhood. Mothers today face considerable pressure to purchase ‘pure’ foods that are free of harmful chemical additives; this “intensive feeding ideology” involves the added work of researching products, reading labels, and making baby food from scratch.

Bananas

Some more privileged mothers in our study expressed preference for these standards, but insisted they weren’t dogmatic in their commitment. Tammy (white, daycare worker) explained that while she and her husband provide their son healthy foods, they “try very hard also not to get into that urban, crunchy granola mafia kind of mindset.” Elaine (Asian, research analyst) described how she “goes with the flow” when feeding her infant daughter, and contrasted this approach with friends who are “very militant about it… almost as if it’s a religion.”

Thus, when feeding children an organic diet, mothers risk resembling another stigmatized figure: the overbearing “Organic Mom” whose feeding practices venture into excess. Implicitly coded white and affluent, this pathologized figure obsesses over what her kids are eating, denying them the tasty treats associated with childhood. Like the McDonald’s Mom, the Organic Mom is not a real person, embodied in a singular mother; she is an imagined figure used to police the boundaries of maternal foodwork.

Feeding children: A struggle shaped by social inequality

Importantly, the McDonald’s Mom and the Organic Mom do not entail equal social sanction. The stigma of being perceived as a “bad” feeder is much more socially discrediting, and engenders significantly greater penalty – including surveillance from state institutions like schools, doctors, and child welfare agencies. What’s more, an individual woman’s relationship to these figures is shaped by her social location. Given the challenge of feeding children on a limited income, along with racist ideologies linking “healthy eating” to whiteness, the threat of being categorized as a McDonald’s Mom is clearly greater for poor women and women of color than for affluent white women. And the risk of being perceived as controlling or uptight is incomparable with the stress of food insecurity. Shannon, a white single-mother living on social assistance, said she wished she could buy organic food, but has to ration her own fruit and vegetable intake so her daughter can eat them. She explained that when there’s not enough for both of them, “I will say I don’t feel like eating.”

Our point is not to equate these uneven penalties, but to draw attention to the multiple ways mothers are harshly judged for their foodwork. Notably, comparable figures of the “McDonald’s” or “Organic Dad” did not emerge in our broader study (which included men), revealing the continued gendered burden of feeding children and the more flexible standards fathers face when doing this work.

What became clear throughout our research is that mothers from diverse backgrounds face pressure to continually monitor their children’s eating in ways that are careful and responsible, yet don’t appear obsessive or controlling. We call this process calibration – the constant balancing act of striving for an elusive maternal ideal. Calibration is labor-intensive and emotionally taxing, part of the seemingly impossible task of performing the “good” mother. If you opt for affordability or convenience, you risk being seen as a McDonald’s Mom. If you take your job as health-protector too seriously, you may be deemed an obsessive Organic Mom who deprives her kids of childhood joys like hotdogs. These gendered pressures not only contribute to mother-blame, but distract us from the larger harms perpetuated by an unhealthy, unsustainable, and unjust food system. Instead of trading in individualized blame, let’s work to build an equitable food system that promotes the health of all children, not simply those whose mothers appear to care (and spend) just the right amount.

Kate Cairns is an Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. She is coauthor of Food and Femininity (Bloomsbury 2015) with Josée Johnston, Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Merin Oleschuk is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto studying home cooking and family health.

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The Trump Effect on Sexual Health in Africa

By Robert Wyrod

As the Trump presidency enters its third month, we are beginning to see the implications for the U.S. role in promoting global sexual health. Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Mexico City Policy, aka the global gag rule, has rightfully received much attention. By prohibiting U.S. foreign aid from funding any organization providing or promoting abortions, it severely limits America’s ability to improve sexual health in the Global South. For the many health clinics across Africa that rely on U.S. funding for reproductive health and family-planning services, this may likely mean dramatically scaling back services or shuttering clinics.

Efforts are underway to challenge the reinstatement, most prominently the Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights (HER) Act led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). But there is another, less-discussed issue that could have an even greater impact on sexual health worldwide, especially in Africa. Will Trump defund the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief? The PEPFAR program, launched in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration, is the largest health initiative in history focused on fighting a single disease. To date, over $70 billion has been spent on PEPFAR programs, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. This makes PEPFAR a tempting target for the current administration, especially given Trump’s deep skepticism of foreign aid. In mid-January, the Trump transition team sent a series of pointed questions to the State Department about U.S. aid to Africa, asking “Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement program?” Continue reading “The Trump Effect on Sexual Health in Africa”

Reconsidering Gendered Sexualities in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic

By Christie Sennott and Nicole Angotti

In the rural area of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa that we study, HIV is estimated to infect 1 in 5 people. Many researchers have studied the social, biological, and behavioral factors that contribute to HIV infection and the consequences of high mortality from AIDS-related diseases. Yet, less attention has been paid to how people actually living in communities affected by HIV/AIDS talk about the epidemic in everyday life—a useful way for understanding how men and women experience a significant threat to their lives and the lives of those around them.

