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Mothers shouldering the blame for obesity crisis


Individuals, and women in particular, are being blamed for the obesity crisis in the United Kingdom; according to research carried out by Leeds Beckett University.

Toddler eating

The study, which has been published in the Qualitative Methods in Psychology bulletin, looks at Jamie’s Sugar Rush – a documentary shown on television. It examines the key messages within the programme and how these can help provide a solution to the obesity crisis.

Within the programme there are three main themes; the dominant one being that individuals are to blame and should be self-disciplined and self-vigilant when it comes to making food choices. The other lesser themes are food industry responsibility and government responsibility. Here, according to Jamie Oliver, who is the lead figure in the programme, individuals are positioned as ‘passive victims of a misleading food industry and lazy government’.

The theme of individuals being to blame is broken down even further with the fault being put on women and in particular mothers.

Explaining the findings of the research, Adele Wilson, who wrote the report whilst studying as an undergraduate in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, said: “Mothers are positioned as responsible for their health and that of their children. It is argued that mothers are predominantly held accountable for protecting their children against risks. Women are unevenly burdened with the responsibility of childcare and mothers are culpable for the health of their children, which serves to reinforce women’s responsibilities and roles as mothers.

“Mothers of obese children are often framed as bad parents and held responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic.

“The research also paid attention to how gender and class intersected with the construction of the obesity epidemic. Working-class parents in particular were positioned as responsible for the ‘disaster’ due to making bad lifestyle choices such as an over reliance on convenience foods. On the other hand, home-cooked meals are framed as healthy and something responsible middle-class mothers would provide, whereas mothers who feed their children convenience food are framed as irresponsible. Women who are unable to provide home cooked meals are vulnerable to accusations of being lazy and immoral. This is increasing the pressure on mothers, with implications being that they should devote time to preparing home-cooked meals.”

Solutions to the obesity crisis (e.g. sugar tax, clearer labelling) also target the individual as they encourage people to become more vigilant over the food choices they make, for example, if a label indicates added sugar one supposedly will be less likely to choose it.

However, as Dr Maxine Woolhouse, Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Social Sciences, explained, it’s not all down to the individuals: “The framing of individuals as solely responsible for their own health is to some extent resisted. Jamie states that ‘it’s time for the British Government to step up and just get tougher on the industry’s ass’. This implies the solution to the epidemic lies beyond individual responsibility. In fact, individuals are shown to be victims of misleading messages from both industry and the government.”

Dr Maxine Woolhouse is a feminist and critical social psychologist. Her research interests are in the area of gender, social class and eating practices.

She is a Senior Lecturer in psychology and teaches across a range of undergraduate modules including Critical and Philosophical Issues, Qualitative Research Methods and Psychology of Women. She is particularly interested in feminist and critical approaches to understanding relations between gender, social class and eating practices.

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