Fat land : how Americans became the fattest people in the world (9 page)

BOOK: Fat land : how Americans became the fattest people in the world
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now came a whole slew of "new" cuts. A person who wore, say, a size 34 waist and 32 length in a traditional jean could now pick from at least four options: regular fit, easy fit, loose fit, and baggy fit. The unspoken reality of all these new cuts — something everyone knew and everyone winked at — was this: The new cuts were in reality simply bigger sizes, without the bigger numbers.

By the '90s this trend was joined by a number of upstart purveyors of so-called street fashion. Taking their cue from the baggy pants-prison garb of the nation's rap stars — many of them not just fat but morbidly obese — such enterprises prided themselves on making "fat" into "phat." Phat, they would proclaim, was really about empowerment — about rejecting mainstream notions about power and fashion and conformity. "We about a buncha obese playboys!" proclaimed the rap star Big Pun in 1999. It didn't hurt that the same attitude also sold millions of records.

But the same attitude was also a tremendous enabler. Consider Big Pun's story. Pun — his real name was Chris Rios — had by the mid-1990s risen from obscurity in the Bronx to become one of the most promising of a new generation of Latino rap stars. Along the way, his girth had ballooned, from about 220 in the early 1990s to about 400 in the mid-1990s. The man who discovered him, the rap star Fat Joe, saw an advantage to that. "A lot of Latinos and blacks are overweight, so they could relate to this guy," he recalls. "A lot of people think that beautiful is trim and fit, but it ain't. It's what's inside. That's off the rack." The record company that eventually signed Pun, Loud Records, used his round image in their promotions, retooling the slim Michael Jordan figure in the Air Nike ads to one featuring a short round body.

By 1998 Pun had ballooned to 500 pounds. His records were hotter than ever. As typically happens with a young, charismatic star — one thinks, for example, of John Belushi — he was soon surrounded by yes-men and yes-women. The yes-men and the yes-women brought him not drugs but food. "They got him whatever he wanted," one family member recalls. "If we went out to


McDonald's, it would be fifty dollars' worth of food for the whole group, and about twenty of that would be our portion of the bill, and then he would be eating our food as well." A friend recalls how those catering to Pun buttressed his sense of denial about his obesity. "People would tie his shoes for him, or push him around in a wheelchair when he didn't feel like walking, or buy him clothes and hide what size they were," she says. "If he was a size ioxx, people would buy him three to five sizes bigger, so he'd never know how much he was gaining."

And gain Pun did. By the time he was twenty-nine, when he died of a massive heart attack, he weighed 698 pounds. "That was a big shock," says the same family member, "because everyone in rap is always dying from violence and then we're told that he died because of his eating!"

At the suburban mall, the enablers were not rap and baggy pants but rather clothes made with Lycra spandex, a postwar synthetic that the aspirant classes had long considered declasse to the extreme. No longer. Thanks to the health club boom and the incessant marketing of Olympic stars who wore tight spandex during their televised athletic triumphs, everyone thought they could wear the stuff. Particularly the middle-aged. It felt so . . . good. And didn't it kind of make one look . . . slimmer?

Well, no. At least not if one were from beyond the American mall. Consider the experience of Johannes Hebebrand, a professor of physiology from the University of Marburg in Germany. Hebebrand, whose specialty is obesity and its social origins, was visiting New York in the late 1990s as part of a series of studies he was conducting about social stigma and its psychological effect on the obese. His operative notion was that since fashion magazines and movies had so glorified thinness — and denigrated fatness — that fat people would be less likely to present themselves as fat in public. Such was his thesis.

But stepping off the plane and into the nation's shopping malls, Hebebrand was "floored" — what he was seeing was exactly the opposite. "I mean, here were all of these women, wear-


ing this kind of tight black stretch thing!" Hebebrand recalls. "They were huge — their bellies and their derrieres were almost comic-book-sized! I was shocked because in Germany people who are that fat just don't go out. They don't go out because of the shame. But it wasn't the case here in the U.S."

