Fat is the new crack

"a lumpish farmer's boy, fat, silly, and lazy."

In “Kindergarteners:  YOU’RE DOOMED!!!!” over at Shakesville, Elle writes about a story in the New York Times that raises fat panic to a whole new level.  The Times story claims that “more and more evidence points to pivotal events very early in life — during the toddler years, infancy and even before birth, in the wombthat can set young children on an obesity trajectory that is hard to alter by the time they’re in kindergarten. The evidence is not ironclad, but it suggests that prevention efforts should start very early.”  As Elle observes, “there is always room to blame mamas!”

Indeed, the Times story suggests that uterus and placenta play a malevolent role in fetal development!  (Who knew?)  Saith the Times:  “Many doctors are concerned about women being obese and unhealthy before pregnancy because, as they point out, the womb is the baby’s first environment. . . . The intrauterine environment of a woman with diabetes overnourishes the fetus,” said the study’s author, Dana Dabelea, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health. And that, she added, may “reset the offspring’s satiety set point, and make them predisposed to eat more.”  ZOMG!!!111!!!  That might happen, right?  (Like Wayne from Wayne’s World used to say:  “and monkeys might fly out of my butt!”  My bet is that a child’s environment over the course of years–and not just hir mother’s uterus for 8 or 9 months–is more determinative of hir overall health.  But blaming mothers is easy and cheap, whereas ensuring fresh food, access to health care, and clean, green open spaces for every child to play in is expensive!)  Elle points to the historically racial and class dimensions of this rhetoric that suggests that fat mothers are bad mothers:

Given the blame-the-fat-mother meme, we can expect the continued condemnation of poor mothers and black mothers, who are more likely to be fat than mothers in other socio-economic and racial groups. Also, poor mothers might be eligible for programs like Food Stamps and WIC (which will provide infant formula), putting them in a position in which many people feel that their food choices should be scrutinized and judged. 

Obviously, this is just what we needed: another way to assess how horribly mothers fail.

And, another way to tell kids, at an even younger age, that they fail, too. It isn’t as if schools or scientists or Michelle Obama are couching their programs or suggestions in any other terms. “Prevention,” “risk,” “epidemic,” etc. Kids are not clueless–even the little ones know when they’ve been judged deficient. To be fat is to be bad and immoral.

As I read through this yesterday–and marveled at the multimillion dollar grants being offered to researchers to investigate childhood obesity at younger and younger ages–I thought about another generation of babies who were doomed before birth:  the so-called “crack babies” of the late 1980s.

Some of you may recall the crack panic of the 1980s, which recycled a lot of other ideas and language from other drug panics in history.  (Remember how it was only one puff that made you an instant addict?  In the 1990s, people said the same thing about Ecstasy and then Oxycodone, and in the 2000s that’s what they say about meth.)  Back in the 1980s, we were also informed that the babies born to mothers who had smoked crack were “crack babies,” babies who were biochemically and neurologically damaged in the womb by exposure to crack (never powder!) cocaine, and therefore were doomed to be of below-average intelligence and to suffer from poor impulse control and various emotional and social problems the rest of their lives.  The message was that one puff by a pregnant woman would render her child a throwaway baby.  (Middle-class, wealthy, and white powder cocaine users were never accused of ruining their children’s health, and I’m unaware of any middle-class or rich white women whose children were taken away from them because of their drug use.)

Well, we all know now that “crack babies” were a myth.  (In fact, you can read it in The New York TimesIn the very same pages that are now telling you that fat women are ruining their kids’ health even before they’re born.)  FAIRblog explained last year when the Times story was published debunking the “crack baby” myth:

The despicable role played by the press corps is why the Times story feels not just too late but too little. The paper reports “there were widespread fears that prenatal exposure to [crack cocaine] would produce a generation of severely damaged children,” and goes on to cite inflammatory headlines as if they were merely reports on those fears, rather than the means of their creation. The truth is there would be no “crack baby” storyline if not for the zeal with which many in the press corps seized upon limited, qualified medical research as an excuse to at least entertain the idea of writing off huge numbers of overwhelmingly black and poor children. (Though the research pertained to cocaine in all forms, the story was always about crack, wasn’t it?)

