Fat Kids, Working Moms, and
the “Epidemic of Obesity”
Race, Class, and Mother Blame
The centrality of children to the “epidemic of obesity” has led to a search for the “causes” and “cures” of childhood fatness. In scientific and medical literature and the media, too much fast food, too much television, and too little exercise are seen as the main culprits (Boero, 2007). Yet one does not have to dig far below the surface to find a distinct trend of “mother blame” in common sense and professional understandings of both the causes of and interventions into this “epidemic of childhood obesity.” As they are usually charged with the preparation, regulation, and purchase of food for their children, mothers—working mothers in particular—are held responsible for children's “poor” eating patterns and their assumed-related “obesity” (DeVault, 1991; Hochschild, 1989).
The weight of one's children has increasingly become a litmus test of good mothering. In her work, Sondra Solovay (2000) chronicles the dramatic cases of Christina Corrigan, a 680-pound thirteen-year-old whose mother was charged with felony child abuse/endangerment after Christina's tragic death, and “Zach Smuller,” a young boy whose father threatened to fight his mother for custody of him because she could not or would not make him lose weight. The children's mothers were at the center of both the media attention to the cases (particularly the Corrigan case). Both the Corrigan and “Smuller” cases are chilling examples of the threats faced by fat children and their families amid the “obesity epidemic.” Yet in this chapter I use examples from mainstream print media to argue that the mother blame associated with the size of children's bodies extends far beyond these “extreme” examples and has integrated itself into the everyday discourse and experience of mothering. I argue that as with other historic and contemporary examples of mother blame, evaluating the fitness of mothers based on the size of their children obscures larger structural issues of racism, economic inequality, fat phobia, and sexism among others.