Why Do We Care About Proper Nutrition For Women Only When They’re Pregnant Or Breastfeeding?

Focusing on nutrition for women only in pregnancy and breastfeeding makes her just a womb. As diet plans for weight loss? Just a body.

September 1-7 is National Nutrition Week. Let’s take this opportunity to look at the challenges that Indian women face when it comes to prioritizing their health, and their access to nutritious food. Here is a look at the common stereotypes, and practices that contribute to poor nutrition for women in India.

Consider this very common scene in an average Indian household seen traditionally, and even today when families gather together –

It is dinner time, and the men of the household are sitting around in the living room. After dinner is ready, they are ushered to the table, where the table is set, and piping hot food is served to their plates until they proclaim they are full. There is a woman in the kitchen making hot dosas or rotis or whatever it is, that needs to land fresh from the stove to the men’s plates. If there is another woman in the family, she is busy serving food to them and ensuring they have enough refills of what they like. The women sit together to share the leftovers after the menfolk have had their fill, sometimes hardly having any of the vegetables or meat for themselves.

What we think of when we think of nutrition for women

When we think of nutrition for women, we tend to think about it only in two contexts – either nutrition for women in pregnancy and during breastfeeding, or diet plans for weight loss. Both of which are for the benefit of a patriarchy that favours men.

So we pay attention to a pregnant or breastfeeding mother’s diet to ensure the baby grows well, making sure she eats everything she needs. Or we are obsessed with dieting in women, to lose that “excess fat” that “makes her look too plump” – all about the male gaze and complicated beauty standards.

Here are a few of the top keywords found when searching for a suitable one about nutrition for women, that proves this point.

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This skewed POV of nutrition for women is internalized since childhood

Our children – boys, and girls alike, grow up watching this everyday routine and they internalize this as “normal”. Beyond infancy and toddlerhood, these rules are also applied to the girls in the family, while their brothers (if any), grow up hearing how they must eat more to be “stronger”. If you think this is an exaggeration, check out this popular Tamil nursery rhyme – Dosai Amma Dosai. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JWRV7jpZnw) Loosely translated, the song essentially goes, “Appa eats 4 dosas, Amma eats 3, The older brother eats 2 and the baby sister eats 1”. We inherently assume that men and boys have a bigger appetite and reinforce such stereotypes from an age where a child can barely talk.

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Fasting as a measure of devotion is considered women’s burden

Most of us have fond memories of festivals and Maa Ke Haath Ka Khana. But have we given a thought to how some regressive practices such as vrats or fasts on such festive days apply only to women?

I do not know of a single fast observed by Indian husbands, to ensure their wives have long lives. Why do we assume that all women have lower appetites and will by default be willing to observe day-long fasts while continuing to cook food and serve the rest of the family?

But most Indian women will tell you they do it willingly, and out of love, when asked about it. This is another example of conditioning where women themselves eventually start believing that observing such fasts is a show of devotion towards their spouse.

Pregnancy suddenly puts her on a pedestal

In the past 7 years of my married life, I have either been pregnant or breastfeeding. All these years, I have been magnanimously “exempted” from observing such fasts. As I gave it a deeper thought, it struck me how women’s nutrition suddenly gains focus during pregnancy. Even then, the common practice is to send a woman to her maternal home for pregnancy and postpartum care. Because of course, only her parents will take care in the way she needs it. Is it too much of an ask from her husband and his parents to support her care, even in such a crucial phase?

Also, while it is true that both these phases require a woman to be well-nourished, why do we focus on her nutrition ONLY when she is possibly carrying the family’s heir? Are women not entities beyond their wombs, with their nutrition being a fundamental right, just like the rest of the family?

More than half of Indian women are anaemic or otherwise poorly nourished.

The results from NFHS-5 (National Family Health Survey) show the impact that such an approach has had on our female population. An astonishing 66% of Indian women suffer from anemia, something that is mostly avoidable if only a nutrient-rich diet is followed from childhood.

Making a conscious change in how we think of nutrition for women

How do we shift from this narrative into one that considers Indian women worthy of taking care of their health and nutrition, at par with the men in their families?

For starters, let us claim our place at the dining table. A generational change that I have consciously made is to eat as a family, along with the men and children. We share the entire portion as per our appetites, without gender being a factor in how much or what we eat.

Another small but powerful change that I practice at home is to frequently include food that I love and enjoy in our meals. For the longest time, my mother would cook lemon rasam and bhindi only when my father was traveling for work. I have always known this but have never wondered why. Only after I grew up, did I realize this was because my father did not like either of these, so she just never cooked it when he was around, despite them being her favourites.

Such changes, though uncomfortable to implement and talk about, matter heavily in the larger picture. Maybe, these tiny steps will pave way for the 66% to come down drastically in a few decades.

This #NationalNutritionWeek, do your part in ensuring that the women in your family and circle, take nutrition as a priority and not as an option.

Image source: YouTube/ All Out Ad

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About the Author

Jayashree Ravi

An engineer turned SAHM of two who wants to be known beyond that. Passionate about words, parenting, making eco-friendly choices, feminism and lifelong learning. read more...

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