This paper investigates one explanation for the consistent observation of a strong, negative correlation in the United States between income and obesity among women, but not men. We argue that a key factor is the gendered expectation that mothers are responsible for feeding their children. When income is limited and households face food shortages, we predict that an enactment of these gendered norms places mothers at greater risk for obesity relative to child-free women and all men. We adopt an indirect approach to study these complex dynamics using data on men and women of childrearing age and who are household heads or partners in the 1999-2003 waves of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). We find support for our prediction: Food insecure mothers are more likely than child-free men and women and food insecure fathers to be overweight or obese and to gain more weight over four years. The risks are greater for single mothers relative to mothers in married or cohabiting relationships. Supplemental models demonstrate that this pattern cannot be attributed to post-pregnancy biological changes that predispose mothers to weight gain or an evolutionary bias toward biological children. Further, results are unchanged with the inclusion of physical activity, smoking, drinking, receipt of food stamps, or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional program participation. Obesity, thus, offers a physical expression of the vulnerabilities that arise from the intersection of gendered childcare expectations and poverty.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Health(social science)
- History and Philosophy of Science