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Newspapers and Ads Extol the Virtues of Housework: Shed Pounds, Beat Breast Cancer

The other day, while reading the homepage of Corriere della Sera (one of Italy’s oldest and most respected newspapers), a story caught my eye. I clicked on the link and my immediate reaction was a sense of incredible surprise and incredulity. The headline read, literally:

Housekeeping is the right job to protect oneself from breast cancer.

The photo that accompanied the article showed a woman in her kitchen, wearing yellow rubber gloves and holding a sponge and a spray. The article went on to say:

Good news for women obsessed about housecleaning and neat homes: doing six hours’ worth of housecleaning a day can reduce risks of breast cancer by 13%. Even women who engage in moderate physical activity, that is, who do three hours of gardening a day, can reduce risks of breast cancer by 10%, whereas women who only do 2 and a half hours of housecleaning a day – or prefer to use the same time to walk briskly – only reduce risks of cancer by 6%.

This reminded me of an ad from TOTAL cereal – dating back some forty plus years – whose headline infamously read: “Keep up with the house while you keep down your weight.” [fancy_images width=”640″ height=”820″] [image title=”TOTAL cereal – press “ESC” to exit”][/image] [/fancy_images]

The ad often pops up in online galleries with titles such as “vintage sexist ads” and “ads that wouldn’t be allowed today.” Well, the sexist implications of this vintage advertisement pale in comparison to the contemporary article by Corriere della Sera, which suggests that a woman should clean her house at least 6 hours a day every day in order to protect herself from breast cancer. A less sexist/more enlightened approach to the same story could have stressed the importance of physical activity and would have used housework as an example – along with running, walking, exercising, etc… Making housework the focus of the story and insisting on “six hours a day” seemed primitive at best.

To put things in perspective: in 2011, Italy was ranked no. 74 (out of a total of 135 countries) in the Global Gender Gap Report, well behind places like Uganda (29), Kazakhstan (49) and Bangladesh (69). Only 46% of Italian women participate in the labor force (compared to 80% of Norwegian women), they earn 20% less than men in the same job position, and housework is rarely divided. Italian women who have jobs outside the home still spend an average of 21 hours a week doing housework and Italian men get one hour and twenty minutes of leisure time more than women – on a daily basis.

According to this 2010 article from the Telegraph – “Italian Women ‘the Unhappiest in Europe’” – over 70% of Italian men do not know how to use an oven and 95% “have never emptied a washing machine.”

This focus on domesticity is not limited to Italy. Out of curiosity, I decided to search for articles based on the same story – new findings linking exercise to reduced risk of breast cancer – and to see if newspapers from other countries had different interpretations. The only French publication that ran a story about the new findings was the blog for Top Santé – a health magazine owned by Mondadori Multimedia (Italian) – and also went with the “housecleaning to reduce cancer” angle. Yet, the more tamed headline read: “Breast cancer: Two and a half hours of housecleaning a day reduces risks.” The article was accompanied by a photo of a mop, spray and a bright orange bucket.

Britain’s The Daily Mail, an extremely popular tabloid newspaper that has elevated celebrity bodysnarking to new heights, had the article:

Exercise can help cancer sufferers beat the disease and stop it returning

…accompanied by a photo of a fit woman, post-workout, with a towel around her shoulders. This had me positively surprised, considering their poor track record when it comes to stories about women. Problem is, The Daily Mail also ran the housecleaning story a few days later. My favorite comment from one of the readers: “Six hours of housework a day??? What house requires 6 hours a day?” Amen to that.


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