The Genuine American Epidemic
For example, I was at a Midwestern indoor shopping mall a little over a year ago. I don’t get out much and when I do get out, I am far too visually sensitive and observant for my own good.
Also, for whatever reason, I have the peculiar property of accidentally conjuring up absurdist theater, wherever I go. Perfectly ordinary Americans will start acting like the clowns of the Cirque Du Soleil if they get within five yards of me, particularly in public places. This is overstimulating, so I ration my shopping trips carefully. And every time I do go shopping, it’s a cultural adventure.
The most striking thing in this mall was the Obesity Epidemic, up close and personal. I simply could not believe how many people in their twenties and thirties were far fatter than me. They were everywhere from the moment I walked in the door to the Food Court until the solemn departure of my minivan from the parking lot.
None of the clothes in the stores were for fat people, though most were for twenty-year-olds. None of the clerks in the clothing stores were too big to wear the clothes. And several of the stores had “help wanted” signs. So I got the sense, while there, that something was radically out of kilter with America besides our collective weight and our politics.
What I saw in the shop windows was absolutely unrelieved Midwestern Dreadful. Something about the atmosphere of the Heartland can take almost any design that hardworking fashion designers spend hours pumping up with chic, hip, and with-it juice, and turn that design into dowdy, watery mashed potatoes.
The well-worn Adirondack canoe guide outfitters clothes (you know the brand names) looked like pre-shrunk, Volunteers of America, discards. The East Village Art Vampire style--acres of basic black casual with splashes of white or red--were like leftover battle banners from a bad samurai movie. And the old money, dressage horses, and 2 carat diamond solitaire pendant, clothing for rich tanned blondes, somehow came out looking as if one of daddy's thoroughbreds had trampled it in the mud, during daily exercise.
I was reflecting on this as I passed two very large women working the Information desk in the Mall. Their uniforms made them look like fraternal twin sisters. One was saying to the other, "Now I like myself, and I always do everything I can to make myself feel good."
I am always on the lookout for good personal fashion tips, and one of my sartorial difficulties is my 19 1/2" neck. I cannot wear 19 dress shirts with a tie and when I wear 20, I look like one of the Muppets. So when I did happen to find a young shoe store manager with my general build, I asked him confidentially where I could find a good tailored dress shirt in my neck size. He said he didn't know because his wife bought all his clothes.
Deflated by this, I walked to the other side of the mall where my companion was at another shoe store trying to buy clogs and struggling unsuccessfully with an incredibly passive aggressive shoe clerk--a 20-odd, straw haired, butterball--who clearly was very put upon by the number of boxes of women's shoes she was toting back and forth.
It didn't seem like I could be of much help, so I went out and stood by the children's play area under one of the open spaces to the upper mall level. There I reflected a little on the fact that it seemed like the only place a fat person could get hired to sell wearing apparel, was in the shoe stores.
The kids were having a high old time screaming and romping on gigantic Claus Oldenburg plastic replicas of breakfast food: sunnyside-up eggs, strips of bacon, link sausage, regular shredded wheat squares with blueberries, waffles with butter pats and syrup, and round banana slices. I looked up to the second level and saw a large sign. It read: The World Is Your Pork Chop.
Makes you think, doesn't it?
It is also the case that those of us who are obese are the target of unacknowledged hatred and prejudice from all in a culture (including the obese themselves) conditioned to worship and envy the maniacal anorexic counter image of Thin Thighs in Thirty Days. By implication, to be fat is a moral failure, and to diet is a moral struggle whose loss is a condemnation to the condition of eternally preterite.
Let's leave a paragraph there to underline how silly the prejudice is. And let's savor the silliness a little to encourage us to really think about what is a real problem. For, even if it were an individual moral problem for any one of us, it cannot possibly be an individual moral problem for all of us at once. And, actually, it is neither.
There is enough evidence to clearly indicate that, like so many problems of habitual dependence--cocaine, heroin, tobacco, alcohol--the chemistry of our own bodies fights against every attempt we try to make to break the addictive cycle, as if our somatic being viewed those attempts as a means of gradual suicide.
In most cases, for most people, the soma is stronger than the will, for the soma exerts its influence continuously, like a marathon runner, where the will is confined to the explosive force of a dash.
Nor is it the case that we can just all sit back, be fat, and tell ourselves we are happy. I, for one, have already graduated to Type II Diabetes, sleep apnea, hypothyroid, and hyperlipidemia.
And I can tell you that sitting back while pricking your fingers repeatedly to test your blood sugar, sleeping with an air pressure mask constantly galling your face, and trying to remember what pills are due when with what foods, in what one of your six small meals--as well as trying to be happy about it all--is as wearying an act of will as any diet you may have undertaken.
Being fat is just no fun, period. And the consequences cost everybody enormous amounts money for the extra medical care, and most of us months or years of happy living.
So it is a real problem, and a collective problem, beyond any individual problems any one of us may be having with it. That is the first thing to get established, because collective problems need collective solutions and, in this man's country, collective solutions are a political football in a game with no real rules and no real referees to blow the whistle on groin kicking, throat chopping, and eye gouging.
And there is a large and determined political cadre philosophically dedicated to preventing or destroying any collective solutions to any problem whatever, with the notable exceptions of jailing people at home and killing enemies abroad.
But the collective problem is really not about all of us getting fat. And it is not even really about more and more of us becoming addicted to something, even if it is only to our own bad eating habits. It is a deeper emotional issue about the Land of Plenty itself. Whenever lots of Americans do anything all at once, you can bet your life that there is someone making a lot of money behind it.
Looked at that way all the conventional wisdom about the causes, supersize fast food portions, time spent in front of computers rather than exercising, couch potatoing in front of the TV, ect. ect., are part of a larger issue. We are all, or all but all, not only "too fat", but also, everything we have and everything we do is "too much".
I look around my own house and am appalled by the merry-go-round of consumerism in which we are all trapped. I am constantly trying to get rid of broken down junk which is hardly more than two years old, most of it made abroad, none of it repairable or sellable, and much of it against local, state, or federal law to throw away.
My household has gone through at least six computers in the past ten years. The height of technology when I was in junior high school, in the early 1960's, was the fine Zenith portable AM/FM monaural radio, with the chrome plate over the speaker, the heavy-duty dial, the tightly and thickly hardwired transistors, and the rich case of thick black leather.
Forty years later, even after constant daily playing, of eight hours or more, for at least thirty of them, the leather was cracked and seamed and frilling away from the corners, but nothing else had ever required repair. Forty years and nothing needed repair. A year ago I gave it to my best buddy for his fledgling antique radio collection.
We have piled the weight on our middle, the useless broken junk in our house, and the endless debt on our credit cards for one reason only--to make people we have never heard of rich.
And when you hear of the millions they have contributed to the party of their choice--which just happens to be the party so opposed to collective solutions of collective problems--think carefully about where all that money came from, and how much you were able to buy with it, that is as good as my old radio.