Feminism and Processed Foods (and Breastfeeding): A Conundrum?
So these days, in my kitchen, I’m making an effort to use fewer processed foods. I’ve read my Michael Pollan and I’m sold on the concept that we should be eating things that would be recognizable to our great-grandmothers as “food.” Moreover, I’m thoroughly disgusted by the ways that the American food industry has transformed the way we eat by normalizing processed, unhealthy foods that are full of fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and an array of unpronounceable non-food substances.
But here’s the conundrum. I’m trying to eat more like people in my great-grandmother’s day. But would I trade places with her? Of course not. My options would be so much more limited than they are today. If I were my great-grandmother, I’d probably be a full time homemaker, whether I wanted to be one or not.
Much of my “decision” to be a homemaker would be dictated by social pressures. But some of this would have to do with food. One hundred years ago, food preparation was a whole lot more time consuming than it is today. I’d be baking breads, cutting apart whole chickens (if not slaughtering them), rolling out pie crusts, canning vegetables, and whole lot of other tedious tasks. I probably wouldn’t even have a refrigerator.
These days, many women work because of changing social norms—but also because of changing domestic duties. Thanks to modern conveniences, taking care of a house and cooking no longer has to be a full time job. My husband and I work full time, and at the end of the day, we have time to cook a healthy meal together. (Of course, the “cooking together” part is one luxury my great-grandmother didn’t get—and that many women today still don’t get!)
But even though cooking is easier than it used to be, it’s still pretty time consuming. On nights where we’re tired, or we have to take our daughter to an activity, or both, it really is tempting to throw together some processed ingredients and make a tuna noodle casserole. Or to reach into the freezer and pull out some sodium-laden chicken thingies. (We still have these in our freezer from time to time. We indeed call them “chicken thingies.” )
So here’s the conundrum. Processed foods are bad for us. But there’s also something that seems, well, liberating about them . Easy-to-prepare processed foods free up some serious time on the domestic front. And less time in the kitchen means more time for people—and especially women, who still do most of the cooking—to accomplish other things in their lives.
So are processed foods feminist?
I am certainly unwilling to answer yes to this question in an unequivocal way. Processed foods weren’t created for the purpose of liberating women from their stifling domestic duties. They were created by corporations for the purpose of making money—and those same corporations certainly didn’t want the lucrative market of homemakers to leave the domestic front. But nonetheless, processed foods have contributed to the liberation of women from compulsory domestic duties.
At a price, of course. A serious price. The American diet is abysmal. But the statement is true regardless. Processed foods have in part contributed to the liberation of women from domestic duties.
So there’s the conundrum. As a progressive, I’m drawn to the politics of the “real food” movement. But living free of processed foods means, inevitably, more time on the domestic front shopping and preparing food—and these are traditional women’s roles that we’ve been trying to reduce in scope for years.
And although I’m not going to throw in the towel and abandon my efforts to eat fewer processed foods, I can’t fully shake this conundrum. Because you know what? If it becomes more and more the social norm to avoid processed foods, which gender do you think is going to be responsible for upholding this social norm? Who do you suppose will be expected to spend more time in the kitchen rinsing lentils?
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You are making a list of time-saving things that I can do in my quest to avoid processed foods. You are planning on telling me in the Comments section that I should make a big batch of organic quinoa on Sunday afternoon, and that I should cut up enough vegetables for several days at a time. You are going to tell me that I need to strike a balance between cooking healthy and making time for other things. You might even post a recipe for homemade tuna noodle casserole that doesn’t require cans or boxes.
I am already trying things like this. These types of time-saving tips do make it easier to eat real foods, but it doesn’t solve the conundrum completely. I can still throw together a processed tuna noodle casserole in fifteen minutes, box to plate, and then I have that much extra time to write, exercise, volunteer, and do other satisfying things that my great-grandmother didn’t get to do.
And this may seem like an odd tangent, but the processed food conundrum reminds me very much of something else that was very frustrating to me a few years back: the breastfeeding conundrum. These days, the official health advice is that mothers should breastfeed their children for a minimum of six months. Processed artificial breast milk (aka formula) was once pushed on mothers by a very aggressive and ethically vacuous industry, and for some time, it was the norm.
I tried to breastfeed. I won’t get into the whole story, but I was not able to do so. This was very upsetting to me, as I’d heard all the medical evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding, but it wasn’t an option for me. So my daughter was fed formula.
As I quickly found out, formula feeding was much easier to fit into my life as a working women than breastfeeding. In a country where there’s no mandated paid maternity leave for working women (for shame, America!), breastfeeding means that working women need to spend an incredible amount of time and energy every day pumping. I didn’t have to deal with that. And, moreover, because we formula fed, my husband was able to be an equal partner in the feeding—and what’s more feminist than that? Which doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have preferred to breastfeed, but there were some very tangible benefits of using formula.
So there’s the breastfeeding conundrum. It liberates women from the formula industry, which has pushed its inferior product on women for generations. But it also makes it a whole lot harder for women to be a mother and do anything else, and it makes it more of a challenge for male partners to be equal partners in taking care of very young children.
And here’s the really disturbing part—the “Breastfeed or Else” crowd. If you’ve had a child in the last decade or so, you know who I’m talking about. There are plenty of people out there who don’t think that women should have the choice to formula feed, and that formula feeding is a form of child abuse. I am not exaggerating. During the time when I was formula feeding, a public service announcement came out from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that depicted some visibly pregnant women log-rolling. “You wouldn’t take risks before your baby’s born,” said the ad. “Why start after? Babies were born to breastfeed.”
As a formula-feeding mom, you can imagine how this demonizing ad made me feel. So much for a woman’s right to choose, huh?
I fear that if the “real foods” movement becomes more mainstream, we’ll see similar kinds of sentiments about how we feed our children. Feeding one’s child processed tuna noodle casserole may be seen as child abuse. And you better believe it’s women who are going to be the ones receiving the bulk of the judgment for “abusing” their kids.
And when women are judged for doing a poor job at their domestic duties? There’s nothing feminist about that.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Like I said, I am on board with the “real food” movement, and I’m trying my best to eat fewer processed foods in a processed-foods culture. I’m fully aware that real cooking takes more time—and unlike many women, I’m lucky to have a husband who doesn’t see the kitchen as my responsibility alone.
But I think it’s important to step back and consider the feminist implications of saying that we want to eat more like our great-grandmothers. When we take steps that cause us to spend more time in the domestic space, we need to tread with caution.