The impact of obesity discourses on maternal identities, early feeding relationships and parenting practices


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Women as mothers continue to take prime responsibility for feeding the family, particularly babies and infants (Murphy, 1998), and for inducting children into eating environments. This paper reports on findings from a qualitative study with women (2006–2008), in a city in the north of the England which explored transitions to motherhood and early family formation through the empirical lens of food.

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The impact of obesity discourses on maternal identities, early feeding relationships and parenting practices

  1. 1. The impact of obesity discourses on maternal identities and parenting practices Julia Keenan (UEA) Helen Stapleton (Australian Catholic University & Mater Mothers' Hospital) Feeding Children in the New Parenting Culture . British Library, 20 th March 2011.
  2. 2. Structure <ul><li>Background/context </li></ul><ul><li>Outline research/participants/ data </li></ul><ul><li>Sociology of accounts framework </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Discursive framings </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Utility of this approach? </li></ul></ul>
  3. 3. Critical weight studies and parenting cultures <ul><li>interdisciplinary critical obesity work/fat studies/ Health at Every Size (HAES) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>‘ increasingly stringent, often knee-jerk policies which unilaterally define certain bodies and places as fat and problematic’ (Colls and Evans 2009). </li></ul></ul><ul><li>biomedical risk discourses and motherhood, ‘parental causality’ </li></ul><ul><li>children central to motivate adults to secure risky futures </li></ul>
  4. 4. ‘ Perils’ to health posed by big mothers <ul><li>Overweight mothers ‘pass on problem to their babies’ Daily Mail 16/8/2008 </li></ul><ul><li>A quarter of toddlers are overweight Daily Mail 11/6/2007. </li></ul><ul><li>Bottle-fed tots grow up fatties The Sun 7/3/2006. </li></ul><ul><li>Weight gain before 5 ‘leads to Obesity’ The Guardian17/12/2008 </li></ul>To an outsider, Rawmarsh sounds like hell; a place where fat stupid mothers fight for the right to raise fat stupid children” (Hattersley, Times 24th Sept 2006)
  5. 5. Research Objectives <ul><li>To explore: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>What understandings pregnant women and mothers of young children articulate in relation to food and eating practices. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How these understandings are influenced by women’s concerns about food, body shape and concepts of ‘good’ parenting. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How the food preferences of infants and children are expressed, and influence family practices and relationships. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How food related behaviours and eating practices are negotiated within different family contexts and families following a range of dietary customs and practices. </li></ul></ul>
  6. 6. Research design: sample 60 women Longitudinal Cohort 1 (30 pregnant women) Anticipating motherhood for the first time Cohort 2 (30 established mothers) With at least one child between 9 months – 2 yrs <ul><li>Interviewed three times: </li></ul><ul><li>Last 2-3 months of pregnancy </li></ul><ul><li>First 3-4 months following birth </li></ul><ul><li>Baby is between 6-9 months </li></ul>Interviewed once only
  7. 7. Participants <ul><li>Ten women from each of the following three groups recruited to each cohort: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>women who self-identify as being seen by themselves or others as ’very overweight’ </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>women managing diabetes (T1, T2, GDM) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>women who self define as ‘normal weight’ </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>English speaking only </li></ul></ul>
  8. 8. An expanded accounts framework (Monaghan 2008) Discursive framings… Accept pejorative status Deny or challenge pejorative status Accept responsibility Contrition (Compliance) Justifications (Critical compliance) Deny (relevance of) responsibility Excuses (Mitigation) Repudiation
  9. 9. Compliance (accept pejorative status and maternal responsibility) <ul><li>“… my Mother was very concerned about losing me and having miscarriage., so she was more of the time sedentary in lifestyle. […] in bed and confined in the house, eating more and more food: more cholesterol food and greasy food. Traditional foods. And then, er, when I born I was quite overweight. I was eleven pounds. So I was an (laugh) elephant baby I would say. And then she feed me with, eggs and different sort of full of cholesterols food till I was eleven. And then I realised like what things are good for me and what things are bad for me but it was quite late (laugh)” C1-O1/Nighat </li></ul><ul><li>“ I don’t want (Son, aged 5 months) to be overweight or obese. So if he’s taking so much feed maybe he’s going to be overweight or obese…so as soon as, like every time I go to the health visitor I just used to ask, ‘my baby’s taking six or seven ounce milk, is it alright” C1-O2/Nighat </li></ul>
