We’ve all been there. You look around your home and see the laundry that’s accumulated, dishes that need to be washed, a floor that needs some scrubbing, and a closer inspection of the food that’s slowly going bad in the fridge. If you’re anything like me, you see this mess and wonder how much longer you can go before you’re able to make time to finally clean. Another week maybe?
It’s a bit of a catch 22 because I know it will make me feel more focused to get work done in a tidy space, but is there anything more monotonous and time-consuming than cleaning? I know where everything is, and there’s so much more I’d rather do with my time. Eventually I get it done and besides, it’s not exactly hard or taxing. Compared to lifting 145lbs at the gym, a couple of hours organizing my home is not so bad at all.
I consider myself fairly healthy and fit but I would never say that doing housework has any part in that statement. I put the effort into my diet and a rigorous exercise routine to maintain my waistline and I consider this to be the crux of a successful weight loss and weight management program. Not everyone agrees.
A recent New York Times titled “What Housework Has to Do With Waistlines” is causing some controversy among women and health experts. Researchers at the University of South Carolina argue that women have gained significant weight in the last fifty years due in part to a large reduction in energy expenditure, most notably, less time doing strenuous housework such as vacuuming, cooking, and doing laundry.
The last fifty years have seen a significant shift to sedentary lifestyles with more time spent sitting in front of a television or computer either at work or at home, and more time in a car traveling from place to place. According to Dr. Archer, “women…once had been quite physically active around the house, spending, in 1965, an average of 25.7 hours a week cleaning, cooking and doing laundry.” By 2010, “women were spending an average of 13.3 hours per week on housework.” The statistics for television viewership has also doubled within this same time frame, showing that people are substituting time spent doing calorie-burning activity with longer periods of inactivity.
The researchers point out trends in American society that reflect what many people agree is in some ways, part of the larger obesity epidemic that’s currently gripping our nation. It’s difficult to refute the statistics that reflect an ongoing lack of emphasis on physical activity as jobs are becoming more and more sedentary, and physical education programs are cut from schools.
This study also highlights the crucial point that our labor statistics have changed significantly as women began to leave their homes in the 1960s and 1970s and into the workplace in increasing numbers. In 1950, 34% of women participated in the workforce. Those numbers swelled during World War II and then went back down after the war as the baby boom of the 1950s took hold. By 2000, that number grew to 60%. The Department of Labor estimates that 92 million women will be in the workforce by 2050 with a nearly equal share of the job market with men.
The types of jobs available to women, and men for that matter, have dramatically changed since the mid-20th century. Gone was Rosie the Riveter and the factory women taking an active part in the war machine of the 1940s, replaced by the power suits of corporate America in the 1980s and beyond. Most of the hard-labor jobs that required workers to spend most of the day moving and off their feet have either been replaced by machines or were moved overseas where labor costs are cheaper. The shift to desk jobs that require long stretches of time sitting in front of a computer (much like what I do on a day-to-day basis) is a major contributor to the current lifestyle that locks both men and women in unhealthy patterns.
These trends highlighted in this study do not give us the whole picture. Making the statement that less housework performed by women has a big part in the current obesity and weight-related health crises is not only narrow-minded, it’s just plain wrong.
These conclusions neglect some of the main arguments that most health experts, doctors, and industry leaders have made with respect to the food industry, changes in our food policy, socioeconomics, and access to healthy foods. Most agree that the main problem in our country is the quality of food, although I would also argue that it is multifaceted and includes different variables (such as exercise, our psychological and emotional relationship with food, and culture) that must be considered to devise an effective approach to improve this situation.
While the statistics show that women are spending less time doing domestic chores now then fifty years ago, they do not account for how women may be spending that time now. It’s assumed that they’re just lounging around doing nothing, but I disagree. They may be shuttling their children around to after-school activities and practices, volunteering, caring for their parents, working a second job, or even going to the gym. That’s a lot of activity to make up for that percentage drop. And yet we still face astronomical growth rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and size on the national level. If it’s not the lack of housework, than what is contributing to these trends?
A major aspect of the obesity epidemic is the quality of food that we consume today versus fifty years ago. The obesity rate jumped from 15% of the population the late 1970s to 23% in the late 1980s. What changed during the last quarter of the 20th century to cause this rapid growth? Women joined the workforce in droves, but surely that’s not the tipping point in and of itself. This period coincides with a number of changes to our food production and also to our culture. The spark of social movements brought the issues of minorities to the forefront, and women were no exception.
