What The History of “Healthy” Food Teaches Us About Mom-Shaming

Image credit: Dan Evans

We all say we’re opposed to “mom-shaming.” Standing around with other moms on the playground, it’s usually something we can all get behind, especially when it comes to something as challenging and personal as food.

“Mom-Shaming is awful,” I’ve often said to the mother next to me, as I push my 2-year-old on the swing.

“Oh, god, I know. I wish everyone could just stop judging other moms. It’s hard enough as it is,” Random Other Swing-Pushing Mother replies before running off after her child, who is headed for a set of monkey bars much too ambitious for his age.

We all say it because it’s a comfortable, nice-sounding thing to say—and most of us mean it when we say it—but it’s so easy to make snap judgments about the choices we see other moms making that all too often we fail to realize that we’ve entered that mom-shaming zone. Since everything we do with our kids is a choice at some level, we can’t help but judge someone who appears to be choosing something different.

Warm bundles or car-seat-safe snug thermals? Rear-facing or front-facing? Formula or breastmilk? Each decision necessarily presents an imaginary flow-chart of decisions not made—choices not taken—that either unite us with or separate us from other parents.

A rear-facing car seat, whether we want it to or not, indicates that we have decided front-facing car seats are not what’s best for our child at that time. Formula on the playground may suggest that we are not breastfeeding our child. When confronted by another mother’s choice, if that choice appears to be different from our own, we tend to reduce complexity into two binary choices. That apparent divide makes it easy for us to slip into mom-shaming mode.

Countless parenting debates online seem to revolve around questions like: why would a parent choose (insert one choice or the other on: circumcision, feeding, sleeping, eating, vaccination—anything, really), when the evidence about this is “clear”? But what I would like to suggest, using the extended case study of parenting food choices, is that data- and fact-analysis is hardly so clear-cut as this in the human mind. Numbers may tell us a great deal, but often the numbers aren’t how we, as emotionally, socially, and culturally informed animals make decisions—at least not in a vacuum, anyway. Mom-shaming usually isn’t about facts at all.

Health isn’t a set of facts but a malleable concept

When we think about the choice to feed children “healthy, unprocessed food,” we think we’re making a judgment about health. We tell ourselves that this health judgment is about what we “ought” to do, what any “good” parent would do, but far too often, when we engage in mom-shaming, we ignore what’s really driving these choices. When we take a closer look at the history of physical beauty standards, we can see that “attractive,” “fit” and “healthy” are all highly malleable concepts.

What’s beautiful at any given moment is usually a marker of what the wealthy can afford. Because our economic status dictates our food and health “choices”—which perhaps aren’t choices at all—nutrition and health are often more of a privilege than a choice, and that’s why we shouldn’t be so quick to start mom-shaming another parent for feeding their kids sugar.

Body fat used to be a status symbol

Food is arguably the most important human resource, aside from water, so it’s not surprising that it has been completely tied to social status throughout history. I typically don’t allow students in my college courses to use broad, generalizing phrases like “throughout history,” but in this case, it’s not much of an exaggeration.

Until at least the Renaissance—which is not so long ago, in the grand scheme of human history—food resources were quite scarce for the majority of people and body fat was seen as desirable. It marked a person as “high class,” the same way a Coach purse might today—except even more so. A Coach purse can be bought on a whim, put on credit, or purchased during a time of unexpected cash flow but, because body fat must be accrued slowly, added over time, fat came to be an embodied physical marker of steady access to food resources. In World War II, a time of sugar rationing, for example, you would have been hard-pressed to find a parent who wouldn’t have seen it as a “good” to provide their children with hard-won sugar during that time of scarcity.

Fruits and vegetables not supplements and vitamins

Now thin is in, so thin must be healthy

Today, now that we’re no longer living in war-time, sugar is seen as a vice. Now thin is in, but only if you can afford it. And yet, too often, we indulge in mom-shaming without looking at the history and context behind food choices.

In wealthy nations, even though obesity rates have risen in the general population, the desirable, difficult-to-attain body type is now a thin one. Time itself has become a precious resource, so often the people who can afford healthy food have not only the resources to afford fresh food but also the time to prepare it. What is “fashionable” operates by privileging the already privileged elite, which is why it’s not surprising that nutrition has become a billion dollar industry. But what if you can’t pay that premium?

For those who are overworked and often underpaid, food companies are there to capitalize by offering an abundance of convenient and inexpensive options. The catch? Quick, convenient, cheap, and healthy rarely coexist in food. Low-income consumers today are forced to pick and choose which of these variables they can (or must) prioritize in any given moment.

Food insecurity and obesity are connected

As cartographic studies of food access demonstrate, lower income areas in America tend to have more obese residents. Whereas generally, wealth is associated with obesity in the world at large (a correlation that aligns with the historic sense that food equals prosperity and vice versa), in America the opposite is true: poverty is associated with obesity.