In recent years, big sizes have become an increasingly necessary part of any clothing company's survival strategy. Large sizes account for a growing segment of the total clothing market, rising from about 7.5 percent in 1995 to about 9.4 percent in 2000. Sales of women's sizes 16 and up have risen steadily since 1997, with a 22.2 percent jump between 1999 and 2000. Moreover, the new big sizes are no longer confined to the plus-size sections of major department stores. The Gap, for example, recently nudged up its selections to a size 16, as has the ultra-trendy sportswear label FUBU. Tommy Hilfiger has plans to launch a plus-size line. And in mid-2001, the edgy retailer known as Hot Topic, with 291 stores nationwide, opened its first store for sizes 14 to 26. The firm estimates that about 30 percent of young women in the United States wear a size 14 or bigger. "This is one of the hot new target audiences," says Candace Corlett, a partner with WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm in Manhattan. "The population has grown heavier; the insurance companies are starting to redefine the weight groups; and we seem to be becoming more and more accepting of large people. It's almost the polar opposite of where we were in the '60s." That is, when we weren't so obese.

There are, of course, good and rational reasons to expand the clothing choices available to young people. Youth is a time of great changes in body size and shape; sometimes outsize garments are not a matter of style but of necessity. It is also a time when vulnerable egos can become warped by the inevitable teasing that comes with being overweight or obese. Having stylish clothes like everyone else can alleviate some of that social strain.

But we would be fooling ourselves if, as a culture, we came to believe that such accommodations come without a price, and perhaps a sizable one. Science, history, and common sense all hold


that physical reminders of one's excess girth are critical when it comes to controlling further weight gain. One of the first things that experts in the science of weight loss recommend to patients who have lost weight, for example, is to get rid of their old, big-size clothing. The presence of such old clothes simply makes it easier for a person to gain weight; there is something comfortable to go back to. Researchers in the science of satiety — the study of when someone feels full and satisfied with a meal — point to something else. A slight tug at one's waist seems to perform two vital weight-maintaining functions. The first involves the so-called stretch factor, the brain-signaling that occurs when one's stomach is stretched by food intake. Those signals tell the brain when one is satisfied, telegraphing the message that one has eaten enough. A tug at the waist — something absent or diminished by spandex or extra-large-size pants — seems to accentuate that signaling.

Then there is what might be called the theory of the belt, which holds that people will watch and maintain their weight better if they are warned that they are gaining weight by clothing that makes them slightly uncomfortable. Although largely the product of accumulated experience and folk wisdom, there is now a small but important body of science upholding the theory. In the early 1980s, John Garrow, the dean of British obesity studies, looked at the post-weight loss experience of a group of obese patients who had had their jaws wired. Garrow wanted to know if the patients could be prevented from regaining their weight through psychological reminders, or "cognitive thresholds."

Garrow's obese patients who had maintained weight loss had reported that they now wore smaller new clothes. Garrow proposed a test. He fitted half of his subjects with a 2-millimeter-wide nylon waist cord, one tight enough to make a white — but not red — line when seated. A control group was not fitted. The results, he wrote, were "striking differences between the two groups ... in the weight change after the wires were removed." In the control group, the predictable weight gain had commenced


full throttle — at about 1.8 kilograms a month. In the group with the waist cords, however, there was no significant weight gain. Surprisingly, the belt effect seemed to be a lasting one. Five months after the unwiring, the waist cord group had gained significantly less weight than the control group, and the average difference between the two groups "thereafter steadily increased."

Which brings us, full circle, back to our friends at the Olive Garden ...

About two months after he first heard from Larry, the customer who had complained about how small all the chairs were in his local Olive Garden restaurant, Ron Magruder, the chain's president, received another call. It was Larry again. He was calling in response to a follow-up query from one of Magruder's staff. The staff had been busily making sure that all of the chain's restaurants now had at least three chairs that could accommodate the more amply endowed and had wanted Larry to report what he thought of their efforts.