It wasn’t a medical researcher who wrote, “The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth”; it was the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 7/30/89). Krauthammer had American Enterprise Institute media darling Douglas Besharov to thank for the term “bio-underclass”, and Besharov wasn’t shy about spelling out the wished-for social repercussions: “This is not stuff that Head Start can fix…. Whether it is 5 percent or 15 percent of the black community, it is there.” Being violently wrong doesn’t appear to have dimmed Besharov’s media star; nor should we hold our breath for any apologies from Krauthammer for telling readers, “The dead babies may be the lucky ones.”

I wrote here last month about the disturbing similarities in the rhetoric of cleanliness, civic virtue, and individual moral worth at the turn of the nineteenth century compared to our modern rhetoric about fat, virtue, and morality.  It looks to me like the popular media are just refreshing another stereotype and, replacing “crack” with “fat” to blame women–especially poor women–for deploying their uteri against their children yet again.  As the FAIRblog said about the “crack baby” craze,

The saddest part: Early on, researchers recognized that the social stigma attached to being identified as a “crack baby” could far outweigh any biological impact. The Times piece underscores that, with a source who says, “Society’s expectations of the children and reaction to the mothers are completely guided not by the toxicity but by the social meaning” of the drug.

But it seems as though journalists are no more likely now than they were then to examine what it is about their own practices that would drive them to perpetuate such a “social meaning” when it was not supported by science and when its potential effects were so devastating.

(Image from Child-land:  Picture Pages for the Little Ones,by Oscar Pletsch and M. Rictor, 1873).

0 thoughts on “Fat is the new crack

  1. This is also similar to the dubious idea that pre-natal hormones make people gay. I’ve been doing some research on the representation of supposed gender differences in maths and spatial reasoning ability. Some of the science is bad to start with, but the way the British press misreport it and use it to reinforce the myth of natural male superiority is even more shocking. Considering the effects of stereotype threat and other socio-cultural factors on cognitive abilities, I strongly suspect that bad scientists and lazy journalists are causing some of the effects they claim to be neutrally reporting. The same thing could easily be true of obesity, since eating is a very obvious mechanism by which external social, cultural and economic factors affect the reality of the body.


  2. I, too, am disturbed by the class dimensions of this. But also there is the surveillance of children. It seems like, younger and younger, we watch them for signs that they’re not “normal,” then medicate them, harangue them, hound them, and let them know that they’re just not right. Just like the poor mother on WIC, the elementary-school child who is overweight is treated as a problem. And I can tell you from experience that even the youngest children are aware that they and their peers are being judged (and sometimes found deficient) by the adults in their world. And it fucks. them. up.


  3. I am going to have to calm down before I can comment productively on this. But for now may I just say “Shame shame SHAME on Dana Debelea!”

    And perhaps a remedy to the awfulness of the uterus: find a way for men to carry and birth the baby. SURELY if a woman’s uterus is soooo defective we must be able to find a way for men to do it better!


  4. Gavin, way to make the first comment out of the gate all about the you-know. The post was about attacks on women, especially poor women.


  5. It’s also amazing how (according to another recent report) in the UK, only 1-2% of people were overweight in the 1960s, but in the noughties it’s 26%. Those overweight people must have been having a LOT of children.


  6. LadyProf–Gavin’s comment is perfectly on-topic, since it’s about the magical (and disturbing) powers we attribute to the uterus, as well as about the naturalization of male dominance. But, you are correct that this post is perhaps more about media representations of maternity and childhood, especially poor and non-white representations of maternity and childhood. For those interested in stereotype threat, I’ll refer you to yesterday’s post on “Why So Few,” because that report talks about that. It also goes into detail (in a whole chapter) about the myth that spatial reasoning is chromosomally determined and can’t be taught–because it can be.

    Notorious: CPP has to wait for me to approve his comments (and I always do.) Sorry about the F-stop–I was getting a lot of pR0n-y spam when I set that up, and it seems to have cleared up the problem. I think you make a great point about the surveillance of children. The New York Times seems to specialize in alarmist stories meant to spark parental anxiety, as well as traffics in advice that’s really only possible for upper middle-class or wealthy families to follow when it comes to their

    femme inista: heh. Good one! But, my sense is that these stories are more about ranking and rating some uteri as virtuous, safe, and moral spaces, and others as corrupt, defective, and corrupting spaces.