This reversal of the historical and contemporary global trends suggests, then, that simple access to food is not the cause of American obesity, but rather the type of foods available (more on that in a minute). A study by Ming-Chin Yet and David L. Katz found that while obesity and/or being overweight had increased for those who were food secure by 34% (obesity being on the rise generally in America), it had increased for those who were mildly food insecure by 41%, and for those who were moderately food insecure by 52%. That difference is staggering.

In fact, studies show that people living in poverty are likely to be living in what are called “food deserts,” a term developed for areas in which simple access to grocery stores does not exist—usually in areas marked by high poverty. According to Tulane University School of Social Work, in 2009, 2.3 million americans lived in a food desert. The study defined this state as anyone living more than one mile away from a grocery story without also owning a car. Instead, these areas are populated with fast food franchises, offering food on dollar menus that is cheap and convenient, but also carb-loaded, fat-laden and ultra-processed.

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that the prevalence of fast food chains in a neighborhood (which, as mentioned, tends to go hand-in-hand with a lack of grocery stores), increases a neighborhood’s tendency toward obesity. A 2014 study found that the density of fast food restaurants in a neighborhood at one-half mile, one mile, and two mile rings were associated with higher Body Mass Index among neighborhood residents. A 2009 study found similar results. Although typically, data analysts prefer to make judgments based on the most recent studies, this 2009 study is important to note because it used regression analysis in its statistical tests.

You’ve probably heard the old adage “correlation doesn’t imply causation.” Unfortunately, most studies rely on correlational reasoning rather than evidence of causation. This 2009 study, however, uses regression analysis—one of the only statistical tools we have for beginning to get at true causality—which means we have good evidence to suggest that the type of food prevalent in a neighborhood is actually a causal factor in obesity.

Research shows systemic deprivation influences food “choices”

Research shows that parents who financially struggle tend to substitute easily affordable candy and sweets when they can’t afford longer-term goods and services such as ballet or baseball lessons. Conversely, families who are well-off and can afford most needs and wants tend to have an easier time turning down requests for candy and other unhealthy food. But all too often we engage in mom-shaming rather than consider the context that this research reveals.

Image credit: Iva Balk

In 2017, a study based on a series of interviews with parents and children found that families in lower income brackets “use food to buffer against deprivation, whereas higher-income parents provision food to fulfill classed values around health and parenting.” This provocative study suggests that there is more to food than its “material value,” because food can also be an important signifier of class, wealth, and fashionability.

When studies like these broke, they surprised many who assumed that people with enough money to be able to afford food would eat more and have more body fat. But we don’t live in the Renaissance Era. In the Western world, anyway, mere access to food is rarely the issue. Instead, it’s the type of food we can access that is the independent variable in this equation.

Those who are “unhealthily” overweight are often those who can only afford—whether in terms of time or money—more fat-laden, carb-loaded foods that are offered at bargain prices or promise quick preparation times. Because our food system is marked by inequitable access to foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, the marginalized may have just enough food to survive but, in dystopian fashion, that “just enough” tends to be the kind of food that is correlated with expensive health problems. That lack of access, along with other factors, creates a kind of persistent generational poverty that is almost impossible to escape.

So the next time you judge…

We live in a neoliberal society—a world where “fashionable” or “desirable” quickly becomes a moral value like “good” or “worthy.” To some extent, this is simply human nature, as we strive to solidify social bonds through “in-group/out-group” thinking. Remember the example of moms on the playground that opened this piece? Because so many parenting choices seem to be binary options (do you feed formula or milk? Co-sleep or not?), these apparent binaries seem to always bring to mind their opposite. You see a formula feeding mother, and you automatically think of the opposing choice: breastfeeding.

These choices, however, are actually “false binaries.” Many people combo-feed. Many people occasionally co-sleep. Many people offer a bit of solids here and there without strictly following “baby-led weaning.” Because parenting choices are so often presented as binaries, it’s difficult to see them in any other way, but those other ways are there. In order to truly stop mom-shaming, we need to challenge these false binaries.

With a bit more perspective, we could see sugar as a little less scary and a little more socially determined. We could see the mom feeding her kid an ice cream cone with gummy worms on top as simply a mother who has different values and priorities. We could also think about the different histories that might feed her notions of “good motherhood” rather than decide we see a mother making a “bad” choice.

We could see, I think, the subtle, cobweb-like traces of centuries of social learning that have taught us to look down our nose at those who make choices that are different from our own. We could begin to understand that these choices are less about conscious choices and more about complex circumstantial pressures. Maybe we can even begin to push back against the long history of patriarchal norms that have taught us to engage in mom-shaming and judge other parents so harshly. Food for thought.

Dr. Kari Nixon is an assistant professor of English at Whitworth University, where she teaches medical humanities and Victorian literature. She has a book with SUNY University Press coming out in May 2020 about the popularization of germ theory in the 1880s. Her second book, Of Mothers and Mouseclicks, is co-authored with Jessica Clements and under advance contract with MIT Press, and explores maternal decision-making using crowdsourced advice on social media.

Follow her on Twitter at @HalfSickShadows or check out her website for updates: mknixon.com