No Green Beans for You

No Green Beans for You

One of my escapes is reading Good Housekeeping. When it arrives in my mailbox, I usually take that afternoon “off,” and spend it on my porch swing, sipping coffee or wine as I page through it. Mostly, I read it and find the pleasure in all of the things that I am not going to worry about. The best recipe for mu shu shrimp? There is no way my picky son will put that anywhere near his mouth, so I’m not going to cook it. How to make the craftiest seating cards for a dinner party? Not gonna do it because my dinner parties are self-serve buffets. How to reorganize your closet so that it is color-coded? Not practical in my tiny hole in the wall. Lose five pounds by doing sit-ups before you get out of bed in the morning? I’d rather just hit the snooze button.

1950s AD for Phildar Wool. (Mo/Flickr)

It’s not that I find this information or these suggestions laughable or useless or anything like that. I do not mean to sound condescending or snobby about it. I love Good Housekeeping. It’s just that most of its contents don’t really have anything to do with the kind of household that my husband and I maintain. And yet I faithfully read it. Why? Because every so often there is something that works for me. [Like the suggestion to use a cup to amplify the music from my iPhone (March 2013, p. 29). I’ve been walking around with my iPhone in a coffee mug for the last four weeks. It’s brilliant.] And I really do find comfort in the feeling of being free from having to do any of the things that the GH articles suggest that I do to make my home, myself, or my family happier, healthier, or prettier.

But this month a little blurb caught my attention and… well… okay, it pissed me off. Nestled on a page dedicated to “Nutrition News,” with other reports on the health benefits of popcorn and olive oil (not served together, although that might be interesting), was a paragraph with the heading, “Want to Be Seen as More Loving?”:

Serve vegetables with dinner. When presented with nearly identical stories of a mother’s busy day, women in a Cornell University study were more likely to perceive mothers as “thoughtful” when they were described as serving frozen green beans along with chicken breasts and pasta. The hypothetical moms who cooked the same meal minus veggies were more often pegged as “boring” or “self-absorbed.” (April 2013, p. 91)

Pardon my language, but what the fuck?

I immediately took my iPhone out of the mug, snapped a pic, and posted it to my Facebook wall. My friends, never ones to fail me, offered appropriate responses: “It’s enough to make me stop eating vegetables.” “Was this written in 1952? Where is June Cleaver?” “I’m a vegan, and would still be seen as boring or self-absorbed.” “This is so weird. Is it from 2013?”

Housewife The MET Breuer. (Regan Vercruysse/Flickr)

My friends were right, this was weird. It felt like it was from a half-century ago, when women were more explicitly told that their value was rooted in their ability to care for their families, rather than the present day, when these message tend to be more subtle. If I was the kind of mom who remembered to make veggies to go along with dinner every night, I most certainly would stop doing so in protest.

On a page dedicated to “Nutrition News,” this report has nothing to do with nutrition. This report is not telling me to serve my son vegetables in order to improve his health, prevent vitamin deficiency, or offset the negative effects of all the other crap he eats. In fact, there is nothing about eating vegetables in this blurb. It’s about serving them. “Want to Be Seen as More Loving?” By whom? Other moms? Moms who think that other moms who don’t serve vegetables are “boring”? No, thanks. I don’t need to waste my time or resources trying to keep up in the Mommy Wars by serving vegetables that my kid isn’t going to eat. This is, in many respects, just another example of mom shaming.

My initial disgust with this report—which prompted me to toss the magazine across the room before I went back to it to take a photo—quickly turned to curiosity. Not wanting to shoot the messenger, I recognized that, even if this paragraph might have been better placed on a different page (perhaps in a section called “Irrational Things To Worry About When You Run Out of Important Things to Worry About”), the content of the research study was not the fault of my beloved Good Housekeeping. It was time to track down the original source. I wanted to know who would design such a study in the first place, and who were the participants? What kind of woman would judge other women so harshly? Really, someone asks you what you think of a mom who serves an otherwise healthy meal but leaves out the veg and the word that comes to your mind is “self-absorbed”?

The study—“How Vegetables Make the Meal: Their Hedonic and Heroic Impact on Perceptions of the Meal and of the Preparer”—was designed and conducted by three men at Cornell University—a faculty member with a PhD in marketing who specializes in “the psychology and consumption of foods,” a research specialist with a background also in marketing, and a postdoctoral researcher in social/personality psychology. Their report is based on the results of a survey of “500 American mothers with two or more children under the age of 18.” The mothers were given descriptions of meals and then asked to evaluate the personality of a cook who either did or did not include a vegetable in a family dinner. The intention of the study was to figure out how to inspire more mothers to serve more vegetables at dinner. “Although most parents know that vegetables are healthful,” their abstract reads, “vegetables are served at only 23% of American dinners.” Their results led them to the conclusion that, “More vegetables are likely to be served with a meal if preparers know that the addition of vegetables makes them appear to be both a better cook and a better person.” In other words, “Simply put, vegetables make people feel more positive about the main course and the cook who prepared it.”

But, wait, there’s more: “So if you want to be a hero in your own kitchen, just add veggies to your meals and enjoy the nutritional AND emotional benefits they will provide!”

A hero in my kitchen. Is that what I’m doing when I make dinner each day?

Honestly, I want to be a lot of things. I want to be a teacher who encourages her students to think carefully and to articulate their beliefs clearly. I want to be a parent who raises a son to be confident, compassionate, and honorable. I want to be a scholar who produces thoughtful and well-argued material. I want to be a wife who is loving, a daughter who is respectful, a sister who is comforting, and a friend who is a sure bet for a drink on the porch. But to be a hero in my kitchen? I’d like to be hero in a life-or-death situation, sure. But I don’t think that serving vegetables or any other meal qualifies as heroic. I am not sure what motivated the three men who designed and conducted this study, or, for that matter, the 500 women who responded to their survey (although, to be fair to them, I wonder what adjectives I would have chosen if I was limited to a predetermined list of twelve). They are well credentialed and the content of the journal in which they published is peer-reviewed, so even though I don’t understand their methodology I don’t feel that I should fault it.

The 1950s busy housewife . (Mo/Flickr)

I do, however, object to their starting premise. Perhaps they really think it is okay to encourage mothers to serve vegetables to their families so that other women won’t judge them as failures. But I don’t think that it is. In fact, I think it is very damaging to manipulate women’s sense of self-worth as a mechanism for improving their children’s nutrition. Why not suggest a better educational campaign to highlight the positive effects of better nutrition in general and the consumption of vegetables specifically? Here I think their marketing backgrounds become especially significant and tap into a long history of advertising’s manipulation of gender norms and women’s self-image to boost the sales of particular products. It’s not a coincidence that their research was funded by Pinnacle Foods. This study was about finding a new marketing strategy, not improving the health of children. I am not so naive as to think that there is anything unusual about this — this is the whole point to marketing, after all. But there is something especially infuriating about this study and the way it speaks to women. The message is not being buried in an advertisement; it is being directly stated.  The women to whom these researchers are speaking are shallow, self-absorbed, and immature. They might as well have told mothers that they would be perceived as thinner if they served their children vegetables. Or their husbands would find them sexier. Perhaps then the absurdity of the premise—feed your kids healthy food so that other women will like you—would be clearer. The ends do not justify the means. So, with all respect due to each of them, if and when I serve veggies for dinner, it’s not going to have anything to with what they or anyone else thinks of me.

Featured image caption: Housewife The MET Breuer. (Regan Vercruysse/Flickr)

Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.