Thursday, July 26, 2007

Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again

July 25, 2007, 9:30 pm
Is Bigger Really Better?

It was only a few years ago that I first noticed an obese person in a commercial. Then there were more. Now, like obesity itself, it has gotten out of hand.

This disturbs me in ways I haven’t fully figured out, and in a few that Ihave. The obese man on the orange bench, the fat pharmacist in the drugstore commercial and all of the other heavily larded folks being used tosell products distresses me. Mostly because the message in all this is that its O.K. to be fat.

As we know, it isn’t.

It isn’t, mainly, because of the attendant health issues. The risk of several cancers, crippling damage to joints, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and sleep apnea — a much under-publicized life-threatener — defies sense.

So why is it so prevalent in our culture and in the media? Could it be that the ad agencies — always with our best interests at heart, of course — are making use of the appalling fact that obesity in the United States has doubled and rapidly redoubled to the point where one-third of the population is imperiled by gross poundage? Fat people, the commercial-makers may feel, are entitled to representation. What’s wrong with that?


Anything seen on TV is, in a subtle and sinister sense, thereby endorsed. I’ve done shows with Ku Klux Klansmen, Mafiosi and Nazis (both domestic and Third Reich). Despite my being not overly cordial to them, always a nagging little voice in me wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with having them on at all. Was it somehow a tacit endorsement, just putting them on television? After all, there’s that sign in the variety store that sits atop the pyramid of schlocky plastic vegetable slicers: AS SEEN ON TV! Just being seen on the tube . . . it’s gotta be good.

Commercials are not the only exposure that obesity gets on TV. It is by no means a rarity on the wonderful Judge Judy’s show when both plaintiff and accused all but literally fill the screen. I guess a nice person would not point out that Jerry Springer’s guests and audience frequently bring to mind (particularly for those of us from western states) a herd of heifers. But there it is. I’ll try to be nicer.

Television comedy, in particular, has become an equal opportunity employer of the gigantic. It seems as if nearly every sitcom has a requisite fat, sassy black lady (or man) or a fat, avuncular white Uncle Jim large enough to absorb the scripted fat jokes. I have yet to see one of those Comedy Central shows with multiple standup comics that doesn’t include someone the size of the Hindenburg. Frequently the comic is black or Hispanic — the two groups, according to many studies, currently bearing the brunt of the obesity plague.

These comics’ routines invariably center on their weight vs. their erotic life — the abundance of former and lack of the latter. When being huge is a jokester’s bread and butter, remaining so becomes a professional necessity as well as an encouragement to over-inflated young would-be performers eager to emulate them. They see that fat is funny. And funny is money.

(Fat jokes, of course, have long been standard in comedy: When you get on a scale, does a card come out saying, ‘Please, one at a time?’” Long ago, that sort of thing risked offending only a few.)

When I was a kid in Nebraska and the eagerly anticipated (and wildly politically incorrect) freak show came to town, it starred such favorites as The Cone-Headed Savages; He Has Two Noses; Alzora, The Turtle Girl (if you’re still out there, Alzora, please write to me!); The Pig Man; and, for an extra quarter and behind curtains, something called Is It A Man Or A Woman?

And, of course, the ever-popular Fat Lady. Dora, in this case. The idea that Dora’s rotundity would be a novelty rare enough that one paid to look at it is sad. (Today, in a two-block walk, I can safely predict seeing at least one woman who could put Dora out of business.)

In the playground, did you too have the nasty little ditty beginning, “Fatty, Fatty, Two by Four”? In Nebraska, we had the song –­ but no one to torment with it. No one was fat. Sounds incredible now, doesn’t it, in the midst of our current tragedy.

More recently I found myself in Tiananmen Square, and a Chinese guide pointed to a bus unloading what seemed to be half a mile away.

Americans, he said.

How can you tell from here? I naively asked.

Fannies, he said, making the wide gesture with both hands.