  7. @ Notorious – I agree completely with the increased surveillance of children and its pernicious effects. Children are no longer permitted to grow up – they are scrutinized and their parents hounded over ever single thing. Postpartum it starts with those evil growth charts that every parent is forced to take home after a pediatrician visit – and GOD FORBID you not know the *exact* height/weight percentile of your child. So parents are being socialized (or medicalized?) into this new culture of being hyper-anxious of every single moment of their child’s development. He’s too fat or too thin, too short or too tall – parents are guilted and hounded into formula-feeding breastfed babies who gain weight “too slowly” or into being afraid that their toddler is “obese.” (This happened to a [white middle class] friend of mine who took her 3 year old to the pediatrician only to have the doctor *say in front of her child* that the child was obese. And this was indeed a roly-poly but perfectly healthy and normal toddler who incidentally, although it’s not that important, has a mother who never feeds her junk food of any kind. The mother, really angry, turned to the doctor and said: “Don’t you ever use those words in front of my child again!”)

    And of course the surveillance of mothers begins in pregnancy, for the obese and non-obese alike, because the whole process of being a mother in contemporary US society is about being surveilled, criticized, and judged from the second of conception on. The constant weight-ins and obsession with how much pregnant women gain is just the starting point for those odious growth charts. And never mind having a cup of coffee or god forbid a drink or cigarette, that turkey sandwich *can kill your baby you horrible mother!*


  8. PS. Historiann, while I agree that some uteri might be classified as more corrupt than others (because I certainly don’t wish to sound like I’m glossing over the class/race issues involved in this debate, since they’re deeply troubling) – but my contention is that today *all* uteri are treated as at least potentially defective and only through heroic effort and constant monitoring can a healthy child be brought into the world – and it’s usually through no help of its lazy, no-good mother.


  9. Perpetua–I got you. I think you’re right that all mothers’ bodies and uteri are subject to these pressures and judgments. But middle-class and wealthy women have more strategies for meeting these cultural ideals, and/or they’re more able to insulate themselves and their children from these cultural pressures. (As Elle points out, when you and your children are dependent on WIC and Medicaid, your bodies and what goes into them are surveilled that much more than women and children who are less dependent on the state.)

    For example, if your friend’s pediatrician pissed her off, and she’s got private insurance, she can yank her kid out of that doctor’s practice. But if that doc is the only person in a 5-county range who’s taking Medicaid patients. . .


  10. Your local science nerd checking in here. First, this blaming mothers is easy and cheap, whereas ensuring fresh food, access to health care, and clean, green open spaces for every child to play in is expensive! is now, always, and apparently forever, the main point. Those are by far the biggest factors.

    It’s also true that the media can’t seem to report on science without yowling about how all of their prejudices are natural law. It’s rage-inducing for scientists, as well as lots of other people.

    All that said, there are plenty of controlled studies showing that early environment does have a way of setting food preferences, and hence tendency to obesity, for the rest of one’s life. Genetics plays a far larger role, but that doesn’t mean early environment has no effect.

    What’s really interesting though, is which aspects of that early environment seem to have the largest effects. There’s evidence accumulating that in utero exposure to estrogen-analog pollutants (eg BPA) is a significant factor in throwing off the healthy regulation of fat deposition.

    Another emerging factor is the extent to which fructose prevents ordinary appetite regulation. So exposure to high fructose corn syrup and the fructose added to everything (even hamburger buns, for some reason) is looking like a very bad idea. There are even people in tin foil hats (me) who wonder if the reason the food industry adds fructose to everything is because they noticed that people eat more then….

    Obviously, if right from the start a child’s physiology is continuously skewed by these environmental factors, it’s going to be that much more of an uphill climb to compensate for it later.

    But those factors aren’t exactly the mother’s fault either. Even then, if the media cared about the evidence, they’d be back to noticing that some rather big and expensive changes in society are indicated….


  11. Your comparison to the crack baby thing is a good one. Because, as you also say, “But blaming mothers is easy and cheap, whereas ensuring fresh food, access to health care, and clean, green open spaces for every child to play in is expensive!” As long as we can keep problems about individuals and their bad decisions, we don’t have to deal with the structural factors that actually create the problems.


