Is New Obesity Study Sexist?

//

A new obesity study with the provocative title “45-Year Trends in Women’s Use of Time and Household Management Energy Expenditure” has raised hackles across the country over the past week, condemned by some for being sexist.

For example ABC News broadcast the story on “World News with Diane Sawyer” on Feb. 28, and it appeared on ABCNews.com titled “Study Tying Women’s Weight Gain to Housework Draws Fire for Coke Link.” In an introduction to the piece, anchor Diane Sawyer began, “There’s a new report on obesity with a surprising conclusion: Researchers say they have found a link between a woman’s weight and the amount of work done around the home. ABC’s Cecilia Vega takes a closer look tonight at a headline that is already drawing fire.”

The “surprising conclusion” appeared in a recent study published in the respected, peer-reviewed journal PLoS-ONE.

Vega’s piece began, “A group of researchers now says that one reason modern women may be packing on the pounds is because they’re not doing the heavy lifting around the house that they once did. ‘We looked at 91 different activities — going to the gym, walking the dog — and the only thing that influenced their energy expenditure was the work in the home,” said Edward Archer, a University of South Carolina research fellow and the study’s lead author.”

NEWS: Is Obesity a Disease?

Who did the study “draw fire” from? Not other scientific researchers but instead mostly anonymous people on Twitter and Facebook who expressed outrage at the study — or, rather not at the study, which most of them clearly had not read, but what they had been told the study said. This is how Vega summarized the results of the study to her audience: “People will see the headlines from this study and say that you’re telling women that they are fat because they are not doing housework.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of the study, as Dr. Archer tried to explain during the five-second response that ABC News aired: “What we’re saying is that there’s been a decrease in physical activity across all of daily life.”

Scientific Sexism?

But with the study being characterized as sexist by many journalists — including Canada’s National Post, which used the headline, “It Sounds Sexist, But Women Doing Less Housework Than In the 1960s May Be Related to the Obesity Epidemic: Study” — the lay public tweeted their indignant condemnations of the study based upon little or no knowledge of it.

Unlike many journal studies which are only accessible behind a paywall or through academic resources, PLoS ONE is an open access journal and the study is available for free to the public. Anyone who wished to see what the study said could have easily found and read it.

Among the criticisms of the study offered by Vega and others: “Kaitlyn J” tweeted, “Uh excuse me?,” “Holly Setzer” wrote, “And in other news, the 1950s called and they want their article back.” Another Twitter user, “Sarah B.,” tweeted, “WOMEN: You’re fat because you don’t do housework anymore. (Nice double whammy.)”

Jessica Valenti, the founder of Feministing.com and a contributor to The Nation, tweeted: “Am I (censored) hallucinating or did @nytimes just tell me American women are fat because they don’t vacuum enough?” Typical responses included hashtags of “#whyweneedfeminism” and “#patriarchy.”

Hamilton Nolan, a writer for Gawker.com, anticipated the response, noting, “The study’s author, a doctor, recommends ‘finding ways to incorporate movement’ into time spent at home, for health reasons. He does not call for that movement to be housework. Nor does he decry the fact that women are doing less housework. All very straightforward. Less physical activity and more sedentary time means fewer calories burned per day — in this case, among women, who happened to be the topic of this particular study. Now, the real question: How angry will everyone get about these scientific findings, due to a failure to fully digest the facts of this story?”

NEWS: Active Video Games Can Battle Childhood Obesity

The study did not single women out as lazy, nor suggest that they were any less active than men; women just happened to be the subject of that particular study. The authors wrote, “From 1965 to 2010, there was a large and significant decline in the time women allocated to HM [household management]. By the 1990s, women spent more time in screen-based media use — e.g., watching TV — than in cooking, cleaning, laundry and LTPA (leisure-time physical activity expenditure) combined. A major consequence of the 12 hr/week decline in HM was a considerable decrement in HMEE (household management energy expenditure), with non-employed women experiencing the largest decrease (10.5 Mj/week, 1.5 Mj/day; 2518 kcal/week, 360 kcal/day).”

It also discussed other facets of the trend, including advances in food manufacturing, labor-saving devices such as dishwashers, and women’s changing social roles.

Where some see nutritional and scientific minutiae, others see misogyny.

The study is, in fact, a rather straightforward, if somewhat soporific, piece of research whose conclusions are hardly controversial or “surprising” and are in fact well supported in the literature. There is nothing sexist or antiquated about research reaffirming the self-evident fact that, by their own estimates, via the American Heritage Time Use Study database, women did more housework in the 1950s than they do today.

The advent of labor-saving devices such as dishwashers and laundry washers and dryers have decreased the amount of labor and exercise in roles typically associated with women, just as labor-saving machinery in farming, mining, and construction have decreased the amount of labor and exercise in roles typically associated with men. Furthermore, women, just like men, spend more time in sedentary pastimes such as watching television than they did 45 years ago. There is nothing remotely sexist about this finding, though of course the promise of a potentially controversial news hook is sometimes too great to ignore.

The Coke Connection

In addition to outraged Twitter users, Vega suggested that the new study had been “drawing fire” from other dieting and obesity researchers: “Other experts, however, said the obesity epidemic was caused by a long list of factors that included not just physical activity but diet, genetics and economic status. They also questioned the motives of Coca-Cola, which sponsored the study. ‘It makes no sense for Coca-Cola to be funding studies on causes of obesity because they are one of the causes for obesity,’ said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for food policy and obesity at Yale University.”

NEWS: What Makes a State Fat or Thin?

This comment certainly makes it seem like Dr. Brownell disputes the study and challenges its validity. However when contacted for clarification, Dr. Brownell suggested that Vega had mischaracterized his statement.

“What I had mentioned to the reporter but did not make it through the edits, was that this was a fine study by a top-rate group of researchers. I have no quarrel at all with the quality of the study, its results, or the decision by the journal to publish the paper. It is important to examine all causes of obesity, looking at both dietary and physical activity factors. The results of the study are perfectly consistent with those of others showing declines in day-to-day physical activity in nearly all segments of the population. This is important to document.”

Brownell’s concern was not that the Archer et al. study is invalid, inaccurate, or biased toward Coca-Cola in any way, but instead that the company — whose products are one of many acknowledged sources of calories in the American diet — could use the study as further proof that the increasingly sedentary American lifestyle since the 1950s has contributed to our collective weight gain, which is of course true.

The study, for those who wish read it, is: Archer E, Shook RP, Thomas DM, Church TS, Katzmarzyk PT, et al. (2013) “45-Year Trends in Women’s Use of Time and Household Management Energy Expenditure.” PLoS ONE 8(2): e56620. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056620.

Photo: Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images