A RANT ABOUT LOWLINESS, POVERTY, AND HOUSEWORK

Lisa Freitag says:

In the May 18 issue of TIME Magazine, I read an interview with the new Prime Minister of India, the man whom everyone thinks will succeed in changing that country for the better, Narendra Modi.

I don’t have anything against Modi, really. I know nothing about him except what was in that TIME interview, but I need nonetheless write a rant about something he said. I know that his words are, perhaps, not entirely his fault. He was merely living up to a common myth, the Great American Dream of lifting oneself out of poverty.

The quote is pretty benign, taken in that light. Modi grew up in a small town steeped in poverty, and for that reason he has been inspired to make a commitment to helping the poor. Modi says, “I was born in a poor family. I used to sell tea in a railway coach as a child. My mother used to wash utensils and do lowly household work in the houses of others to earn a livelihood.” This quote is important enough that Modi actually uses it twice in the interview.

We are supposed to be very proud of this great man who raised himself from humble beginnings to a position of power. We are perhaps supposed to believe that, since he comes from there, he understands poverty well enough that he is the perfect person to do something about it. After all, he found a way out for himself, so must see the way open to others. As a solution to poverty, however, becoming the Prime Minister of India or, indeed, the President of the United States, is not a terribly viable option. Of the hundreds of thousands of poor tea sellers, only one can become Prime Minister.

I predict that he will not succeed in making even a dent in poverty. The reason is buried in his twice-quoted statement about his poor mother. He sees poverty as shameful. Or, more accurately, he sees the work done by his impoverished mother as shameful. We are to be impressed with him, because he has risen above the shame of poverty and is now in a position to raise others as well. He no longer has to sell tea, and presumably she no longer has to earn money in any way she can. Yet he has, seemingly, not thought about the nature of the work his mother did.

What awful thing did his mother do to earn a livelihood? She washed utensils, clearly a horrifying task! One has to wonder if Modi loads his undoubtedly top-of-the-line dishwasher himself, or if he considers the person who does it for him better or worse than his mother. She also did “lowly household work in the houses of others,” another thing generally acknowledged as being “below” most other professions, if it is considered a profession at all. Yet, I rather doubt Modi cleans his own bathroom. I have no idea what he thinks about the person who does, but I suspect that he does not notice her at all. He may not even realize that she exists. He is probably unaware of the size of the pittance she is being paid by the people who hired her for the task. But I have no doubt that Modi’s bathroom needs just as much cleaning as anyone else’s.

My problem, I think, is the vast set of assumptions behind the identification of household work as “lowly.” Yes, cleaning is boring, and dirty, and often hard on the knees. Does this automatically make it lowly? Carpet laying and plumbing are also dirty and hard on the knees. These professions are certainly beneath the Prime Minister, but I doubt Modi would refer to any of his constituents as a lowly plumber. Perhaps most plumbers in India are men, and only the knee-destroying, low-paid work done by women is considered lowly? Perhaps fixing bathroom leaks in India is more necessary than cleaning toilets? Or perhaps plumbing is not so lowly because it is not so terribly badly paid?

It is worth thinking about whether housework is lowly because it is low-paid, or low-paid because it is lowly. I think both of these aspects are true, and circle each other in a downward spiral that serves to keep people, particularly women, in poverty. The spiral may have started with the invisibility of women’s work, creating the impression among the rich and powerful that the world just cleans up after itself. Modi does not have to ask who will do this lowly work, after he pulls everyone out of poverty alongside himself, because he does not know that it must be done. Yet the work of washing Modi’s dishes, and cleaning Modi’s bathroom, will continue to be absolutely necessary.

The problem, perhaps, is not with the work itself, but with the lack of notice, respect, and payment given to the people who do that work. Modi will not be able to do anything substantial about poverty until he is able to recognize as essential the “lowly” work that his mother did, and that someone else must now do in her stead. As long as the essential work of the world is held to be without value, there must be people who have no option other than to do it for almost nothing, and who thus will stay poor.

If Modi truly wishes to do something about poverty, he should start with noticing the importance of the work his mother did, and stop thinking of it as lowly. He must, of course, work toward raising wages, but I think he will not succeed unless he also begins promoting such work as honorable. Getting paid more to do the dirty work is not enough, if the people doing that work are still seen as shamefully dirtied by doing it. The “lowly” aspect of his mother’s cleaning the houses of others was not just that it was badly paid, but that her son believes that it was beneath his notice.

