Thursday, January 5, 2012

It's All Their Fault

A story greeted me this morning in the People section of our local newspaper: Expert: Women in ’50s may have triggered obesity issue. Women in the 1950s were regularly blamed for many things, so I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me. Furthermore, the booming economy and loosening of wartime restrictions on food products like sugar, meat and butter, women’s return to the home when they were kicked out of their wartime jobs, and the increasing availability of convenience foods like cake mixes, probably did change family diets in the fifties. 

That isn’t what our expert meant, it turns out. No, the problem is what young mothers of the fifties were doing while they were pregnant with us baby boomers. Fitness and nutrition expert (according to the article) Melinda Sothern 

has a theory that the tide of obesity that has swept the nation in the last two decades had its roots in what young mothers did, or didn’t do, in the postwar, suburban sprouting 1950s.
. . . [S]he thinks the 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.

Okay, let’s say she’s right. Were these young women smoking, restricting their weight, and bottle feeding their babies in defiance of the best medical advice of the time? Not really. 

“Sothern points to her own family as an example of the obesity trinity in action.

Her mother was told by her obstetrician in the 1950s to gain less than 20 pounds during pregnancy. Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day was a good way to keep the weight down, the doctor said. [emphasis added by me, because somebody had to.]

Later in the article it is mentioned that women who were pregnant in the fifties were advised to gain as little as 10 pounds a pregnancy.

So why does the headline say “Women in ‘50s may have triggered obesity issue” rather than, “Doctors in ‘50s may have triggered obesity issue “? Or to be less pejorative, “Medical advice in ’50s may have triggered obesity issue”? True, the choice of “women” rather than “doctors” may have had to do with space considerations on the part of the headline writer, but the headline does seem to reflect the emphasis of the article: not on the bad medical advice women of the decade were given, but on the women’s behavior that resulted from that advice. 

When I was in graduate school, the speech department occupied a small section of the medical school. During a bout of ovarian pain, I consulted some of the obstetrical textbooks available, and was that ever an eye opener. The text book writers infantilized women and encouraged their doctors to do likewise. Your OB/Gyn was not just a person with a specialty that you paid for advice the way you consulted your car mechanic about your car or your butcher about how to cook the Sunday roast. He (and most likely he was he) was a father figure who saw you as a bundle of irrational actions wrapped around a womb.

There was no internet, no trained midwife, no nurse practitioner to consult. It was Dr. Know-it-all or nothing, and Dr. Know-it-all knew nothing about nutrition, mom’s or baby’s. It was not his fault. In advising his patients to restrict their weight gain, he thought he was giving the best medical advice of the day, advice that would prevent the problems he ultimately, if our expert is right, caused. But to say “Women in ’50s may have triggered obesity issue” and ignore the  reasons that women in the 1950’s acted the way they did is to obscure the problem that our expert is trying to solve. Sometimes even the best educated members of our society don’t know enough, and what they think they know is dangerous. It’s not their fault. Medical researchers are trying their best to learn the healthiest ways to live, but it takes time and some wrong guesses to do so. 

But it’s not mom’s fault, either. She was trying to give her baby the best start she could by following her doctor’s advice. The unthinking tendency to generalize about women of the 1950s (not all of whom were pregnant mothers, some of  them were grandmas who were ridiculed for reminding their daughters that they were eating for two) is cruel and unhelpful. It’s not science to ignore the societal factors that led pregnant women in the post WW II era to take bad care of themselves during pregnancy thinking that they were doing the reverse. It’s the same old mom blaming, repackaged. 


  1. I think I read a version of that same story in my local paper. And the story is about what "women" did, because it's also about what certain nutritionists want women to do now, in order to make fat people extinct:
    - Obese women should not have babies. Period.
    - Women should eat a healthy diet (whatever that means this week) and exercise to stay at their "ideal" weight for as long as a year, before even thinking of daring to get pregnant.
    - All new mothers should take at least a year off work to breastfeed their babies.

    And, as one expert was quoted, "We need to be really aggressive about this." What she means by "aggressive," I shudder to think.

    Nor is there any guarantee that any of this would "work." Healthy diet, exercise, and breastfeeding are all good things, but obesity seems to be More Complicated Than That, and from what I understand as a non-scientist, the relationships between genetics, teratogenic factors, and social issues which may be related to an adult's body size, are still very poorly understood.

    But when all else fails, it's always safe to blame the mother.

    Huh. Sorry to ramble on, but that article really annoyed me.

  2. Well, that was my point, Amaryllis, and perhaps not made too clearly. By framing the problem in terms of errors women made, not errors that their medical advisors made, these nutritionists have poised themselves to make the same errors again:

    urging draconian measures on women without any actual evidence that those measures would work;

    posing as the experts who are not to be questioned;

    not asking themselves how grounded in evidence the advice they are about to give is.

    That's what happened in the 1950's, and that's the set of errors they refuse to learn from, because they are looking at the problem in the wrong way. IMO, anyway.

  3. Sorry, I know you got it, I was just still so annoyed about the stupid article that I couldn't resist grumbling some more about it. "Smoke a pack of cigarettes a day," indeed-- and then they have the nerve to say they know what they're talking about now.