  12. H. – I completely agree with you, and when physicians call CPS it’s predominantly against poor mothers and mothers of color. But the threat is there for every mother, and I think it’s important to point out that motherhood is an instance where privilege protects less than in other cases because these tropes about motherhood and childhood are all-pervasive. (Of course I just realized that I sound like I’m saying “Poor me, I’m not as privileged as I should be!” But I hope you get what I mean.)


  13. Perpetua–a good friend of mine (middle-class, white, and well-insured) was investigated by the state because her baby was born premature, and her baby’s meconium tested postitive for drugs (a test with a very high rate of false positives, and one that doctors don’t put much stock in). She does not take drugs at all, but admitted that she had had a glass of wine or two in pregnancy when talking to her physicians.

    She had to go pee in a cup at the county courthouse, and she and her husband were interviewed and had her home visited by a county social worker. So yes, it can happen to anyone, especially if their prenancies and deliveries are defined as not-normal somehow.


  14. I have to admit, at 6 months pregnant, reading that story made me ashamed of the bag of M and M’s I had in my cupboard to assuage my chocolate cravings! The natural instinct of almost every mother is to create the best environment possible for their fetus. Reading stories like this makes even the most confident of us feel panic and guilt that we are letting them down. All of the choices we make during that 9 months become suspect. I really do think the discourse on this would be completely different if men did the child-bearing…


  15. Dunno whether this comment cancels out what I said to Gavin upthread, but in my experience women are quite a bit worse than men at policing pregnant women and enforcing that whole surveillance-judgment-criticism thing Perpetua mentioned. Nurture not nature on their part, of course, yet really annoying all the same. One of my ex-boyfriends used to rail about crack addicts giving birth to defective babies, but that was back in the aforementioned decade, and he fell into a small minority of men I knew and know.


  16. Just to lighten things up a bit (especially for poor ej!): several years ago, while browsing through my parents’ mountains of paperback books (they never throw *anything* away), I came across a copy of the Dr. Spock’s baby/child manual. *Very* influential in its day. This one had a late 60s copyright, so it must have been purchased around the time of my mother’s first pregnancy (me). In the section on alcoholic beverages during pregnancy, it advises pregnant women that they should limit their alcohol consumption to “no more than two or three cocktails per evening.”

    Contrast this with my friend who swore off all alcohol, caffeine, fermented cheeses, and seafood, all on her doctor’s advice. As if pregnancy isn’t hard enough without cheese and coffee…


  17. I think there has been a lot of discussion on this blog about childbirth, and I really really really don’t want to get into that.

    However, I found that giving birth through a birth center and having all of my prenatal care done by midwives at the center allowed me to step around a lot of the issues discussed above. I’m not suggesting that this is the magical solution to cure our evil, evil uteri, but there are alternative models out there that I can point to because of my own personal experience. My midwives never told me what to eat or drink–other than handing my the state pamphlets–they never told me what percentile my son was, and they were very dedicated to supporting women’s choices. I have since found out how rare this is (I have one child and was a very isolated trailing spouse the year I gave birth).

    Thanks for pointing to this article, it annoyed me when I read it yesterday but you’ve done a good job of articulating why.


  18. Notorious: pregnancy is a lot less fun than it used to be. My mother and mother-in-law joke and laugh now about all the smoking and drinking they did, and we children joke too about how much smarter and more successful we might be now *if only* they had abstained.

    As perpetua said above, even a turkey sandwich is now verboten! (I only recently heard this myself–the idea that cold cuts can be dangerous. As if feeding yourself during pregnancy isn’t difficult enough. A lot of people are disgusted in early pregnancy by strong meat smells–roasting meat, cooking bacon, etc.–so how else to get a little protein if even cold cuts are outlawed?)

    So, to make someone feel guilty about a bag of candy stuffed in the desk drawer really is punitive, when you think of all of the other deprivations. It’s like you have to be a vegan macrobiotic mormon to have the ideal pregnancy–and even then, some babies will still be born prematurely, some babies will be stillborn, some will have birth defects, and some deliveries will be dangerous for mother and child alike. We can’t control everything, although we make up elaborate rules that suggest that that’s what we’re trying to do.


  19. Wini–I think you’re very right that this is related to the medicalization of childbirth–and this is very related to the close relationship that was forged between health and cleanliness in the earlier post I did on fat and cleanliness.

