Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Maternal Is Political

Photo credit: Can Stock Photo
A Facebook friend recently posted a link to a thought-provoking article by science writer David Berreby. The article is worth reading in its entirety. (It was published last June, so don't get hung up on the Woody Allen reference in the intro.) Berreby's basic assertion, supported by scads of research, is that attributing obesity entirely to personal choice is wrongheaded and ultimately damaging, because declaring obesity a "closed question" focuses attention away from any factor other than individual behavior.

I'll come back to Berreby's main point in a moment, but first let's consider a few of the studies referenced in his article. While he is careful to note that none of these studies reveals "the one true cause of obesity" (he's calling for more, not less complexity in our dialogue), some points are particularly relevant on a blog about motherhood and self-image.

  1. A study with a sample spanning 68 nations found three obese women for every two obese men. In each nation, higher levels of obesity in women correlated with higher levels of gender inequality. (!)  It's tempting to conclude that women are overeating in response to stress, but…
  2. There's evidence that stress contributes more directly to obesity by altering "the biochemistry of fat storage and fat expenditure." In other words, simply experiencing stress can promote weight gain, whether or not we overeat in response to it. The same goes for sleeplessness. (Hello, stressed-out, sleep-deprived new mother. Why haven't you bounced back after having your baby?)
  3. Some of these biochemical changes are inheritable. Obese people can pass along metabolic changes that predispose their children to obesity. But undernourishment during pregnancy also promotes obesity in children, as does prenatal exposure to certain chemicals.

The personal-responsibility model says we should now add "stress," "sleep," and "prenatal health" to the list of things for which we are personally responsible. And yes, of course we are accountable for our individual decisions in response to available health information. But there are larger factors contributing to obesity, and any one individual has little control over these factors. Public health strategies don't effectively serve the public when they stubbornly focus on the personal and ignore the bigger picture.

Berreby devotes much of his article to a big-picture theory of obesity proposed by Jonathan C.K. Wells in the American Journal of Human Biology. Wells believes 21st-century obesity is the result of decades of widespread undernourishment followed by a swing to overconsumption, "in each case promoted by powerful profit-led manipulations of the global supply and quality of food." Here's how Berreby summarizes Wells's conclusion:

The "unifying logic of capitalism," Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell…Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

Women, mothers in particular, should care about this tendency to burden individuals with responsibility for problems that rightly belong in the public sphere. The same day I found Berreby's article in my Facebook feed, I participated in a conversation with some friends who are expecting babies later this year. All of them are cobbling together postpartum plans using a combination of sick leave, vacation days, disability leave, and maternity leave. According to MomsRising, this is the reality for 49 percent of U.S. mothers. The remaining 51 percent of new mothers lack any paid leave at all. Although paid maternity leave has been shown to reduce infant mortality by as much as 20 percent, the U.S. remains one of only four countries without national paid maternity leave (and ranks 37th globally for infant mortality). Having a baby is a main cause of "poverty spells" in our country, which occur when income dips below what's necessary to meet basic needs.

Along with limited maternity leave, mothers in the United States contend with inadequate childcare, inflexible workplaces, a wage gap between women and men and between mothers and non-mothers, and underfunding of early childhood programs and public education. But instead of examining our policies and strengthening support systems for families, we focus our scrutiny on individual mothers and their efforts to raise their children in a culture that frequently undermines their best attempts. Among other things, mothers are blamed for poverty, crime, their children's medical conditions, and our nation's education problems.

If such things are not individual problems, what can individuals do in response? I don't know about you, but acknowledging the myriad social and economic issues that are beyond my control doesn't flood me with relief. Federal reforms might benefit our families, but how much can we impact federal legislation?

At the very least, we can stay informed and participate in elections. (If you ever become complacent about your right to vote, watch the film Iron-Jawed Angels, which vividly portrays the fight for women's suffrage in the early 1900s.) Taking political participation a step further, we can voice our concerns to federal and state legislators, perhaps through engagement with an organization like MomsRising. I think the best place for individuals to make a difference, however, is within our own communities. When we come together with our neighbors to support our schools or build outdoor play spaces or fight for clean air and water, we're not just improving schools or parks or environmental quality. We're building stronger communities and increasing our capacity to respond cooperatively to other challenges (like, perhaps, obesity).

I know many of you have participated in this kind of community action. Some of you have involved your children, modeling for them the habits of engaged citizenship. I hope you will share your stories in the comment section below.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Helping Our Daughters Love Their Bodies: Interview with Dara Chadwick

Dara Chadwick is the author of You'd Be So Pretty If . . .: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies—Even When We Don't Love Our Own The book was inspired by Dara's experience as a Weight Loss Diary columnist for Shape magazine. Chronicling her weight loss for Shape readers over a 12-month period, Dara worried that her assignment would negatively affect her daughter's self-image, just as Dara's own mother had shaped Dara's body image with frequent self-deprecating comments. Newsweek magazine called You'd Be So Pretty If... "a sensible and compassionate guide to understanding the intricate relationship between mother and daughter and how seemingly innocuous remarks can have lifelong consequences." Thank you, Dara, for responding to my questions for The Nesting Doll Project.