Well, he was happier now. Indeed, Larry's message was entirely conciliatory — even thankful. But it wasn't because of the bigger chairs. It was because of the old small chairs. Largely because of them, Larry explained, he had been spurred to finally confront the extent of his weight problem. Why, in the seven weeks since he had spoken to Magruder, he had lost almost fifty pounds.

That tight little chair — that had been what Larry needed after all.


Ifthe 1980s saw the traditional custodians of caloric intake — parents, school, church, and society — go on an extended vacation, the period also witnessed another change. This one took place among those charged with stimulating the nation's physical culture — those whose job it is to promulgate caloric expenditure. The reasons were, as the experts liked to say, "multifactorial," ranging from taxpayer parsimony to denial to outright political dogma. One thing was certain. Increasingly, when it came to public physical fitness — the kind of national venture that JFK so successfully advocated in the early 1960s — the nation was (often literally) out to lunch. Physical fitness? That was an individual pursuit, hardly something on which to waste scarce public resources, let alone actually promote.

As president of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Arnold Schwarzenegger had found this out the hard way. Appointed in 1988 by President George Bush, the action movie star had taken up his charge, initially, with all of the fervor and passion one might expect from a man who'd literally remade himself in a cramped California gym only fifteen years before. Spending enormous amounts of time and his own money,


Schwarzenegger had undertaken one of the most ambitious efforts ever at the council: the creation of a national youth fitness consortium. State by state, the Terminator had met with governors and local leaders to found small chapters of "fitness activists," who would then advocate for increased support for state and local physical fitness programs. It was, as Hollywood agents like to say when they get a star to agree to a project, a "way to put a motor in it," the "it" in this case being state-by-state fitness reforms. To highlight the achievements of his state councils, Schwarzenegger had also lobbied for a national fitness day, with colorful festivities planned at state and national parks. On his better days at council meetings Schwarzenegger would even lapse into gemiitlich reverie, recalling his summers spent at outdoor sporting camps in his native Austria.

But as his term wore on, the gemiitlich moments grew rarer and rarer, until the Terminator was a notably un-gliicklich man. In almost every endeavor at the council he had encountered not just resistance to change but often outright insubordination. "I just don't understand and will not accept that it will take you six months to get me the minutes of the last meeting!" he barked at staff members at one board meeting. "What is it here?" There were other troubles. He suspected the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), which the council paid to promote its famous fitness test, of not doing its job on the information front. And on his notion for a national sports festival he had got nothing but static. As John Cates, Schwarzenegger's PR adviser at the time, recalls, "We had thirteen lawyers telling us why we could not have a Great American Workout! The Forest Service people moaned about having so many people tromp around in the bushes. And the Parks people couldn't talk about anything but insurance liability." In other words, Washington, D.C., was treating the Terminator just as it would anyone else.

The last indignity came one day in late 1991. Schwarzenegger had successfully signed up governor after governor in his youth fitness campaign, and had come to Little Rock, Arkansas, he


hoped, to sign up one more. As a warm-up he had arranged to address members of the Arkansas state assembly on the issue. The speech had gone well. Later that day he was scheduled to meet with the state's young governor to get him to join the crusade. So Schwarzenegger and his entourage arrived at the governor's suite, and began to .. . wait. And wait. Soon Schwarzenegger, recalls Cates, "was really getting anxious." After an hour or so Deputy Governor Jim Guy Tucker appeared and promised that the governor would be there in "just ten minutes." But ten minutes came and ten minutes went. Much later, and after watching a parade of lesser politicos walk upstairs into the governor's office, Schwarzenegger left. Arkansas and Bill Clinton would be the only blank spot on Arnold's list of gubernatorial fitness czars.

Clinton's snub perfectly mirrored his own generation's feelings about public fitness programs. To them, PE, even when one was thinkin' about tomorrow, was just not that important.

BOOK: Fat land : how Americans became the fattest people in the world
11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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