Obesity studies blaming mothers

Study says… "Blame mom!"

Someone once told to me that denial is the cornerstone of civilization. Being a “glass is actually three-quarters empty” kind of person, I’m inclined to agree. And when denial meets obesity meets well-meaning studies, that glass is woefully empty. Two obesity studies blaming mothers have come out in the last few weeks. Both make a strong link between what how we’re raised (by our mothers) and childhood obesity.

We are blessed to live in a time and place where we don’t have to scramble for every morsel. We have more access to more food, and more shitty food at that, than ever before. Also, we have TVs and computers and smartphones. We are not exactly an active people. Let’s just accept these things and move on.

Deny, deny, deny—instead, we obsess over endless studies, each of which drills down into the minutiae of our behaviour patterns, looking for clues to our obesity problem. Effectively, looking for someone to blame. Guess who? Mom. The messages such studies send about parenting, gender, and child-rearing are troubling, and all the more so, because they come couched in the guise of well-meaning public health. I’m surprised that they don’t seem to be on the feminist radar.

The hidden undercurrents of these hand-wringing reports is always about class and mothering—who can afford what kind of food, who can afford to stay home, who can breastfeed or not, who is a single parent, and so on. But on these key details, the studies are mum; we are given virtually no information about the families involved.

Exhibit A:

Weighty Issue: Keep Junior Off Solid Food During His First 4 Months

This study turns out to be more about formula vs. breast than about solid foods. The gist of it is that if you breastfeed, you’re off the hook for all ills. If you formula-feed, consider your child a lost cause. Ok, I get it, breastfeeding is generally the preferred option. Leaving aside the fact that formula’s been around for a while, and obesity is a relatively new issue, what’s most troubling is the blasé attitude—as if feeding babies happens in a vacuum. When mothers feed babies they disappear into a bubble of perfection, where jobs and bills just disappear, as do your older children, as do any medical conditions that might make breastfeeding a problem, as does, well, all semblance of reality.

And, oh yes, what did the children eat in the years between the first solid food at 4-6 months and preschool? That’s a lot of months of eating.

Either way, these types of studies do more harm than good with their tunnel vision of feeding children and exclusive focus on breastfeeding as the only factor in one’s health.

Exhibit B:

The more mom works, the heavier the child: study

Working moms don’t have time to cook perfect meals which leads to fat children? Really? Errmm, well, thanks for that. I’ll just go back to keeping a roof over my soon-to-be-horrifically-obese child. Forget that women both need and want to work, in varying combinations of the two. It’s a pretty straightforward, finger-pointing thesis.

And where’s the working dad in all this? Do you hear that silence? Exactly. But a study on the impact of working fathers doesn’t usually occur to anyone as a viable line of investigation.

It’s true that working parents are stretched pretty thin. But it does nothing to simply point that out, or to focus solely on the role played by women. When, after such findings, lead author Taryn W. Morrissey, glibly declares that “a majority of moms in North America work outside of the home, [so the] … findings could help spur reform,” it’s hard to parse out what she means exactly.

Should more women be staying at home? Should we just shrug and say “Thanks for reminding us of one more way we’re apparently screwing up our kids”? Is she advocating for reform of working hours? For men or for women? Maybe we need to reform our employment laws? For more men to become stay-at-home dads?

It’s naive, and frankly irresponsible, to just declare that working moms make their kids fat.

The message in all these studies is clear—mom, if you mess up on one tiny detail, your child is doomed. It’s hairsplitting of the worst kind, normalized by its appearance in mainstream media, and wrapped in the language of well-meaning public health advice. As if to reinforce the gap between study and reality, a British article reporting on the solid foods/breastfeeding study concludes that “Only one in 100 babies in Britain is exclusively breastfed until six months, a 2005 study found.” That’s the closest it gets to any form of socioeconomic analysis.

And in a parenting culture that’s already rife with judgment and finger-pointing, it’s just more mud to sling. Ladies, back to your battle stations.

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