Nesting Doll Project: How did becoming a mother affect your self-image?

Dara Chadwick: Becoming a mother affected my self-image in a couple of different ways. From a physical perspective, I watched my body change through two pregnancies and saw how it was—and wasn't—the same after each. In many ways, those stretch marks and c-section scars were visible reminders that I wasn't the same person, both physically and mentally, now that I was responsible for raising children. That sense of responsibility weighed heavily on my behavior, too. What parent hasn't felt the weight of being an example when their little kids imitate something they do or repeat something they say? (Ever heard your kid drop a bad word and realize sheepishly that it's your favorite curse word?) Our kids are always watching us, and learning how to treat themselves and others by the way we treat ourselves and others.

NDP: You wanted to lose weight partly to set an example of good health for your then 11-year-old daughter. But you worried that closely monitoring your calorie intake and workout regimen would have a negative impact on her self-image. Your response to that tension was to talk openly with your daughter throughout the experience. What did you talk about and how were those conversations "a gift," as you describe them in your book?

DC: We mostly talked about why I was trying to lose weight—to be healthier and to feel better about myself. But we also had a good laugh about the ridiculousness of some parts of the experience and those, I think, were the conversations that were truly a gift. For example, having lived through this experience with me, she has a perspective on the illusion created by women's magazines that her peers will never have (though I really wish they could). She was there when the photographer shot two issues' worth of photos in one session, even though the column was supposed to show my monthly progress. When she saw the first column that ran in the magazine (my "before" shot), she said, "Mom, I think they tried to make you look bigger than you are." I thought that was a wise observation for an 11-year-old and that was the beginning of many talks about how what we see in magazines isn't always an accurate reflection of what somebody actually looks like.

NDP: Your mother's negative comments about her own weight informed your beliefs about how a woman should look and feel. As mothers, most of us would be horrified to hear our daughters say to themselves the negative things we say to ourselves. How can we acknowledge our influence on our daughters without beating ourselves up for misguided or failed attempts?

DC: I think we can start by recognizing that most of us are doing the best we can and when we realize that our words and actions are having a negative impact, we have a responsibility to try to do better. I wouldn't begin to pretend that I never say anything negative about myself—we all have bad days. What you can do, and what I encourage, is to let your daughter hear you say nice things about yourself and others, too. Even the harshest self-critic can manage a compliment, even if it's "I like the way my hair looks today," "I love the color of this blouse I'm wearing" or "I'm really proud of the way I handled that difficult situation with my co-worker." Remember, too, that it's not just the negative talk. My own mom was constantly making jokes at her own expense and that self-deprecating humor was absolutely a habit that I picked up from her. I once joked to my daughter that I'd never wear sweatpants with a word across the bottom because I'd need the large print edition. That was the first time I saw my mom's behavior in my own.

NDP: You write: "How [girls] feel about the way they look often has a direct effect on how they feel about who they are." I think this is true of women as well. How do we change that?

DC: This was, without a doubt, something I heard over and over again from the women I interviewed for You'd Be So Pretty If... So many women say things like, "I'm too fat to do X" or "I'm too old to do Y." One woman I interviewed was in graduate school and she told me that if she was feeling fat on a particular day, she wouldn't raise her hand in class—even if she knew the answer and no one else did. She didn't want people to turn and look at her. I hear this sentiment time and again from readers and it breaks my heart every time. But I understand it. That's why it's so important to take care of yourself, treat yourself kindly and not hold yourself to an unrealistic standard that keeps you from being the person you want to be.

NDP: Five years after your book's publication, how is the experience of writing it impacting your life and your daughter's life?

DC: First, it's amazing to me that it's been five years. Equally amazing is how often I still hear from readers. I'm so grateful to have had the experience of writing this book and even more grateful that it touched so many women the way it did. In 2013, I got an email from a mother of two young girls who told me how much the book meant to her and had changed the way she was trying to raise her daughters. She sent me a photo of her girls holding my book. I have it on the bulletin board in my office and I look at it every day. It always makes me smile and it reminds me of how powerful words and actions are, in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. But it also reminds me of how pervasive body image issues are for women and girls, and that makes me sad—like can't we just move past this? I want all women and girls to know that they're so much more than a number on a scale or a label in a pair of jeans. Living a healthy, happy life is about being content with being the best version of yourself.