Calibrating motherhood

Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston, Merin Oleschuk

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Mothers’ foodwork is a site of significant social scrutiny. In a context of heightened concern over children’s eating practices, mothers are often deemed personally responsible for ensuring collective well-being through the work of feeding children. Those who are seen to “fail” in this endeavor – e.g., by feeding children processed foods – often encounter severe social stigma. While previous research has shown how mothers attempt to distance themselves from the gendered and classed figure of the “bad mom”, we suggest that this is not the only scrutinized figure regulating mothers’ foodwork. Drawing upon qualitative interview and focus group research with mothers in Toronto, we show how mothers work to distance themselves from two opposing figures: 1) the uninformed or uncaring “McDonald’s Mom,” who makes poor food choices for her children; and 2) the overly controlling or anxious “Organic Mom”, who obsessively monitors and manages her child’s diet. While mothers are judged harshly for their perceived lack of knowledge, care, and resources in their foodwork, we show that a perceived excess of these very traits is also a source of stigma. We demonstrate how mothers work to stake out territory between “inattentive” and “overbearing” through ongoing practices of calibration: the process of performing socially desirable food femininities by actively distancing oneself from polarized extremes (Cairns and Johnston 2015a). The chapter contributes to feminist scholarship on the gendered and classed evaluations of maternal foodwork and sheds light on the endless (and near impossible) work of performing the “good mother”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFeeding Children Inside and Outside the Home
Subtitle of host publicationCritical Perspectives
EditorsVicki Harman, Benedetta Cappellini, Charlotte Faircloth
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781351800730
ISBN (Print)9781138633865
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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