    I will also say though that midwifery (like allopathy) has its own ideological axes it likes to grind. I’ve heard from friends and family members that they were expected not just to eschew any pain relief or drugs during childbirth, but also the party line on circumcision (NO! NO! NO!) and cloth diapers (YES WHAT ARE YOU A SOCIOPATH BENT ON DESTROYING THE PLANET?).

    I plan to continue to write about childbirth, maternity, breastfeeding, and related issues with respect to women’s history. And I’m still not disclosing my own reproductive status! (Not that you asked. I’m just sayin’.)


  20. This reminds me of the wife-murder case I was reading this week from the 1830s, where the husband went for ‘she was a drunk defence’ (very common and reasonably successful strategy btw). One female witness in the course of testimony discussed how the deceased was on one occasion lying in bed unconscious from drinking too much, and the witness tried to get the deceased’s infant to suckle at the breast by holding the child to her breast. When I thought about how paranoid we are about drinking when breast-feeding, this struck me as really funny (and also tragic).


  21. It all comes down to the universal cry of “blame mothers!” Whether it was being frightened of rabbits, and thus giving birth to rabbit-children, or exercising too much and endangering the unborn child to today’s alcohol, trans-fat and fat-fat bans, the common denominator, as you pointed out, Historiann, is the mother’s always at fault. One hundred percent. No doubt about it, nosiree!

    And when these “childrearing truths” are debunked at some point down the road, does the media, do our friends and family, does the society around us say “Sorry, women, for telling you that you were wrong and bad and awful when, er, we were mistaken.”


  22. With all of these newly verboten things for pregnant women, I keep wondering about how we managed to give birth to people like Beethoven, Mozart, Marie Curie, Elizabeth I, Gwendolyn Brooks, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Toni Morrison, Alice Paul, FDR, Martin Luther King, Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, etc. I think you catch my drift. I’m wondering how much of this is going to turn out to be so much hooey.

    I also wanted to share something that has me CRAZY: this last Sunday I had on a radio station which turns out to air John Tesh’s radio program. Apparently he dishes out assorted health tips about diet, exercise, the heart, etc., citing what seem like reputable sources, though I wasn’t looking them up.

    The thing that made me nuts: he went on a lengthy peroration about the evils of obesity, using as his authority studies–maybe even this one. The meat of it was that when non-obese persons are friends with obese persons and eat with them, he said, the non-obese people gain weight! Apparently hanging with fat people means they give themselves permission to eat like fat people! He warned parents in particular to watch their kids and their friends and to take measures if their kids’ friends were fat!

    You know how this shakes out, right? People, being 90% stupid, will just tell their kids to blow off their fat friends, because if they keep hanging with them, they’ll get fat, too. And most kids, being socialized little beasts, will say just that to their former friends, who will die a little then and every day they see their former friends, even if those former friends don’t turn on them and torment them–something that happens a lot with kids.

    It makes me want to shake John Tesh’s empty blond head until it rattles and ask him if he gives a damn for the damage he can do.


  23. Janice–thanks for the mammaries, er, memories of Aristotle’s Master-Piece. That’s a classic–I wish it were more lavishly illustrated.

    What I think is so interesting to contemplate is not just the belief that (for example) a child’s cleft palate was caused by hir mother’s having been frightened by a hare, but that the moment of fright had to happen at the exact moment of conception.

    Think abou that for a moment. Even using my best imaginary time-travel-to-the-seventeenth-century imagination, I’m still wondering how precisely it might happen that enough women were frightened by hares (animals that aren’t especially frightening in the first place) at the PRECISE moment of conception that the author of this book collected a measurable sample of these experiences.

    This is why I’m deeply, deeply skeptical of our modern folklore about pregnancy and how pathogens or nutrients might circulate through the placenta and cause X or Y effects or conditions. I have little doubt that in the not-so-distant future, our folklore about one glass of wine, one piece of sushi, one morsel of stinky cheese, one latte, or one salami sandwich will look just as stupid as the hare-fright-harelip connection looks to us now.


