Is Betty Draper to Blame for the Obesity Epidemic?

During my December blogging vacation I read a Los Angeles Times piece in which a fitness and nutriton expert, Melinda Sothern, posited that at least some blame for the current obesity epidemic can be directed at women who gave birth during the 1950s and 60s.

Mad Men photo: AMC

Here’s her theory:  under their doctors’ guidance, many women in the 50s and 60s gained as little as ten pounds during pregnancy, smoked while pregnant and fed their infants formula instead of breast feeding.  These are all factors which, according to Sothern, could predispose their babies to gain weight in later life.  Then this next generation, overweight in adulthood, gave birth to larger babies who were also predisposed to obesity.

While I can’t speak to the scientific soundness of Sothern’s theory, as a former pregnant woman it did trouble me to read that “[i]f yesterday’s young women may have gotten us into the obesity epidemic, today’s must be counted on to help us get out” and that “reproductive-age women may become the central focus of efforts to reverse America’s fat problem.”

There’s a fine line between giving women legitimate prenatal counseling and saddling them with responsibility for a public health epidemic that has its roots in everything from agricultural policies to food manufacturing practices to portion sizes at restaurants.  A woman’s weight during her childbearing years is certainly important and needs to be monitored, but bluntly telling significantly overweight women, as Sothern does in the article, that they “should not have babies” and that they “should breast-feed for at least six months after childbirth or — better yet — take one year off from work and breast-feed” (an economic impossibility for many women), is only likely to raise hackles.

Why am I suddenly craving a martini and a cigarette?

[Hat tip:  Casey Legler Hinds via Facebook]


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  1. says

    I try not to take the bait with articles like this, because I think they walk a fine line between a) possibly having a kernel of truth; and b) obscuring that possible kernel with lots of unnecessary generalizations and inflammatory remarks that only serve to agitate existing culture wars. Is breastfeeding a better choice for babies? I don’t think we can argue that it’s not, overall. But neither can we argue that NOT breastfeeding automatically dooms a child to a life of obesity (or other health problems). My sister and I were both formula-fed, and she’s never in her life had a weight problem (I was a chubby child, so I can’t say I didn’t). We both were in the top tier of our classes throughout high school, college and post-grad. So formula clearly didn’t screw us up. And for moms like me, who wanted to breastfeed but found it not to be possible — and stopped on the advice of physicians — constantly hearing the drumbeat of “formula is the Anti-Christ” doesn’t do anything to help. If we want to combat childhood obesity, beating each other up is about the LEAST helpful thing we can do.

  2. says

    Of course it’s Mom’s fault. Because that’s an infinitely more comforting solution than that we eat too much heavily processed, nutritionally bankrupt, highly profitable food-like substances and watch too much TV. I’m all for blaming everything on 1960s moms. They don’t have multi-billion dollar lobbying arms so they won’t argue back with me. Bravo.

  3. June says

    Maybe, but today’s kids are also obese, and their moms aren’t smoking or gaining only 10 pounds (gasp!) during pregnancy. So, I think maybe there are other important factors (obviously) as well. I think that from reading the NYT article on the Fat Trap, that the most important thing is to not let your kids get overweight in the first place (easier said than done, I know).

  4. Karen Frenchy says

    oh boy! Where do I start?
    In the 50’s, my grand-mother had several babies (birth between 7lbs and 8lbs), in Vietnam, during the war ! I seriously doubt her doctor (if she had one) recommended her to pay attention to her weight, smoke and feed her newborns formula… None of them right now are obese (my mother included), living in Vietnam and France. Same thing for my sister, brother and me, fed with formula (preemie for me, twins for sis & bro = we are not obese nor fat). And my mother gained A LOT of weight during the pregnancies (lost everything quickly after deliveries, lucky her !!)

    Blaming the mothers… it is just too easy and convenient. Blaming mothers who feed their babies with formula for childhood obesity/ADHD just became an international sport/hobby (US, France, the UK etc…). Even my husband tried to blame me because I didn’t breastfeed our daughter (to his defense, he was a bit “brainwashed” by the nurses while our baby was in NICU). I’m expecting our 2nd child and no one will give me the guilt trip again !

    As far as her “Significantly overweight women should not have babies” sentence is concerned, I am really shocked. It makes me think of some eugenics movement…

    I would partly blame our society, our way of life (work too much for little pay, not enough time to educate properly our children) for childhood obesity…

    Sorry if I was off topics with family history 😉

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Not off topic! I appreciate your sharing your family’s history here. And it’s true that these “scientific conclusions” don’t always match our real world experiences. E.g., I gained a whopping 50+ pounds when pregnant with each of my kids, which was a huge amount on my small frame (5′ 3″) – a big no-no that deeply distressed one of my OB’s — and yet both kids had a completely normal birth weight and now are exactly average or even a bit lower than average on the weight charts. So clearly there are so, so many factors at play.

  5. says

    Why is it always your mom’s fault? From being overweight to why you can’t have a meaningful long-term relationship, it’s always mom. Next up: moms cause global warming because they feed people beans, and when people eat beans, well, you know …. 😉

    This sounds like nothing more than a case of the LA Times wanting to get their web traffic up by throwing a half-baked bomb out there. Blech.

  6. says

    Blame Mom?!?! Why, that happens in our house all the time, no matter what the topic.

    Truthfully, I did see this article when it came out and I tossed it aside. I think when you read these studies you tend to match it up with your own anecdotal evidence, and if there’s a match, then you think, “Hey, there might be a kernel of truth to that.” But in this case, I honestly couldn’t match up this theory (50’s mom, weight restricted, formula feeding, later obesity) with anyone I knew.

    I’m with Joanne – I think the (food-related) causes are much closer to us than we are collectively willing to admit. Blaming it on womens’ behavior decades ago is just a convenient dodge.

    Incidentally, I just wrote a post about simple tips to curb child obesity at home – it’s not brain surgery, but it does require conscientious attention to healthful habits.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Sorry for the late replies to everyone on this post. I also hesitated to share this “news” item but I think it’s important to call out some of these studies and findings now and then. Not because they’re not valid (I can’t say) but because I do think they distract us (as you and Joanne have said) from the big picture issues. And thanks for the link to the blog post, Jeanne – I’ll check it out.

  7. Casey says

    I think the epigenetics awareness is the most important part of the article. If the environment of the 50’s makes an impact on today’s children, how will today’s environment affect future generations? “We are talking about issues like preserving the environment, and war, and health, but if our kids’ brains are disregulated from the beginning, we aren’t going to have that critical mass of people to think about and shape our future.”

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