The study focuses on a very specific group of women from the mid-20th century and their diaries during that time. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, was a landmark book for women and its impact on the movement that led to important social changes towards equality. But the domestic housewife of the 1950s and 60s epitomized as the archetype for women’s experiences of the time and also used as the basis for this study only reflects the experience of middle to upper middle class white women in suburban areas.
This neglects the stories of minorities, lower-income and urban populations, a major criticism for Friedan’s work and this study. These women had larger numbers already participating in the workforce, and greater challenges in accessing proper health care or natural resources as readily. They weren’t a part of Friedan’s “cult of domesticity” and I think the same disparities exist today to some extent. Indeed, the current obesity epidemic afflicts minority and low-income populations in greater numbers than their white and/or upper class counterparts.
The production of our food also took a major directional shift in the midst of a population boom and the growing demand for convenient foods, ie. fast foods, at a cheaper cost. The practice of food preservation and crop pesticides was already in use for a long time prior to this period, but everything escalated to favor the growing appetite of the American public and a gradual move towards globalization. Food underwent a strenuous production cycle from raw material to pre-packaged, chemical-laden products before it hit the road and traveled long journeys from coast to coast (or continent to continent) to make it to your supermarket and hopefully, in your pantry. These preservatives helped make this possible and the food industry saw what this meant for their bottom line and their profits.
Our food industry has become a giant paradox. As the production of processed food ramped up in the late twentieth century, access to natural food sources went down. The cost of organic foods sans pesticide use is astronomical in comparison with their processed counterparts. It costs less to get a value meal at a fast food chain than a prepared salad. Food deserts grew across the country as certain areas found themselves void of quality produce. And the environmental impact all of this has had from the use of non-biodegradable materials, natural resource depletion, soil degradation, pesticide use, and of course, the development of my enemy, the GMO, has been devastating in the past forty years.
Additionally, major food giants and restaurant chains are manipulating our biology to encourage more eating of their products by loading them with carefully constructed combinations of fat, sugar, and salt designed to entice our senses and keep us consuming. A great article that highlights this particular trend was also featured recently in the New York Times Magazine by Michael Moss, “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.” The saturation of unhealthy junk food in the American diet in conjunction with the aggressive marketing tactics of the companies that make them has played a huge role in not just the obesity epidemic but in our psychological relationship with food.
This particular trend affects our children drastically by establishing unhealthy patterns early in life. The poor quality of school lunch food coupled with a drastic cut in physical education programs exacerbates the problem of obesity among children. Also, fewer kids are eating dinner with their families at home each night, choosing to either snack on junk foods in front of the television or their computers.
There’s more. There’s always more. The point is that we can’t just look at one side of this issue and draw conclusions from there. Doing more housework may burn a few more calories here and there but it’s not the single largest factor in why you may be struggling with your weight.
Take a look at your diet and your food choices. Take a look at the amount of time you spend doing exercise or activities that help raise your heart rate to burn calories compared to the amount of time you spend sitting or inactive. Take a look at the way you spend your time with your families and how much of that encourages a healthier lifestyle and mindset.
There is no simple answer or approach to combat the growth rate of obesity and weight-related diseases. It is a complex issue that will take time and a vigorous public health effort to sort out on the national level. We do not live in the same world we lived in fifty years ago and aside from acknowledging those differences, it’s impractical to try to recreate those circumstances in modern times. Our lives and our priorities have changed. We communicate and engage in different ways. It’s up to us now to stop looking back, adopt new methods to restructure our relationship with food and to educate future generations on how they can make changes starting now.
What did you think of this study and its argument about housework? What do you think contributes to our obesity epidemic? How can women help turn this problem around and what role should they play? What are you doing to promote a healthy lifestyle in your home and your community?
I’m curious! Drop me a line anytime and remember to pay it forward. 🙂
- “What Housework Has to do With Waistlines” by Gretchen Reynolds, NY Times
- Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2007–2008, CDC
- A Century of Change: the US Labor Force, 1950-2050 by Mitra Toosi, Department of Labor
- “Crave Man” by Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post
- “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food” by Michael Moss, NY Times Magazine