Every summer Irish girls come to Montauk, L. I., to work. Some years ago, when obesity was getting into surge mode, I asked two of them if they noticed any difference in America from year to year. They sort of giggled and conferred, not sure if they should say it, but then they did: “You are so huge!”

But it’s no longer true that Europe and Asia can point to America and smugly sing, “Fatty, Fatty.” We’ve exported our revolution with our fast-food chains. Japan now has obese children for the first time in its thousand-year history. Mad for anything American, young Japanese have made McDonald’s (charmingly: “ma-ca-do-naru-doz”) their second –­ if not first –­ home, partaking there more than once a day.

But fear not: we still have the lead. And in a future column, perhaps, we can explore just why an ever-growing portion of America’s population treats the body as if it were a Strasbourg goose.


Blogger Mariellen said...

I really think you should read a couple of books about why dieting doesn't work. Gina Kolata and Paul Campos have good ones, but there are others, you can Google for them.
If you've never been fat or had to struggle with your weight, how can you sit there and pass judgment? What gives you the right to pass judgment? I don't know who died and made you the grand poohbah of the universe, but it's none of your business what anyone looks like, whether it be too fat or too skinny. A person's worth is not based on their size, it's based on the fact that they are a human being, and as such deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of size, color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other reason that human beings differ one from another and are singled out for hatred and bias.
Fat has little to do with health problems, research proves it, but the cosmetic/diet/big pharma industries would go out of business if people were more concerned with health than with size. After all, not all women can look like Kate Moss, even if they all starved themselves for the rest of their lives. And why should they have to starve, just to try and meet some unrealistic, unattainable ideal? Of course, keep women striving to meet that ideal and they won't have time to bitch about the fact that they make less money than men for the same job with the same qualifications, and they sure as hell won't have time to lobby against the men who want to take away our right to control our own bodies. I'm sorry, I have a life to live and enjoy and I don't have the inclination to put it on hold while I try to meet some unrealistic goal that society says I need to meet. I'm too busy enjoying life to worry about what some number may mean to someone who doesn't know me and hasn't walked a few miles in my shoes.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...a provocative column. I'm struck also by mariellen's reply. It's obvious that her feelings are hurt by the column, and I certainly understand that. What makes general obesity in the population a problem, however, is that we all have and have to pay for health insurance. I don't think anyone would seriously dispute that diabetes is very strongly linked with obesity. What gets me a little upset (having been overweight until about age 18 and still working at it more than a decade later) is that I'm obligated to help underwrite an enormous host of medical problems for many people when those problems are largely preventable. It's one thing for us to agree that cancer is terrible, it strikes anyone, etc. etc. and so we should all divvy up that cost so that no one goes bankrupt by the treatment. But it's quite another when those of us who stick to a reasonably strict regimen and get regular exercise still have to cough up a lot of money to treat problems for those who make no serious efforts to prevent them (and here I am thinking of members of my *own* family, who much prefer to eat a lot and go out with a bang to actually resuming any sort of exercise routine). Those who have tried dieting and failed have my sympathy. But those who aren't trying make me wish I could exclude them from the health plan I have to subscribe to.

4:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By golly, Dick's right. Let's not show those shameful fat people on T.V. anymore, even though they exist in real life, and there are lots of them. Let's wall them off in a camp so that we can isolate them for the freaks they are. How dare people who don't look like the ideal or norm show themselves in public? Actually, a LOT of fat has to do with health problems--very heavy people have a greater risk of diabetes and high blood pressure--but isolation won't make them go away. Also, we stigmatize people who have any meat on their bones, too. Why can't we show people, just as they are, without meeting an ideal? Just because that would be a reflection of life?

8:30 AM  
Blogger greenpagan said...

Look at the upside of obesity. If there’s famine the fat people will outlast all the supermodels…

9:52 AM  
Anonymous NK Shapiro said...

What a way to make a fool of yourself.

Study after study has confirmed that fatness is no more controllable by the individual than height or shoe size. Nor does it have much in and of itself to do with health.