  10. 10. Mitigation (accept pejorative status but deny sole maternal responsibility) <ul><li>“… my weight gain’s the kids. I blame my kids. I have tried. Yeah, er, I were just under ten stone when I got pregnant with (eldest) which were like for five foot six I were healthy. […] and I just gradually put it on and every time I’ve like put three stone on with each pregnancy and kept a stone on […] I’ve only had a year between getting caught each time, so and the doctor says it’s just my body thinking I’m, it’s not willing to lose weight 'cause it knows it’s gonna get pregnant again straight away […] up until beginning of this (diabetic) pregnancy and I asked the midwife. I said, “I’m concerned about my weight. I don’t want to gain too much weight.” And she said, “Don’t worry. We’ll, if, as long as you eat healthy you should be fine, and then if you are concerned after you’ve had the baby come back, and we’ll sort summat out.” 'cause I’ve got, I have back problems with all the pregnancies my back, my bones and everything’s never gone back to normal, so they’re gonna refer me to physio and hopefully they’ll show me how to exercise properly without hurting myself” </li></ul><ul><li> C2/O Nell </li></ul>
  11. 11. <ul><li>“ I should go back to normal (BSL, following the birth) but I’ll need a blood test at five weeks, and then a glucose test at once a year every year for however 'cause I’m more at risk of developing I think it’s type 2 diabetes because I’m overweight anyway. Er, but baby should, touch wood, go back to normal. But we’re aware and with all the kids anyway with their Dad being diabetic. We, we don’t watch ‘em like a hawk but we find if they’re poorly or if they’re drinking and weeing a lot more then we think oh is it (diabetes). And then they generally, they do calm down it’s only 'cause they’re ill, but if it did worry me then I’d take ‘em straight away” </li></ul><ul><li>C2/O Nell </li></ul>
  12. 12. Critical compliance (Deny pejorative status but accept sole maternal responsibility) <ul><li>“ Like (Daughter, 2½ years) came back from nursery saying ‘I’ve got a big fat belly’ and I just thought that’s a bit bizarre really. And she was talking about my fat belly and I just thought,[…] . I just don’t want it to be an issue one way or the other […] I think up until very recently, until I had the girls, I’ve always dieted to be more attractive really. Whereas you know, since I’ve got them now, I’m thinking I don’t want to end up being, you know dying prematurely from being overweight. So I’m more concerned about that” </li></ul><ul><li> C2-O/Glenda </li></ul><ul><li>“ I just want them to eat when they’re hungry and I want them to eat well.  And I want them not to be hung up really, and I don’t want them to be overweight” </li></ul><ul><li> C2-O/Glenda </li></ul>
  13. 13. “ even if I won the lottery and had loads of money, I still would not pay for liposuction or owt like that[..] I can’t see the point because that’s just the easy way out isn’t it, you’ve not learned anything by it, you’ve just gone and had all your fat sucked out of you […] If it’s for health problems, fair enough but not just to make themselves look good. I don’t, what’s the point; you are what you are” C1-O2/Fiona “ because he’s a bit of a slow grower really, erm, he’s sort of in the small range for his age. You know with respect to his weight and size. So I’m, I’m not forcing stuff down him but I’m encouraging him to eat. What he can but. He’s just not interested and I’m not physically holding his nose and forcing it down him […] but I am trying to encourage him to be interested in food” C2-O/Gemma
  14. 14. Repudiation (deny pejorative status and deny sole maternal responsibility) <ul><li>“ I don’t view them (friends) for their thinness and they don’t view me for my fatness […] (I’ve) just grown up with it” </li></ul><ul><li>C1-O1/Theresa </li></ul><ul><li>“ Well yeah, I understand about it. I mean I know people though that do a lot of sport and they’ve got a really high BMI, and I think it’s more about how you actually, how fit you are otherwise, whether you can walk and things like that, how far you can walk and how fast and stuff like that that matters you know, whether you are actually fit or not” </li></ul><ul><li>C1-O1/Katrina </li></ul><ul><li>“ You can’t really judge it on (pause) on what you see out. Because where we’re, I mean if you’re in MacDonald’s. The food is classed as junk food. But that might be a special treat. So you, I can’t, can’t really judge it if, erm, the way to judge it is what they’re fed at home” </li></ul><ul><li>C1-O3/Theresa </li></ul>
  15. 15. Utility of accounts framework? <ul><li>contradictions within narratives </li></ul><ul><li>longitudinal element: framings (identities/relationships) evolve </li></ul><ul><li>significance of other elements of identity, social structure </li></ul>
  16. 16. Accept responsibility Deny responsibility Accept pejorative status Deny pejorative status Compliance Critical compliance Repudiation Mitigation Nighat
  17. 17. Conclusion <ul><li>Dominant biomedical discourse (individualised understanding, behavioural interventions) impacts upon maternal identities and feeding relationships: 4 modes of accountability </li></ul><ul><li>Other ways of knowing, locating obesity in everyday, lived, embodied biographies importance of local, relational worlds and social structure in determining health </li></ul><ul><li>Not simply rejecting the relevance of mothering/ parenting and healthy feeding practices to health, but problematise singular readings/solutions (e.g. HAES, rather than calorie burning) </li></ul><ul><li>Explore implications of findings more fully with reference to literature, policy </li></ul>