HIV/AIDS is a unique type of threat: it is transmitted sexually, potentially fatal, and therefore has wide-reaching consequences for men and women’s sexual lives. Whereas several studies have found that individuals work to “reaffirm” or recuperate long-standing norms governing gender and sexuality when those norms are threatened, we find that HIV/AIDS – which threatens not just individual lives, but also relationships, families and communities – provokes reconsideration of gendered sexualities at the community level. We define reconsideration as the processes through which men and women debate, challenge, make sense of, and attempt to come to terms with the social norms circumscribing gendered sexual practices. Our focus on reconsideration shows the multiple voices and commentaries on HIV/AIDS that are circulating in the community, and that ideas about masculinity and femininity are complex, contradictory, and evolving in everyday conversation and interaction.

Our data are ethnographic and collected by men and women from the community. Over several months in 2012, a local team of “insider ethnographers” wrote field notes capturing conversations about HIV/AIDS that they encountered in public settings, such as large community events like village meetings, and other venues where interaction is commonplace, such as at bus depots and at church. These data are ideal for understanding local ideas about threats like HIV/AIDS because they are captured in real time and show the multiple perspectives that come to bear on the social experience of living amid an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Continue reading “Reconsidering Gendered Sexualities in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic”

G&S Blog Post – Weight Stigma, Gender & Medicine: A Tale of Two Times

By Natalie Ingraham

Recently, New York Times science journalist Gina Kolata wrote two stories about stigma related to fatness, often called weight stigma. These articles address that way fat people, and fat women in particular, are treated poorly by society because of body size. In her September 25th article, Kolata considers weight stigma specific to medical settings and the emotional and physical consequences of this stigma for fat patients. However, it’s important to note that she doesn’t  describe cases of medical neglect or mistreatment as a weight stigma. However, less than a week later on October 1st, she devotes and entire pieces to the “shame” of weight stigma and its negative outcomes for individuals who experience it. Here, she focuses heavily on the work of the Rudd Center, which works extensively on weight stigma and its impacts.

Weight Stigma & Medicine

fat-pic
Photo by Parker Knight (CC) 

Kolata reviews important evidence by social scientists and public health professionals (Drury and Louis 2002; Puhl, Peterson, and Luedicke 2012; Teachman and Brownell 2001; Teixeira and Budd 2010) about the various types of discrimination fat patient’s face. Such discrimination includes hostile language about a lack of willpower to lose weight, shaming from medical staff about weight gain, or increased costs for medical services based on BMI. The stigma becomes medical neglect when misdiagnosis of a problem or medical equipment is unsafe or inaccurate for larger patients (e.g. a small blood pressure cuff causing both pain to the patient and an inaccurate higher blood pressure). The stories from patients in this article reflect both empirical work and personal narratives about weight-based medical mistreatment. Continue reading “G&S Blog Post – Weight Stigma, Gender & Medicine: A Tale of Two Times”

Menstrual Hygiene Explored Keeping Our Eye On The Wider Context

By Chris Bobel. Originally posted on the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Blog re:Cycling (here).

Editors Note: This piece is being cross-posted in response to the recent media campaign #JustATampon.

This summer, I bought a new camera. I needed it to snap pictures during a research trip to India where I explored diverse approaches to what’s called in the development sector, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). I chose a sleek, high tech device with a powerful, intuitive zoom.

Continue reading “Menstrual Hygiene Explored Keeping Our Eye On The Wider Context”

Slaves to Beauty

by Steven Vallas  Originally posted at Work In Progress (here). The piece is cross-posted with permission.
Credit: The New York Times
Credit: The New York Times

LAST WEEK The New York Times ran a set of stories that illustrate just how vital investigative journalism is, especially in an era in which savage capitalism seizes upon vulnerable groups-–immigrant women in powerless positions—and exploits them with impunity, knowing that governmental institutions lack the power, authority, or will to intervene. Written by Sarah Maslin Nir, the stories showed us that the outposts of bourgeois femininity—nail salons–we see in virtually all in commercial areas, have a dark side to them that is often quite hidden, even to the customers: rampant the wage theft and health hazards that are common practices within nail salons. Continue reading “Slaves to Beauty”

Why Are so Many U.S. Babies Born via Cesarean?

By Christine Morton

When I gave birth to my first child in 1995, the U.S. cesarean birth rate was 21%. By 2013, the total cesarean rate had risen to 33%, a nearly 60% increase! What has happened in the 18 years since I had my first baby to reach a point where 1 in 3 women give birth through major abdominal surgery?

A recent article in the Huffington Post highlights the risks of cesarean birth for both mother and baby and asks why the U.S. cesarean rate is more than double the World Health Organization recommended rate.

  • Are there medical factors that explain this increase?
  • Have women’s bodies become less capable of vaginal birth due to age or health issues?
    Are women choosing surgical birth because it’s less painful, or as safe as vaginal birth?
  • Are cesareans being done because women and babies are getting bigger?
    Is the increase due to more women having twins, triplets and so on?
    Has the increase in cesareans resulted in better health outcomes for women and babies?

The short answer to all these questions is NO. Continue reading “Why Are so Many U.S. Babies Born via Cesarean?”