Recently, it seems as though every newspaper and headline in the media includes the words,“diet, new regimen, or lose ten pounds instantly.” The amount of media reports can prove to be very confusing, problematic, and undermining of the larger health issues at hand. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report titled “Obesity Trends Among U.S. Adults Between 1985 and 2010,” which offers an interactive map and state-by-state breakdown of obesity rates in the United States.
According to the CDC, “no state has met the nations Healthy People 2010 goal of lower obesity prevalence of 15%.” Research also indicates that more than half of all women in the United States are overweight or obese (Mehta, et al. 2010). The increase in obesity rates has further garnered attention from television producers. Americans seemed to be intrigued with stories of weight loss, with millions tuning into watch weight loss shows like, “The Biggest Loser”, MTV’s “I Used to Be Fat”, and “Extreme Makeover.” For many, then, it would seem that obesity rates and unhealthy lifestyles are important, if not entertaining, social issues. But when does all of this become unhealthy? How do individuals perceive weight loss goals, and do they vary by race, class, and gender?
Research indicates that “westernized” notions of beauty often include the desire for a thin body (Johnson 2010). Research also indicates that these notions affect the lives of girls and women more directly than of boys and men. During my short summer vacation in California, a very good friend of mine expressed to me the amount of pressure she felt about loosing weight after her second pregnancy. This got me thinking about the many ways new mothers experience pressure to loose weight after giving birth. I thought this was especially interesting given the recent weight loss of superstar mothers like Jenifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles. My friend also highlighted a similar concern, “I look at Kourtney Kardashian and she lost all her weight in like two seconds! It’s frustrating because it takes a lot to loose the weight. They can hire trainers, eat the best food, hire caregivers so they can go to the gym and workout. But for real moms it’s not that simple.” Besides the help my friend mentions, add a whopping $4 million contract with weight watchers, that new mother Jessica Simpson just signed. The media has criticized Simpson for her deal, while constantly printing articles criticizing the amount of weight the pop star gained during her recent pregnancy.
So, why does this matter for sociologists? Research centered on embodiedment and gender, pregnant women and their experiences has a lot to offer and contribute to our understandings of beauty, gender norms, body image, and motherhood. One of the questions I am especially interested in is how can an intersectional analysis of race, class, and gender contribute to our understanding of the ways that mothers perceive weight loss after giving birth? According to Sally Johnson’s (2010) research, pregnant women negotiate discursive constructions surrounding the pregnant body. She found that one of the two ways women spoke about their bodies was “constructed as being ‘fat’ and less attractive.” Johnson’s research is a good way to begin to understand the ways societal constructions of beauty and gender influences mothers’ perception of their bodies. Sociologists should also take into account science and health centered research, which has suggested that there are indicators for body image issues among pregnant women. For example, Ushma, Mehta, et al. (2011) found that women from low-income backgrounds with less formal education gained more weight and experienced a higher dissatisfaction with body image. The researchers state that “this combination among the lowest income women, of being both poor and less educated, may be identifying who are income-constrained and, consequently, likely to suffer from food insecurity. This inability to afford enough food during pregnancy could potentially influence the ability of pregnant women to gain adequately.”
While these studies help contribute to our understanding of the ways body image varies by race, class, and gender, they offer very minimal understanding of the ways that social roles influence perception of body image during pregnancy. Davies and Wardle (1994) found that “women that increased body fat and body shape are tolerated by most, and even enjoyed by some.” They conclude by urging for research that “demonstrates the need to investigate the importance of female social roles for women’s body image.”
In this short post I have attempted to indicate the importance for understanding women’s perceptions of body image during pregnancy. While there exists a large body of literature on body image, the articles mentioned above have suggested a need to research societal understandings of the body and body image during pregnancy. I take us back to the comments my good friend stated to me: “For real moms’ its not that simple.” Reflecting on this conversation, what strikes me the most is my friend’s keen awareness of the classed implications of motherhood. What did she mean by real moms? I think this an interesting starting point for scholars of race, class, and gender to explore the underlying dimensions of societal expectations for the human body, and what it means in today’s gendered society. For more on the issue of class and gender, please see a post published earlier this month by Amanda Kennedy: Gender and Race Politics in the Discourse of Mothering.
Davies, Katherine and Jane Wardle. 1994. “Body Image and Dieting in Pregnancy.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 38(8): 787-799.
Johnson, Sally. 2010. “Discursive Constructions of the Pregnant Body: Conforming to or Resisting Body Ideals? Feminism & Psychology 20(2): 249-254.
Mehta, Ushma, et al. 2011. “Effect of Body Image on Pregnancy Weight Gain.” Maternal Child Health 15: 324-332.