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The middle of the middle-class fights for social reputation through healthy food

While parents in the upper part of the middle class are better at seeing beyond the norm of living healthily, parents in the middle of the middle-class struggle most to maintain and defend their reputations by providing healthy and nutritious food for social events at their children's schools.
Iben Aamann
Photo: Uffe Weng

"It's simply those in the middle of the class hierarchy who have struggled to appear morally responsible and healthy, and to take responsibility for what is being served at public events in the schools," says Iben Charlotte Aamann, PhD Fellow at Roskilde University.

From the start of the school year in August until the Christmas holiday in December, Iben Charlotte Aamann followed three different school classes, and she participated in numerous social events and observed what food the parents contributed to the collective buffets.

She selected four mothers from the three school classes as cases. These were a mother with a long education with credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree, two mothers with an intermediate education with credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree and one mother with a short education with credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree. All the participants in Iben Charlotte Aamann’s study are from what one can characterize as the middle class.

Based on Iben Charlotte Aamann’s general observation studies in the three school classes, it seems that the parents from the middle of the middle class feel most judged, and that they are therefore the parents who pay most attention to appearing to be good parents, including by providing healthy food for the buffets.

"It is the intermediate levels that are trying to live up to the norm of healthy living. As I see it, this is not only because of anxiety that their children will be overweight in the future. It is also an effort to defend the family's social reputation. This leads them to strive to appear healthy and therefore morally responsible” explains Iben Charlotte Aamann.

The parents’ need to enhance their social reputation has been reinforced by the fact that, in recent years, parenthood is no longer simply a private matter, says the researcher.  

"Parenthood has become a public issue, and today an “arena” has been created, where parents increasingly monitor each other's parenting techniques.  Parents are no longer only required to ensure that their child is well-rested and has a school bag packed to bring to school. They also need to establish friendly relationships to ensure the child thrives in the classroom, in order to thereby optimize their learning” says Iben Charlotte Aamann.

Prejudice and lemon moon cakes

One might imagine that the higher up you are in the social hierarchy, the healthier you live, and the more efforts you make to provide healthy food for the social events held at the schools. But this is not actually true, according to Iben Charlotte Aamann’s research.

"I discovered that the most privileged mother baked a lemon moon cake for a social event. She was very engaged in the process and in the last few days leading up to the event, she spoke a lot about the lemon moon cake, and how much butter was in it. It was an identity project for her” says Iben Charlotte Aamann.

She also explained that she only discovered later that the most affluent mother also brought a green salad to the buffet, but that it had not become an identity project in the same way as the cake. The lemon moon cake became a symbol that the privileged mother had so much mental surplus that she was beyond concerns about what others might think about her health and thus her moral responsibility.

"If you are privileged, then there is no need to consider the moral aspect of being healthy. Privileged people can apparently dispense with such concerns, and she did” explains Iben Charlotte Aamann.  

The mother with the short education ended up baking apple crumble for both children and parents for a Christmas party.

"It was cheaper and it tasted better, but it was not in any way an identity project for her to make this delicious apple crumble. The mother with the short education seemed not to be interested in this issue of reputation that preoccupied the mothers in the middle and upper part of the middle class.  The most important issue for her was the time she spent with her boys preparing the apple crumble” says Iben Charlotte Aamann.

Powdered cake cream and class consciousness

Although Iben Charlotte Aamann’s study entailed monitoring the parents, she noticed several examples where children also experienced food as an expression of where in the class hierarchy one is situated. One example was when a family had to make a victoria sponge, and the parents had bought powdered cake cream. Their son was not very happy about this, and he told his mother that he was disappointed that she had bought it.

"The boy had already acquired a perception that some food was ‘fashionable' to eat, and some was not. In principle, he was correct that powdered cream is an artificial product that is not necessarily particularly healthy. But it is also hugely morally charged, when the boy strongly distances himself and says that he will not eat the food” she says.

Iben Charlotte Aamann’s conclusion is that the parents' reputation is at stake at any social event, and healthy food is a way to mark your social status for the group in the middle of the middle class.

"There are always these efforts to appear to be a good parent. We don’t talk about it, but the issue is ubiquitous. If you are in the upper part of the hierarchy, you play a part in defining what is regarded as good behaviour. You can also choose to completely ignore it. If you are in the middle layer, you try to avoid stepping outside these boundaries because no one wants to be labelled as having a low social status” concludes Iben Charlotte Aamann.

Further reading in 'Women, Gender & Research' from University Press of Southern Denmark.