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Health, Poverty

‘What we eat, how we eat, how much, it’s all part of our class identities’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets Maxine Woolhouse to talk class and food.

26 May 2022


How did your interest in class and food come about?

It's actually rooted in some standout childhood memories around food. When I was a teenager, in the mid-80s I went round to a school friend's house and they offered me mayonnaise. I'd never had it, I hadn't even heard of it. I came from a family that had salad cream. Mayo's quite mainstream now, but back then it was almost a bit exotic. It suggested you had travelled a bit, that you had more of a refined palate. And then the other thing I remember is, as a much younger child, I got invited to another friend's house for tea. We had fish fingers, chips and bread and butter. I immediately made a fish finger sandwich, and my friend's Mum told me off – she said it was very rude. I remember feeling kind of humiliated… that really did upset me. 

The bread is clearly there to make a butty, whether it's fish or chip.

Yes! I guess the point there is that certain foods symbolise some kind of class distinction – whether that's because they are expensive, hard to get hold of, a bit exclusive. There's cultural capital. And then things around etiquette and manners are also very classed. It's obviously also very culturally specific: I'm talking very much a British perspective.

It's also quite historically specific… most people I know would have those stories about going to a friend's house and they've got proper Coke, or fondant fancies, and it's just different. Whereas these days, young people perhaps connect more online, so they might miss out on those experiences around food and class differences.

Absolutely. When I got into academia, I was initially interested in eating disorders, which are quite classed and gendered… perhaps not to the degree that the statistics suggest, but white, middle and upper class women are more likely to be diagnosed with something like anorexia. I quickly got more interested in everyday eating practices, those that aren't considered 'disordered'. I actually think that's a slightly false distinction, that strict binary between disordered than normal. But an interest in mundane eating practices, with a particular focus on class and gender, made me reflect back on some of those childhood memories, things that happened that made feel embarrassed or not cultured enough.

You've gone for the narrative, discourse analysis approach – is that largely because you saw those emotional themes, of blame and control, and thought that language was the way to really dig into them?

When we talk about food and eating, we are drawing upon culturally shared discourses. If you interview parents, mothers, there's a great emphasis on health. They're very keen to talk about how they have tried to make sure their kids have healthy food, and that's across working class and middle class mums. That's such a powerful and popular discourse these days, isn't it? It's part of your identity as a good parent or a good Mum.

It's presented as a bare minimum you can do really, isn't it? To ensure that your kids have a healthy diet?

Yes… I think you would be seen as a bad parent if you just said, 'well, I let my kids eat wherever they want'. But for mothers in particular, it's finding that balance – on the one hand, we've got this healthy eating discourse, but on the other hand, there's also a strong awareness of eating disorders, particularly for mothers of girls. When I interviewed Mums, I found they were trying to find this balance between wanting them to eat healthily, but also not coming across as too strict and placing too many restrictions on what their kids can eat. They didn't want to appear to have this punitive regime, this household where snack foods were too restricted. They thought that could encourage disordered eating – children having to be sneaky and hide what they're eating and be secretive. So for parents and perhaps mothers in particular, it's quite tricky terrain to navigate.

It's like parenting in a nutshell, isn't it? Control versus freedom. Food is just a quite prominent and regular battleground for that. 

Do working class parents in particular have to negotiate or resist those narratives?

If you're a working class parent, there's an awareness that you are culturally stigmatised. Often working class parents are held up as not good enough parents, you've got all those tropes around single mums on benefits, and there's been a lot of coverage of child obesity. Often when we see images in the media, they often focus on working class or poor families. Again, mothers in particular – it is known that they do most of the 'food work', of planning meals, shopping, preparing, clearing up after. So I think working class mothers are aware of that stigmatisation around their status and are keen to emphasise that they do try to feed the kids healthily. 

What we eat, how we eat, how much, it's all part of our class identities. We can construct class identities through our eating practices. For example, carbohydrate heavy meals are associated more with people on low incomes, because they fill you up quite cheaply. And then, obviously it's not true right across the board, but with other classes it's perhaps more about fine quality without worrying 'will I feel full after eating this meal?' Research suggests that with working class parents, one of their prime concerns is filling their children up – putting food on the table they can be pretty sure their kids will enjoy so they'll eat it, and then there'll be no waste, and that the child will feel full after they've eaten. Obviously, you're constrained by budget too.

And time? George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, talked about how pressures on the working class impact the food they choose. 'The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.

I think that would still hold today.

Probably more so in terms of the availability of kind of cheap and tasty, tasty foods. 

Yes, we talk about the obesogenic environment of the working class… there's a much higher number of fast food outlets in poorer areas. 

We're touching on the public health side here, and one of your papers caught my eye with the phrase 'apocalyptic public health'. What do you mean by that?

That research focused on the national child measurement programme, where they weigh and measure kids when they first start school, and then when they're just about to leave primary. What we can observe through analysing the policy documents around the programme was that childhood obesity was talked about in that apocalyptic terminology – 'the current generation of children, they're all going to die young'. We had a number of problems with it, but one is that at the end of the day, it's counterproductive. That kind of fear message doesn't tend to work in public policy. Also, there's this intense focus on weight as opposed to happiness, well-being, enjoyment, pleasure. 

