Is feminism making us fat?

The US is one of the only four nations on earth lacking a federally mandated maternity leave, writes Filipovic.

Leonard (ten-month-old) gets his mouth cleaned by mother Veronika Rixom in kitchen in Ismaning
According to a new study, as women in the workplace increased and their housekeeping hours decreased, obesity rates went up - in other words, a woman spending fewer hours at home allegedly means a less healthy population [Reuters]

Did feminism make us fat? That is the implication of a new study, which shows that as women entered the workforce in larger numbers, their housekeeping hours went down and obesity rates went up. 

While the authors of the study are careful not to politicise the results, they choose to only look at female household labour and highlight how the decline of the stay-at-home mom means women spend less time preparing food and cleaning up after meals. 

They inaccurately claim that women spend less time with their kids today than 45 years ago. And the takeaway is that, fewer hours at home means a less healthy population.  

But that is not quite true. The real culprits of our nationwide bad physical health – which, by the way, afflicts people of all body sizes – are complex, and include both the food we eat and the increasingly sedentary lifestyles we lead. Increased gender equality has in fact been good for our bodies, our minds and our families. But the same policies that stall women’s empowerment are also making us physically ill.  

The authors of the housework and weight study are clear that their results only show correlation, and do not prove that decreased work in the home leads to an uptick in the national obesity rate. And certainly a society-wide decrease in physical activity may be related to a society-wide increase in weight. 

Decline in housework hours

We know that the weight of the average American has gone up over the past 45 years, which the study attributes at least in part to the decline in housework hours – women in 1965 spent an average of 25.7 hours per week on household tasks, and by 2010 spent 13.2 hours per week. But the household labour examined does not include childcare – which, according to other studies, would bring the numbers up to more than 28 hours per week. 

 Obesity on rapid rise in the US

And while the authors claim that time spent with children decreased between 1965 and 2010, the study they cite on that point actually says the opposite – “US mothers have shed hours of housework but not the hours they devote to childrearing”. Women today, even those who work full-time, spend more time with their kids than the stay-at-home moms of the 1960s. They spend more quality time, too – which means a lot of walking, running and playing that was not tallied in the study of women’s household daily energy expenditure.  

The study also does not look at men’s household labour. Other studies have shown that men participate more around the home than they did 40 years ago, and spend much more time with their children. They still do significantly less than women, but their involvement has improved substantially since 1965. Yet even though they do more at home, men’s obesity rates have also gone up.  

Something much bigger is going on than “women are not doing as much housework as they used to”.  

The size of any particular person should not be our concern, and it does not matter to me if people are fat or thin. But it does matter when the American population has a slew of health problems related to our lifestyle, what we eat and the chemicals to which we are routinely exposed. Our rates of diabetes, heart disease, food allergies and many cancers have skyrocketed. We are very sick.  

The exact causes of all our ills are unclear. There is no doubt that our food plays a major role. Much of what we eat is processed and laden not just with addictive salt and sugar, but crammed full of unpronounceable chemicals and preservatives. And we are much more sedentary than we used to be. Housework and food preparation are easier with modern appliances, and more of our jobs involve long days in front of the computer instead of work on a factory line or on our feet.  

But there are also political policies that are making us sick and incentivising the actions that lead to poor health. It is easy to tell someone to eat a salad instead of a Big Mac. But if you are a low- or even medium-income parent working full-time or more than full time, the calculus is not so straight-forward. It is harder to find the time to go grocery shopping, chop all the ingredients, prepare a healthy protein, serve a meal your family will actually eat and then clean up. It can also be more expensive. 

In most places in the country, getting to a grocery store requires a car, or at least reliable public transportation. And the time you are doing the work of preparing food and cleaning is time you often are not spending with your family and unwinding after a stressful day.  

Americans today work more hours than ever before. Many of us work multiple jobs. We take fewer vacation days than residents of other industrialised nations, and we retire later. We spend more time with our kids than in the heyday of the homemaker. Our kids themselves have jam-packed schedules of school, SAT prep classes, sports, volunteering, after-school activities, lessons and all the other endeavours that are now nearly a necessity for college admissions (and not just for the wealthy). 

Between all that work and all that family time, something has to give – and for a lot of parents, that “something” is housework, healthy eating and physical exercise.  

Basic health needs

It does not have to be this way. Our government channels enormous sums of money into artificially depressing the price of particularly odious food products through agricultural subsidies and dealings with big food companies. We also artificially depress the price of gasoline while investing relatively little in infrastructure and public transportation, incentivising driving and making walking or taking public transport less realistic. 

What we do not support – unlike almost every other developed nation – are worker’s rights and healthy limits on labour. We are one of the only four nations on earth – along with Liberia, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea – without federally mandated maternity leave. Parental leave is correlated with lower child poverty rates, improved child health, greater parental involvement, longer breastfeeding and higher maternal employment. But we have no national paid leave policy for parents. 

“It is tough to figure out what is more limited: our time or our disposable income.”

We are also the only industrialised nation that does not mandate paid vacation and sick days. Our minimum wage is startlingly low, and below what is actually liveable. In the 2004 presidential debates between George W Bush and John Kerry, a woman prefaced her question by saying she worked multiple jobs to survive. Bush lauded her work ethic, deeming her a true American. 

While the unemployment and underemployment rates remain high, Americans are taking any jobs they can get – including the ones that won’t accommodate basic health needs, or where a sick day might mean no food on the table.  

We have an overworked population that does not see wages rising along with productivity or hours spent on the job. We are not guaranteed time off for leisure, let alone sickness or pregnancy. Many of us do not have basic benefits like health care, and just cross our fingers that we do not get sick or meet with an accident. We are stretched in all directions. 

Women, who tend to be the primary caretakers of children and are much more likely to be single parents and to live in poverty, are especially impacted by these Byzantine workplace policies. It is tough to figure out what is more limited: our time or our disposable income.  

Then we are confronted with artificially cheap, physically addictive, nutrient-deficient but awfully tasty “food” available with almost no preparation or clean-up. It is being peddled by a big food lobby that bills its products as healthy and convenient. That same lobby faces little government oversight or regulation, and fights back hard on any regulatory attempts. 

As we work more and struggle harder to make ends meet, food corporations are making a whole lot of money off our limited time and limited means. We are sick because of it.   

But sure, the problem is that working women means they do not spend as much time cleaning the house and now we are fatter. Look over there. 

Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives. 

Follow her on Twitter: @JillFilipovic