Everyone wonders what is driving the worldwide obesity epidemic. It is not the fact that American fast-food restaurants have spread worldwide. It is because support roles in society have been denigrated in the last 50-100 years. It’s not that women have gone out to work; it’s that only high-level outside jobs earn people respect. Anyone who stays home to “take care of the house” is viewed as having a lowly, unimportant job, when in fact, that job is the most crucial to family health. Different societies have looked for different solutions to this problem, but it seems France has hit upon the best solution with limiting hours of paid work outside the home, for everyone.
Living abroad, where maids are common, has let me see that different societies find different solutions to the problem of who will do the housework. For those who can afford it, what money can buy is TIME. Hiring maids and gardeners leaves parents some free time to enjoy their lives. In North Africa, I’ve seen many people who would be classed as poor in North America, and who might here be classed as the struggling lower-middle, hire young girls as live-in maids. Now that these young girls are mostly becoming educated, child maids have become relatively rare; however, most families will attempt to hire a maid as soon as they have a refrigerator and a television set.
It used to be the case that middle-class girls were expected to do housework with their mothers (even though most boys were not). It seems, in North Africa, to be the case that it gives a family social prestige to have a maid. It particularly gives prestige to the children, among other children at school, to have a maid. I am beginning to see many girls now who no longer do “housework” and their mothers seem to support them in this role. Now that more girls are going to school, the idea seems to be that if you are educated, you don’t “dirty your hands” with manual labor of any kind–that is the province of the uneducated. Even children who drop trash around their desks as school, or from their lunches on the ground, now protest when being asked to pick up their own trash, saying, “I’m not the maid! That’s not my job!” So, rather than getting respect for cleaning up after ones’ self, instead one lowers oneself, and loses the respect of others by doing so.
So, well-to-do people in third-world societies have solved the problem of who will be in the support roles of doing cooking, cleaning, and housework by employing the lower classes, or by importing guest workers from less rich countries to do the work. The lower classes must both work outside the home, and take care of themselves; so one way they solve the problem is by living in multi-generational extended families, where some members are working, while unemployed family members fill support roles. This is why working members of the family are expected to share their earnings and be financially responsible for non-working family members–who may be old, young, or merely unable to find a job.
Americans, who believe that everyone should take care of themselves and that having a maid is a moral failing, have found other solutions. In the past, a woman’s role was highly valued at home, where she had to take care of livestock, make the clothes, home-can all the food for winter, and many other activities in addition to simply cooking and cleaning. Children went to school, but were still expected to do daily chores of between two-and-three hours a day starting about the age of four. During World War II, with the men gone, many women went out to work in the factories. In the 1950s, when men were back at home, women mostly went back into the home, and labor-saving devices became the norm. Women’s roles began to be considered unimportant, and highly educated women were stuck at home cooking, cleaning, and bored. After the 1960s social revolution in America, it became the norm in the 1970s for women to work and have careers. At that time, most people were still eating well-balanced, home-cooked meals, with an occasional foray out to a restaurant or a fast-food place (once a week, at most). In the 1960s and 1970s, most working women also tried to do most of the housework.
Another big change happened in the 1970s–men were now expected to help with housework. Younger men, educated with younger women, filled this role, although somewhat reluctantly. Most husbands did all the vacuuming and often did dishes, in addition to doing 5-20 hours of outdoor yard work weekly, such as mowing the lawn, pruning bushes, cleaning the garage, taking out the trash, etc. If a man preferred to cook, his wife did the dishes. But in few households did women do all the cooking, all the dishes, and all the housework, in addition to having a full-time job. The exception to this was the lower classes, where often the women stayed home (if they could afford to, even if in a very small house) and did all the work. Older men (35 and up) in the 70s were particularly resistant to helping out at home, and homes literally became a battlefield (I find myself having these same battles today with my resistant North African husband.)
Now it is well-established that women work outside the home, and there is no going back. Most families could not survive without women working now. It’s not easy to downsize because the lower-cost living spaces and goods are no longer available (quoting an economist).
In the 1980s, women stopped trying to do everything. Many younger women starting careers claimed they did not know how to cook (or refused to learn, since they were busy working). When I visited the East Coast of America in the late 80s (being from the West) men friends told me that NONE of the women they dated knew how to cook. I was really surprised. Looking back, I see it all comes down to a question of time, and parity.
Looking at what has happened now in America, eating out, or buying pre-prepared food at a supermarket has now become the norm in families where both parents work. Cooking from scratch, or using fresh vegetables, has become either a weekend hobby for those who enjoy cooking, or the province of the rich, who can afford to eat expensive fresh foods. I believe there is a firm link between the obesity epidemic in America, and women going to work, with no real solution having been found for WHO WILL DO THE WORK AT HOME TO SUPPORT THE FAMILY AND KEEP IT HEALTHY. This role is no longer valued in society, and has not been for several decades. Women have no TIME, and most men have not taken up the slack.
England has followed America down the same path. From what I hear, there has been a massive switch to fried junk food and pre-prepared meals. The problem is the same. Both men and women are working; people have little or no help at home; fresh foods are expensive and extremely time-consuming to prepare. The result? The same obesity epidemic now arriving in Britain.
Even in North Africa, we are beginning to see an obesity epidemic developing, and a dramatic decline in consumption of healthy food. Young married couples now get their own apartments, and don’t have a mother-in-law at home to make the noon meal. More young mothers are working, picking up their children from school at noon, coming home and putting together as quick of a meal as possible, then driving their children back to school, and driving themselves back to work, all within two hours.
So, what is the solution? I believe France has the correct solution. Limit working hours to 35-40 hours a week (by law) and people would have time to take care of their health. Will it ever happen? Highly unlikely.