So there are several things I probably advocate for in terms of policy. The first one is obvious – making sure that everybody has enough money to buy tasty, nutritious food, and that it is easily available accessible to everyone. The second is to focus more on pleasure, the enjoyment of food, and how that contributes to people's overall well-being and happiness, rather than food being seen as something you have to fight against, a battle, constantly watching what you eat. In countries where food is more family orientated, meals are not just about the food, but about families getting together and that social aspect of eating. 

I'm not saying that being very excessively overweight doesn't cause any health problems. But the link between weight and health is a contested area, yet it tends to get presented to us as if the two are directly related. Larger people can be very healthy and fit. I wish there could be more emphasis on the pleasure and the enjoyment that people can have from eating, without people being made to feel like they've got to be under surveillance all the time – always watching what they eat, thinking about the calorie content and the fat content and so on.

You've called it a 'grotesque discourse' around food. It's interesting that you're not saying that obesity isn't a clear public health issue, it's that we're talking about food in a way that is blaming and potentially just not effective anyway.

People feel shameful. Dr Sarah Gillborn, for the second study for her doctoral research, she interviewed mothers about the national child measurement programme. For the Mums in particular who received the 'overweight' letter, they felt really guilty, ashamed, thought they had done something wrong and didn't know whether to change anything because they didn't want to cause the child to have problems around eating, by encouraging self-restraint and that dieting mentality in children who are quite young. So it did cause them a lot of a lot of anguish and upset. In line with a lot of government policies around obesity, it's not only counterproductive, I think it's quite harmful to the children being weighed and measured. They're not oblivious, they're aware of it. I'm sure it's something that gets talked about amongst kids themselves at school.

I know your focus is mothers, but as a father I think my reaction to those letters was a bit more 'what are you telling me for?' I think just because they're growing in all sorts of ways when you get those letters, it's pretty easy to just think, 'well, they'll get taller and it will all average out'. 

Again in terms of fathers, I think the role is quite different at mealtimes… mine is basically the human dustbin, 'give that to Dad, he'll finish it off'. Not sure that's modelling good practices.

Again I'm making some generalisations, but fathers tend to do the more special events like the barbecue, the Sunday roast, carving the meat. 

But getting back to policy, the other thing that came to my attention recently is putting calories on menus. Again I think that will be counterproductive.

It's ruined going to watch Leicester City for me… do you know how many calories there are in a sausage and Red Leicester roll?

Exactly! And again it has a gender dimension. It's known that women generally feel less entitled to food than men do. They feel like they've got to exercise more self-restraint. There's this pressure to watch their weight and the calorie consumption, and that's a source of stress and anxiety for a lot of women – not just women with eating disorders, and again I think that sharp distinction is a bit of a misnomer.

In terms of class, there's two things here. One is that you do get an intersection of gender and class, in terms of self-restraint. It is, generally speaking, middle and upper class women that tend to feel that pressure more to watch their weight. And if money is tight, then doing the weekly food shop is a source of stress. I've got personal experience with this – when my kids were young, I was a single parent and was on and off benefits for some time. The first thing you want to do is make sure your kids are full – you're certainly not bothered about calories. On a tight budget, you're not going to opt for the salad.

In some ways, it becomes a target. On rare occasions you do get to eat out, say you're at Wetherspoons and you see on the menu 'the average adult needs to consume 2000 calories a day', and you see something with 1200 for a fiver, you think 'that's good value'.  

It's funny you should say that… I remember going to Wetherspoons with my kids, and I ordered the five bean chilli, and my eldest son was freaking out: 'you can't have that, it says it's under 500 calories, this is more!'. 

It does just show that you can't necessarily apply the goals and targets of the middle and upper classes to what working class people are doing, in generating policies like that. You've got to talk to those communities about what they're looking to get out of eating. 

Any policies, around food or anything else really, has to be community-based: from the roots up, and involving people who have a stake in that community rather than imposing national broad stroke policies in a top down fashion. At best they won't do any good, and at worst they can be counterproductive and harmful.

You've mentioned intersectionality… I guess race is important too in relation to eating practices and body image? 

Yes. I've got a student, Oluwatoyin Bewaji, who's looking at Black women and body reshaping practices. She calls it thickspiration, the Coke bottle body shape. She's looked at YouTube videos that promote ways to get this body shape, analysed all the comments, and interviewed Black women about what they do to try and achieve this particular body shape. 

One of the interesting things is that the majority of the research on women and eating, dieting, exercise, eating disorders, tends to be with White women. There tends to be an assumption that the thin or very slim body is a universal ideal. But actually for a lot of Black women, that body is disparaged… it's a very white body, and they strive more for this curvaceous shape. 

What we eat is really culturally specific. It's a big part of our cultural identity. It's a powerful indicator of lots of things: class, gender, culture, race, historical period. It speaks volumes about who we are and where we've come from. 

'You are what you eat', that's a phrase for a reason. 

So to finish off, what would you hope to achieve from the Senate campaign?

We'd like to get social class as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. But also, addressing classism not just within the healthcare system, but also more generally all the things that impact on people's health – poor housing, lack of green spaces, lack of safe spaces, access to healthy food, all the things that allow or constrain us to live healthy lives. We need to reduce that life expectancy gap. For me, that will be the number one priority from the health perspective.