  24. Well, the fears of sushi, salami, cheese, and wine are likely overblown. But I myself still must believe in the “silent birth,” as prescribed by L. Ron Hubbard. (Hey–Scientology has “science” in it, so it must be correct, right?) That belief has always reminded me that the thesis that “magic” ever went away is kinda BS. Maybe not “same folklore, different day”–but “different folklore, different day, but still folklore around” fits.


  25. Hehehehe. Silent birth. I’m glad you brought up religion. All of these superstitions and folklore about childbirth really are like looking at other religions compared to your own. They all look patently ridiculous when they’re not your particular tradition or set of beliefs. (As in, “OF COURSE being frightened by a hare didn’t cause cleft palates, but I’ll pass on the sushi and the camembert, just in case.”)

    As for witchcraft: I was just talking to someone today about Bewitched and how she might really dig the old re-runs. (Maybe on Hulu or something?)


  26. This “malevolent womb” terminology reminds me of the time when “scientific common knowledge” used to blame autism on individuals having felt rejected in their mother’s womb, or something to that effect. I am sure that there must be some real indicators for early factors having long term effects in children, but these are hard to pinpoint and the very language of “may” and “possibly” shows how ill-advised it could be to carry these indicators to the alarmist extremes that the media likes to reach for.


  27. Doris Witt has a book, Black Hunger, that does some of the work you’ve done here with maternity, fatness, drugs, and a general fear of black female appetites.


  28. As I understand 17th (and later) stories of ‘deformities’, the fright doesn’t have to happen at conception but at any time during pregnancy- although I believe what happened at conception was very important (so the Italians hung beautiful men on their bedroom walls to encourage healthy boys). One newspaper story from the 18thC, I recall, was the case of a woman who was born with a child ‘half white’, from the waist up, and ‘half black’, from the waist down- and she said that one day she opened her door and there was a black man in the street and she got such a fright, it imprinted itself on the child.


  29. It sounds like the scientists are raising the possible dangers of bad diet for children during pregnancy as a possibility that should be investigated further, while the media are the ones who are blowing it up into something to be paranoid about and to blame people for.

    The sad thing is that when one wants to draw attention to a story, exaggeration and playing on the prejudices of society usually attracts a lot more readers than trying to be objective or challenging conventional prejudices.


  30. Tamora? That’s maddening. As you say, children can be so cutting to their friends as it stands. To give them fuel to all turn on the “fatties” is just enough to make me howl!


  31. @Historiann YES about midwifery’s own axe to grind. I think I lucked out with the center we ended up at, because they were dedicated to offering a less medical option for women (in one of the country’s largest academic/research clusters). And, again, this was all luck on my part. I was a first time mom with no friends near-by, terrified by the fact that more than 50% of my friends had ended up with C-sections. (That percent has only gone up in the last 3 years, too.)

    It was only after I gave birth that I found out that a local hospitals had epidurals and midwifes. Damn it, but no regrets.

    The other thing I really appreciated about midwife care is that it opened my eyes to a lot of less medicalized and less commercialized aspects of parenting.


  32. wini–glad you had a good experience, but sorry about missing out on the epidural! Most hospitals now try to work with midwives (in the U.S.)–although their relations with docs are not always harmonious. (I’m not blaming the midwives–I’m just saying there’s a culture clash between allopathy and midwifery.)

    Hospitals in the U.S. want women to give birth there to build up “customer” loyalty, so they’re generally willing to let midwives in if that’s what it takes. (Another corruption of the for-profit U.S. health system, but in this case it seems to work for the midwifery practices.)


  33. I know I’m late to return to the conversation, but I wanted to jump on the question of birth. While it’s true that there are dogmatic midwives out there (and natural childbirth advocates generally), the dominant birth culture in our country is not one that resists epidurals, C-sections, inductions, and other forms of interventions.(Quite the opposite, and many women find themselves having to fight to have an unmedicated birth in a hospital. In spite of the customer loyalty angle that Historiann mentioned, hospitals generally dislike in-house birthing centers and unmedicated births because they’re cheaper and yet less efficient than highly medicalized births. And of course OBs love “managing” birth – so that the rates of women being admitted in normal labor, being immediately hooked up to a fetal monitor, given an IV, denied food and water, and started with pitocin are really, really high.) OBs sometimes treat laboring women like mentally-impaired minors, and often do not hesitate to bully and brow-beat them by playing what’s known as the “dead baby” card if they attempt to refuse a specific intervention or procedure. Women are, as we have seen in the news lately, occasionally subjected to forced or court-ordered medical procedures, such as C-sections (most commonly). My point here is not to suggest that either epidurals or C-sections are “bad” but rather that the policing of pregnant women’s diet and bodies comes, in my opinion, from a combo of overmedicalization combined with a deep distrust of women (made increasingly hysterical by the rise of “fetal protections” we see from pro-life groups).

