Women and Responsibility for Health: Food, Physical Activity, and Feminism

  This post was contributed by Alison Reiheld, Asst. Professor of Philosophy.  Prof. Reiheld studies and teaches applied ethics, with an emphasis on medical ethics, and she is the organizer of “Medicine in Action,” a lecture series at SIUE that draws speakers from a variety of disciplines.  Prof. Reiheld’s blog post is concerned with another of area of interest for her, the ethics of caregiving and the  moral burden placed on women in American culture.  She recently spoke on issues of caregiving for the Women’s Studies Spring 2012 lecture series, and she shared an anecdote in which her family doctor congratulated her on her children’s healthy diet by saying, “Way to go, Mom!”  She objected to both the way the comment rendered her anonymous–“Mom” as opposed to “Alison” or “Prof. Reiheld”–and  assigned her full responsibility for all of her children’s choices.  She explores these concerns more fully in this post.


Consider the new Kitchen Aid ad.  Notice anything?  The ability to make your own healthy food—made of quality ingredients and preservative-free—is emphasized.   Notice anything else?

With all the hubbub about obesity in America, there is a renewed focus on everything from increasing access to fresh vegetables to making sure that kids and adults get more physical activity.  Despite the many arguments that it is institutional factors such as access to poor nutrition and lack of access to physical activity at school, or built-environment factors such as outside areas in which it is physically unsafe to run or walk or play, the responsibility for health is placed intensely on individuals.  In part, this is because American society is highly individualistic.  This is part of the problem: that the responsibility for change is misplaced when it falls only on individuals’ shoulders.  Another part is upon whose shoulders it often falls.   Women—whether as mothers, wives, daughters, or partners—are far more likely than fathers to be held responsible for their family’s health status.  This is chronicled in a 2010 Time article called Lady Madonna and numerous other  sources.   Now think again about the Kitchen Aid ad.  Who are the only persons seen preparing food?  Adult women and young girls.  Men appear solely as consumers of the healthy, preservative-free, homemade food.

Consider now how truly misguided it is to place responsibility primarily on any individual, much less disproportionately on women.

Think first of physical activity. When parents allow children to play outside unsupervised, they risk being judged to be insufficiently careful with their children’s safety with respect to injury or abduction.  When they keep them inside, they can play with the children, let the children play on their own, or allow the children to take advantage of the many electronic entertainments available through computers and television.  Indeed, numerous studies of physical activity indicate that safety concerns—sometimes from violent crime and sometimes from biking, walking, or running being possible only in high-traffic areas—are a significant reason that adults do not get enough physical activity of their own, for both urban, suburban, and rural populations.  The problem here is a systemic issue with either crime or the built environment, not one that can be attacked by individuals and not one for which individuals can be held responsible.

Having briefly sketched the way in which women are held responsible for non-dietary aspects of the obesity epidemic, let’s consider food.  Food is a massively loaded topic for women.  No, this is not a pun—just Google “women dieting” and select Images to illustrate how loaded.   Overweight women seen eating apparently unhealthy foods are far more likely than overweight men or ideal-weight women to be publicly corrected for what they eat.  Remember the “stuff around the house” at the beginning of the Kitchen Aid ad: an ironing board and a stationary exercise bike, a canister vacuum in a closet whose door is being closed by a woman just as we move toward the kitchen?  And these aspects of how loaded food is with respect to gender don’t even address holding women responsible for the diet and health of their family members.  According to a 2000 article by Bianchi et al., a number of studies support the claim that married American women spend more time on housework compared to women who are not married, while most studies report little or no difference in household labor time between married and unmarried American men.  In fact, men living in couples—one presumes heterosexual couples but the research was not explicit—reduced their time in housework (Bianchi et al. 197).  In their original research, Bianchi et al. found that, “almost two-thirds of total housework hours are spent doing the core housework tasks of cooking and cleaning” which “all continue to be much more often the purview of women than men.” (Bianchi et al. 206)  And yet, children eat at least one meal a day at school, and spend half of their waking hours (nearly all their daylight hours) in school for five days a week.  Significant amounts of their lives—both respect to fitness and diet—are outside the control of their mothers.  Similarly, adult male husbands of heterosexual married women generally eat at least one meal a day separately from their wives and can, of their own free will, decide how to eat and whether to exercise.  Again it seems that no individual can be held wholly responsible for the diet of her family members.

And now, we see a pernicious angle of all these factors, one raised by the Kitchen Aid ad with which we began: marketing has picked up on this issue, and companies use these expectations to make sales, exploiting these burdensome gendered expectations to sell more items.  Americans need more physical activity.  And we need to eat more healthy good and less unhealthy food.  Maybe even more homemade food.  But it needn’t be women who are held primarily responsible for these.  And they needn’t be used to sell expensive gadgets with multiple purpose-specific limited-use attachments.    To unfairly gender such labor is one kind of unfairness, and one women have long born in the United States.  What’s worse, it ignores very real institutional and built-environment constraints over which women have no control.  If this is a moral demand made upon women, and environmental factors beyond women’s control are significant causes of obesity, then women are condemned to moral failure.  Such demands are thus doubly unfair: both unfairly born by women, and impossible to satisfy.  By all means, let us work for more exercise and better food.  But let US work for it, by changing our systems and culture, by distributing what individual responsibility is appropriate across adult members of society.

Watch out for these demands in advertising, in expectations, in relationships, in public health debates, in news coverage of stories, in doctors’ recommendations, and in general.  They cost us, in more ways than one.  They are common.  And pernicious.  And to be resisted.

Prof. Alison Reiheld

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