Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The cause of obesity? Well it isn't feminism

It was with something perilously close to a guffaw of absolute disbelief that I read an article the other day – Tweeted at me by The Other Half – that asserted that the blame for rising childhood obesity in Britain can be laid firmly at the door of feminism.

Now many of you will probably already be able to guess that such an article could only find a home in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Feminism is, for the Mail, something that can be blamed for many things.

This article (which was published penned last autumn), posits the view that feminism made home cooking (which was obviously always done by women) seem ‘unfair’ – and therefore women stopped doing it.

Just like that. And so supermarkets stepped in and started making us all eat rubbish.

Just like that.

The piece was penned by one Rose Prince, who smirks out at readers from the pages as she pods peas and stirs something in a pot on the stove.

Her wishy washy waffle about women as ‘nurturers’ and food needing to be ‘nurturing’ and women needing to cooking ‘nurturing’ food because they’re the natural ‘nurturers’ is vomit-inducing. She actually calls for a revival of “the gentle art of feminine food”.

It’s enough to put you off your nosh.

She conveniently ignores a number of things.

One is the state of work-life balance in the UK – but then again, this is the paper that, in recent weeks, boasted that we now work seven hours longer than we did before Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (it’s one of the best bits of her legacy, apparently). Even though our nearest Continental neighbours, the French, might work far, far few hours and still have a far greater GDP (ours has fallen in the years since 1979), it’s just the fact that we work longer that’s important, right?

In general, we have a perverse attitude toward food, seeing it mostly as fuel and not one of life’s great pleasures.

The article assumes a rosy-hued nostalgia about ‘mother’s home cooking’ that ignores the reality for many women – that it was a chore, a duty; not something done for the love of it or the pleasure.

My own mother is a case in point. Food was something that she paid attention to, but with no pleasure. She taught her own children little in the kitchen, except a few basic chores, and withdrew them from domestic science at school, viewing it as a waste of time and money.

She was nobody’s definition of a feminist – and certainly not of the sort that Rose Prince is trying to clumsily throw blame at. She believed very much in ‘a wife’s place’; in a very traditional family set up; in a mother’s responsibilities. That was why she cooked.

But most certainly not with any sense of pleasure – and thus she handed on no pleasure to her daughters.

Nowadays, freed from needing to cater for children and with a slightly better income, she often buys ready-made meals from M&S (which she considers to be vastly better than supermarkets) – or still struggles to put together even something quite basic.

Yet on the other hand, my sister, who was as uninspired by food as I was by the time we each left home, has produced a daughter who loves cooking. Yet my niece is very much more a ‘feminist’ than her mother. But what she has learnt is the pleasure of food, not to see it simply as fuel or in terms of dieting analysis – 356 kcals, 15 grams of fat, 12 grams of saturated fat; Y grams of simple carbs, Z grams of starchy carbs etc.

For women, dieting has also often seen food been their number one enemy in the constant battle to have the sort of figure that the Mail pretends all women should aspire to – with no cellulite either.

And much of the reason why this article is so infuriating is that this is the same Mail that also, year after year, publishes faddy diets aimed at women alone. When you’re fretting about how many calories a bowl of steamed cabbage contains – and how to make it taste better without adding anything with any calories – you are not enjoying your food.

But another way of illustrating how crass Ms Prince’s idea is, is to take a look across the Channel. That’s France, a place with one or two feminists and where they enjoy their food and take it seriously, and where many more women (and men) still cook at home than do here.

Indeed, France provides a very interesting example of just why obesity is rising, as it’s rising there too, in places where work patterns and lifestyles are changing to ones that are more recognisable in the US and UK.

But it’s also an irritating article because it avoids any serious answers, and simply adds to the nonsense that’s spouted – some of it by supposedly authoritative sources.

The Seven Countries Study is a case in point. In the 1940s, a Dr Ancel Keys suggested that there was a link between high-fat diets, increased cholesterol and heart disease.

After a limited study in Minnesota, he carried out a similar study, over a number of years, for what is now known as the Seven Countries Study, which proved the link that he’d earlier posited. It remains the only research showing such ‘proof’, yet has massively influenced (and continues to do so) the attitude to and advice around eating in many countries, particularly the UK and US. In the latter, his findings were readily accepted because there had been an unexplained surge in heart attacks.

There are a number of issues with Key’s research (he only studied males, for instance), but the biggest one should have seen his findings thrown out on day one.

The Seven Countries Study is wrongly named – it was, in fact, the 22 countries study. But Keys didn’t like the findings from 15 of the countries (including France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands), so he just ‘forgot’ the results and pretended that his findings provided 100% proof of his idea.

Is it mere coincidence that obesity has risen since fats in general and saturated fats in particular have been demonised?

Is it a coincidence that obesity has risen in the years since we were told to cuts as many fats as possible – and use artificial alternatives such as margarine and spray-on fat for cooking (the same can be asked of sugar alternatives)?

Is it a coincidence that obesity has risen since we were told to eat more carbs instead of fats?

Is it any coincidence that Proctor & Gamble quietly sold off the profitable Crisco brand of solidified vegetable fat after work by Dr Mary Enig showed how bad hydrogenated and trans fats were for humans? *

Is it coincidence, given the different diet cultures, that rates of cholesterol are about the same in France and the UK – but the latter has far more heart disease? *

None of this is because of ‘feminism’.

Why is any of this important? Why is it worth writing about what something like the Mail publishes?

It’s important, if for no other reason than that the lies need to be shown up for what they are. That includes the simply silly – particularly when it’s published in a publication that actually furthers the problems it claims to address by encouraging the self-hatred and fear of pleasure that contribute to these very problems and, indeed, to a life-denying culture that sees our role increasingly as living to work and living to buy, and as glorified lab rats with money for big pharmaceutical companies and big food retail.

* See Cholesterol & The French Paradox by Frank Cooper.

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