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.

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