    Not that this matters much, but the rationale behind denying pregnant women unpasteurized dairy products and deli meats derives from fears that pregnant women will contract listeriosis, a food-born bacterial infection that pregnant women are more susceptible to than regular folk, and which if contracted has a high probability of fetal death (something like 25%). Of course it is extremely, extremely rare. (I looked it up, and one recent year there were something like 250 cases of listeriosis in the entire US.)


  34. Right, Perpetua, but listeriosis is a bacterial contaminant. Why don’t we see any attention to the possibility of testing for it, or improving environmental practices to make it less ubiquitous? Nah, it’s just a fixed fact of nature, whereas women’s behavior is infinitely manipulable and everyone gets to say what it ought to be.

    As Katha Pollitt once wrote, if mothers aren’t to blame, then no one is to blame.

    Nor do we engage in any cost-benefit analysis when thinking about whether to issue these ukases. Listeriosis is really rare. The pleasure, or necessity, of eating foods that meet one’s needs is NOT rare. But once again, nah. Benefits to the containers are of no value whatsoever.


  35. LadyProf: great point. Your comment speaks to a comment by quixote yesterday (that unfortunately got munched by my spam filter for a while) about how focusing on women’s bodies and their “choices,” rather than the larger environmental issues, is an ideological maneuver. Scroll up and behold.

    Perpetua: iatrogenic (hospital-born) infection is a big problem too–much bigger than listeriosis via lunch–but NOT eating a turkey sandwich is the solution to solving this problem! Yeah, right.


  36. H: Exactly! It’s totally nonsensical – not to mention the whole problem of poor women without access to fresh foods for whom deli meat is a relatively inexpensive and nutritional source of protein.

    Okay, one last one post and then I’ll move on – I know I should have known better than to ever read the comments on a cnn.com story – but I encourage everyone to read the headline story on slings causing infant deaths. Then go and read the comments. Basically, the gist of many of the comments is that the mothers of the dead babies are to blame for their children’s deaths because they were “lazy” and “selfish” for using a sling – because they were trying to “multitask” and wanted hands-free instead of a stroller. They also berated the mother for daring to take her child out in public at only 7 days old. (Somewhat irrelevant side note: both the article and all the comments extrapolate because one kind of “sling” – it’s actually NOT a sling, but a pouch – is dangerous, then all slings and carriers are dangerous. Um, did we all stop using cars after the Toyota recalls? Were people berated for being stupid enough to drive around? No, in the case of cars it’s the manufacturer’s fault, but if it involves children, it’s the mother’s!)


  37. I forgot to add that some people said it was the mother’s fault because SHE’S FAT. Unclear to me if they are blaming her for suffocating the child, or ridiculing her for eating a hot dog at Costco. But still. Awesome all around.


  38. The midwife practice I chose had 4 midwives, and I “got” my least favorite of the 4. As a result, when I was 40 some hours into my labor she suggested we try a homeopathic remedies and then proceeded to explain to my chemist husband about how water molecules have memories!!!!!!!!!

    So, it wasn’t a perfect experience (see 40+ hours of labor).

    As someone who cloth diapers her child (with full support from her husband), I want to also point out that cloth diapering, as it is practiced in the US today, is often more commercial than disposable diapering (we also use disposables). A disposable diaper is a plastic thing that catches bodily fluids. A cloth diaper is a soft, cute, patterned accessory you put on your baby. It is so strange. We got our diapers used or as presents during the period of time when we were 3 people and 1 post-doc salary.


  39. Pingback: Science & Sensibility » Maternal Obesity: A View from All Sides

  40. Pingback: Maternal Obesity ~ A view from all sides | AlaskaBirth

  41. Pingback: Science & Sensibility » Welcoming All Families Series: Welcoming Women of Size (Part One)

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