Policy Point Wednesday: Should We Blame Feminism for Lifestyle-related Disease?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWomen have been at their laptops, responding to an allegation by food activist Michael Pollen, who states:

“Simone de Beauvoir wrote… that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation”…a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”

Pollan equates the rise in feminism to a reliance on “factory foods,” and notes that “The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity.”

Of course, Pollan only makes a few brief mentions of men as home cooks –  in their traditional role at the grill, and as a lament of the apparently impossible task of getting men to cook: “Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work?” (Note: because of this, I decided to teach my son to cook – men who are comfortable in the kitchen start out as boys who were welcome there.)

I do believe there is more to the story than a quest for freedom from drudgery. I agree with Emily Matchar that expressing yourself through cooking and food implies privilege; one that was not enjoyed by our great-grandmothers, who supposedly served up more healthful food than those of us who opt for the drive-thru. It is easy to lay the burden of social problems on the individual, but I believe that is only a small slice of a systemic issue.

For instance, the women Matchar dubs “femivores” have unprecedented access to resources that most families do not: they live in neighborhoods isolated from advertising (for instance, in my urban neighborhood there is a fast food billboard on nearly every block of the business district between my home and my child’s school) their culture promotes food as a form of creativity, their education level affords them access to information about food and health, and their income allows them to purchase all kinds of labor-saving devices from bread machines to cuisinarts to ice-cream makers to sharp knives. Foodies discussing the benefits of purchasing grass-raised beef in bulk seem to live on an entirely different planet from from single mothers living on SNAP and TANF.

Writer Gina Bellafante notes that “Obesity and its related illnesses, as we know, disproportionately affect low-income communities.” She compares lifestyle-related diseases today with contagious diseases in the last century: poverty as a driver of the spread of typhus and the center of a public health debate involving education, personal freedom and government. Bellafante writes:

“The larger issue, though — larger than the matter of how much more time we should spend trying to ensure that no child ever grows up with a memory of a 32-ounce Sprite — is the recognition of poverty itself as a public health problem. The poor are more likely to live with asthma, depression, gun violence and pests (and the chemical pesticides used to eliminate them). The articulated goal should not simply be to create a population of poor people who are thin, but to create a population of poor people who are less poor. In 2010, the poverty rate in the city remained what it was 10 years earlier, 21 percent.”

She refers us to a study by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which shows that Americans living in poverty are disproportionately affected by depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. The study also notes income disparities in what participants consider to be “healthy eating” (indicating a possible need for education) and that those living in poverty indicated more difficulty accessing produce, safe places to exercise, and medical care. Unfortunately, the study does not break down demographics further than poverty/not poverty – so we cannot see if affluence has an even more protective effect on health.

It is easy to be reductive about lifestyle-related disease. There are many, many factors at work and many truths we must weigh in order to create sensible public health policies. Many activists frame lifestyle-related disease as matters of choice, whether that choice be about women working outside the home, or the choice of smokers to quit, or the choice of portion sizes in sugary beverages. It is important to remember that any individual lifestyle is a complex gestalt, comprised of many different influences from outside and from within: our job as activists is not to decry “bad” individual behavior but to ensure that people have access to positive life choices based on accurate information while supported by adequate resources.

Filed under: Food News

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