Over the last two years, I’ve been living in the center of the obesity maelstrom.
The newspapers (digital and analog) are filled to the brim with words of doom and destruction due to the “obesity epidemic” gripping our fair land. Charts document our steady increase in girth, doctors solemnly intone about the health crisis on the horizon because of the expansion of our waistlines, policy makers wring their hands over yet another pathology of the impoverished classes, and fitness coaches snarl at us to put down the junk food and get our asses in gear.
The media touts the newest approaches to weight loss and fitness, each one claiming to be the ONE that will solve the problem. Eat this, avoid that, cut here, staple there, lift, lift, lift and run until you drop. We tune in to The Biggest Loser, a show that uses a play on words to simultaneously reward and mock the newest panel of contestants.
As an obese American – my BMI is currently 30.2 – I encounter this every day, if not every hour. It is a damning onslaught, the message “You fucking face-stuffing PIG, you should go DIE! (Though the diabetes will get you first, heh.)” coming through loud and clear. To listen to the cacophony is to be told that every significant problem now facing the nation would not exist if only you weren’t fat. Global warming is due to you. The explosive rise in health care is due to you. The failing competitiveness of American industry is due to you. The cost of gas is going up because your car takes more fuel to move your fat butt from point A to point B. Organic food is failing to catch on because you won’t stop eating processed crap. Airplane flights are unbearable because you are too big for the seats. You obese people are bigger and therefore cost more and therefore waste more and therefore are harmful to the rest of us.
So I get all depressed and shit and click over to a food blog like Serious Eats to cheer up and am confronted with the mantra “Fat is Flavor.” Fat is celebrated. People who try to eat lower levels of fat, carbohydrates, protein, calories, etc., are anathema – Don’t you understand the need for divinely delicious food? The dishes are delicious, there is no denying that. They are also rich, decadent, over-the-top, using only the finest ingredients, eschewing whatever reviled food item the current cook obsesses about, extolling cheeses from here, cured meats from there, cream, butter, coconut oil, heirloom potatoes, and so forth, in serving sizes to make your eyes, and pants button, pop. Comfort food taken to the nth degree.
“Foodie” culture. Food availability. The two are integral parts of a long term change in food consumption habits in America. All kinds of food service shops, from the local taco stand to fine dining, have opened up in places they didn’t exist before, presenting a marvelous array of eating options. The ability to purchase and eat prepared food outside of the home has never been greater. Food stores and markets have also proliferated and stock a far wider variety and volume of food than could have been imagined 20 or 30 years ago. Accompanying these new emporiums of consumption has been a decidedly savage class war that demonizes the products consumed based on who buys it and at what location. The “fast casual” market segment of sandwich shops, for example, is fine to eat from, but the traditional “fast food” segment is a national tragedy, never mind the actual nutrition labels.
Two very conflicting messages are present with just a few clicks of the mouse – eat well and stop eating.
The change in the physical organization of our living environment is a silent element to the fat tide, the undertow that keeps dragging us back into the emerging patterns and habits of consumption. More desk work, less industrial labor. More commuting, more car travel, less walking and transit. More dual working parents, fewer schools with PE classes, more fear-mongering and sensationalized crime reporting and discouragement to be outdoors. Declining wages, declining family time, increased work loads, the lure of “2 for $2.99” meals that can be picked up on the way home. Advertisements blare from the TV, the tablet, the PC, the radio (Huh, does anyone actually listen to the radio anymore?), telling us of the newest, sweetest, spiciest, hottest, coolest, gotta-get-it-now product at this shop or that grocery store.
Cap it all off with body image obsessions that defy reason. Thigh gap. Ripped abs. The fit body is the superhero body, and nothing less. Athlete replaces ordinary and ordinary is now “skinny-fat,” included in the obesity zone by virtue of observable body fat.
America is a land where the reality is people with increasingly sedentary lives have easy access to large amounts of very cheap food, and the population’s bulk is increasing at the same time as ideal body types are steadfastly marching into a dysmorphic fantasy of what we should look like. If you have enough money, you can buy your way out of opprobrium, but the cognitive dissonance remains.
Welcome to Fat Land Living.