Cathy's World: Land of the fat

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   March 12, 2003 at 10:34 AM
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LOS ANGELES, March 12 (UPI) -- I've never had much patience for obsessive dieters. You know the type: Social X-Rays (as Tom Wolfe famously called them in "Bonfire of the Vanities") who pick at salad (no dressing) and skinless chicken and describe dessert as "sinful."

On the other hand, I do wish I weighed about 10 pounds less. But with my 3,000-calorie-per-day food intake (hey, at least I admit it!) I should be thankful I'm only overweight by Vogue magazine standards, not medical ones. Luckily, I'm a fidgeter.

Still, you'd have to have your head in the sand -- or, more likely, rooting around in the back of the fridge looking for a snack -- not to know that excess fat is a serious problem in this country.

More than half of Americans are overweight and nearly a third (31 percent) are obese, twice as many as 20 years ago. (A 5'8" person is overweight at 170 pounds; obese at 200, according to government charts.)

Worse is the fairly recent situation of fat children, now so common that "adult onset" diabetes is no longer described that way.

Even if you don't keep up with statistics, you only need to look around at the mall to see there's a problem. The question is: How did the land of the free become the home of the fat?

Greg Critser's new book, "Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World," (Houghton Mifflin, $24) is a meticulously researched, smartly written, frequently appalling screed of an explanation.

Critser traces the history of today's obesity epidemic all the way back to Earl Butz, President Nixon's secretary of agriculture, whose free trade farming policies led to domestic corn surpluses (and thus a market push for high-fructose corn syrup, the unctuous main ingredient in all those 32-ounce sodas) and cheap imported palm oil, a fat so highly saturated growers used to call it tree lard.

Then there's our current habits of inactivity, constant snacking, excessive TV watching, elasticized waistbands... all combined with the nefariously clever strategies of junk food purveyors.

"The idea is simple: accessible but not convenient," a Krispy Kreme manager tells Critser about the franchise location. That is, the store is easy to get to from the street, but just enough out of the way so that customers arrive intent on buying at least a dozen doughnuts in order to justify the trip.

But the root of all this, Critser argues, is that beltless pants and unlimited refills are just symptoms of modern American culture's general lack of boundaries and self-control.

Upper-middle-class boomer parents, who lead the public discussion, are loathe to talk about limiting children's diets or making them exercise lest kids end up anorexic or with damaged self-esteem.

But anorexia is quite rare compared to obesity, which disproportionately affects those who can least afford it. The further you go down the socioeconomic scale, the fatter you probably are.

"Anorexia really began in the mid-19th century," Critser told me recently, over a bowl of delicious Vietnamese chicken soup (low calorie, reasonably portioned) in one of his favorite downtown Los Angeles restaurants.

"There's a Dickens quote to the effect that there's nothing as loud as the silence of the fasting woman," he added. "But I just haven't been convinced that a frank discussion of obesity and weight issues causes anorexia. Feminists and liberals have transformed a legitimate medical issue of the poor into identity politics for the affluent, which I find the worst kind of narcissistic behavior."

Critser also has little patience with right-wing complaints about nanny state meddling.

"Those libertarians who have all kinds of problems with government programs about obesity are going to be crying their eyes out 20 years from now," he said, warning about increased taxes and social burdens caused by a fat and aging population.

And he'd like to see preventing obesity become as fashionable as, say, preserving the environment.

"We ought to be as passionate about over-consumption of food as about cutting down the redwoods," he said. "We need to make the case that it's morally wrong to eat too much, and I think we've underestimated how focused we can be once we put our minds to it."

Obesity is a pervasive public health problem in the same way smoking once was, and certainly attitudes have changed about tobacco. But Critser sees the campaign against unsafe sex as a better analogy.

"Yes, there will be some uncomfortable moments for people in discussing it, but there will also be a greater social good," he said.

Just as public schools used to check students for head lice -- and still do occasionally check their hearing and vision -- so, Critser argues, should they alert parents if a child is overweight. "Sending home a BMI" -- body mass index -- "with the kid is a perfect social cue."

Critser noted that a couple of schools tried that last year and faced a public uproar, even though the reports weren't paraded around the classroom but sent home in sealed envelopes.

"We shouldn't stigmatize the person," he said, "but we should stigmatize gluttony." It may be hard to tell the difference, but Critser knows from personal experience that a little stigma can work wonders, at least eventually.

At school, he was called Blimpboy and Skipper, after Gilligan's chubby pal. Critser only took off the weight a few years ago, after a man yelled "Watch it, Fatso!" at him for opening the car door into traffic.

"I could not fit into any of my clothes," he recalls in the book, "even the ones I got at the Gap that were labeled 'relaxed' (which, come to think of it, I wasn't.)"

"On the one hand he's a dick and I'd like to find that guy now," Critser recalled. "On the other hand, the social shaming worked."

For the record, I've known Critser for years, and I'd never have called him Fatso, even if he hadn't been in charge of assigning me articles at the magazine where we both once worked.

He wasn't so big you'd be scared to sit next to him on an airplane, but at 5'6", he did weigh 205 pounds. Now he exercises daily (hiking, yoga, horseback riding) and even at 170 (technically overweight) looks quite fit and trim.

"Well, I WISH I could agree with you," he said skeptically. "But this is a good example of how our class talks about fat." In other words: denial.

"I probably should lose another 15 pounds," he said. "Am I going to go on a diet? No. But I do, on a daily basis, upbraid myself. Which I think is important."

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