An Open Letter to Liz Dwyer at TakePart

Debbie says:

Dear Liz Dwyer:

You don’t know me.

I subscribe to TakePart.com’s newsletter, which I find very useful in keeping me informed about a variety of social justice issues. I’ve taken to looking for your byline, or finding that when I read an article I like about body image issues, your byline is there. I love your interest in the same kind of wide range of body issues Laurie and I write about here. I love how you call out body shaming, over and over and over.  But interspersed with these fabulous articles, many of which are so clear about how wrong it is to body shame anyone, including fat people, you still write articles like “The Five Shocking Facts About Obesity in America.”

Hint: There really isn’t an obesity epidemic in America (or at the very least, not one that reflects people eating badly and not taking care of ourselves). Being fat (especially if we lived in a world without fat shaming) is not a major health risk.

It’s time you cop to those facts, and write about them. I’ll give you some resources.

Let’s look at your five shocking facts:

1. More Americans are obese than overweight.

This paragraph is based on BMI, which I hope you know was invented by a statistician with no medical training. The distinction between “obese” and “overweight” which you are giving credence to is arbitrary, and makes no distinction between a weight-lifter with a huge amount of muscle and a person with a large amount of fatty tissue. And study after study shows that “overweight” BMI is the category with the longest life expectancy.

Overall, people who were overweight but not obese were 6% less likely to die during the average study period than normal-weight people. That advantage held among both men and women, and did not appear to vary by age, smoking status, or region of the world. The study looked only at how long people lived, however, and not how healthy they were whey the died, or how they rated their quality of life.

The study abstracts don’t say how “underweight” and “normal” fared, but they do say that what they call “Category 1 obesity” (BMI of 30 to less than 35) is effectively indistinguishable from overweight life expectancy, thus making the categories even more ridiculous.

2. Overall, more men than women are too heavy.

Well, statistically, men have larger bones and more muscle mass. So if you use BMI as your criterion, that’s an automatic likelihood. It probably means nothing.

3. If they’re heavy, women are more likely to be obese than overweight.

I take exception to “Of the ladies that need to drop some pounds,” especially given the life expectancy numbers above. Also, BMI remains meaningless.

4. Black Americans are the most obese racial or ethnic group.

5. Latino Americans are struggling with the scale too.

You invoke Black Lives Matter here (we could not agree more) and you also invoke poverty. You say nothing about genetics, and nothing about food deserts. Closer to my heart, you say nothing about how being shamed is bad for your health, how internalized oppression expresses itself through the body. Black and Latino people are oppressed in so many ways; fat people are oppressed in other ways. Black and Latino fat people face double oppression. Black and Latino/a fat women, trans people, gay people,  disabled people, or Blacks and Latinos in more than one of the above categories) face additional oppression. And the illnesses that stem from oppression are the illnesses we attribute to fatness: high blood pressure, cardiac issues, stroke, and so on. You are so very capable of connecting the dots; why don’t you connect these?

You close this article talking about soaring health care costs and make the oh-so-common, oh-so-unproven claim that diet and exercise are the solution. Do you really still believe in dieting? Have you read Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin? Do you know David Berreby’s amazing article about leptin and ghrelin?

Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. … Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.

That article links junk food not just to calories but to calorie retention. This, of course, would put the burden of weight gain onto the corporate food industry. It’s so much easier to blame individuals, but you are better than that.

One more reading suggestion, one I haven’t gotten to yet myself: The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz. The Wall Street Journal, hardly a radical publication, had this to say:

It is a commonplace in public-health discussions of obesity to warn that the search for “perfect” or “better” evidence is the enemy of good policy and that we can’t afford to wait for all the information we might desire when there is a need to do something now. Yet Ms. Teicholz’s book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence. It would all be comical if the result was not possibly the worst dietary advice in history. And once the advice had been reified by government recommendations and research grants, it became almost impossible to change course. As Ms. Teicholz herself notes, she is not the first to point out that saturated fats have been sinned against by bogus science; and yet, the supermarket aisles are still full of low- and no-fat foods offering empty moral victories.

Teicholz’s book is near the top of my to-read list.

So please, keep up your remarkable work talking about race and gender, body shaming, and other political issues. And please think about how to address the “obesity epidemic,” BMI, and the American (and increasingly global) diet. I promise; I’ll keep reading your work even if you don’t change your mind.