Do you honestly think, given how socially and occupationally ostracized fat people are, that they'd choose to go on being fat if losing weight and KEEPING IT OFF was really an attainable endeavor?

Why not take a look at why seeing fat people represented as part of the normal run of our society makes YOU so uncomfortable?

Everybody eats, and yes, food is weirdly fetishized and commodified in our country, but to blame and shame fat people is a misunderstanding of their experience and a shallow and truly laughable attitude for you to take.

I had so much respect for you until reading this.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how the article speaks of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazis and the inappropriateness of speaking to them. I would hazard that these very self-same groups would be delighted at the views expressed by the article writer. Oops - I just called him a right-wing nut. Well let me explain - a cardinal principle that each of these groups enshrine is the nature of perfection and how a policy of eugenics is appropriate to achieve this perfection. Compare this viewpoint to the obvious attitude expressed by this writer - obesity is an imperfection and therefore needs to be rooted out (with derision for now and perhaps more genetic methods later). I rest my case. Reading the comments and how the very popular notion that obesity and the resultant link to chronic disease conditions sap the health plan of "righteous" participants - I was wondering whether the self-same commenter happened to have a mother, brother, sister, uncle or aunt who was a tobacco smoker, autistic, or in any way or shape different from him/her. Why should we the "unaffected" public have to pay for his/her disability ? In summary I would encourage the writer of this article as well as the learned authors of studies like that which appeared in the New England journal to ask themselves a question. Why oh why are you so angry and contemptuous of your fellow man. Isn't this against everything you are taught as a child and as a believer in whatsoever religion you may be a member of. Please look inward and find an answer tho this before spewing your ever so cleverly disguised prejudices at the rest of us.

11:05 AM  
Blogger fleetstreet said...

Mr. Cavett is one of my favorite people and always will be. He speaks as he sees, as do the other posters here. Reasonable people should be able to find the happy medium in this and so many other subjects, if only we are willing to be just that: reasonable.

My father was very overweight and died of a heart attack at 59. But his two older brothers were skinny all their lives and died at considerably younger ages of health-related causes.

I have sympathy for all who are fighting the weight battle, I among them, but much can be gained in good health (and lost in pounds) by avoiding processed foods, fried and fast foods, anything with corn syrup, sodas of every sort, grossly over-salted foods -in other words, fake foods.

You *can* learn to eat well, you *can* put walking and weight training into your life, and - at any size - you can be a role model for everyone around you. I know because I'm doing it myself - and, boy-oh-boy, does it feel good in so many ways!

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You *can* learn to eat well, you *can* put walking and weight training into your life, and - at any size - you can be a role model for everyone around you. I know because I'm doing it myself - and, boy-oh-boy, does it feel good in so many ways!" Guess what? I do all of these things, minus the weight training. I eat natural foods, walk daily, limit my sugars. My blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol are all within normal to optimal ranges, my joints all work very well....yet I am what the medical community terms morbidly obese. I *choose* to be this size, because I refuse to live my life struggling to fit into a mold that society has set for me. I am what I am, and I attempt to live my life without imposing myself on those around me in negative ways. Yet, people like Mr Cavett - fat bigots who can't see past the end of their noses- look at people like me and immediately put me into the category of "Unhealthy, unattractive fat people who are a scourge on our society". Yes, there are fat people who are unhealthy and should lose weight. There are also skinny people who should be healthier, too. Mr Cavett himself struggles with mental health issues - should we marginalize him for that? When you spend so much effort attempting to put people in categories to determine their value in society, you show more about yourself than those you are examining. Mr Cavett, you should spend a little more time in self-reflection, and less time casting around judgments such at this.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Demandra said...

Oh, for the love of God. Want to know why there is so much focus on obesity in America? Because we are the dumbest industrialized nation on the earth with a penchant for profit at any cost. Mainstream media spouts "scientific evidence" and because we lack the ability to think critically, particularly on issues where collective hate reigns, and have an appalling lack of understanding of the sciences, we swallow it.

Try reading this science blog: Sandy Szwarc does an excellent job of breaking it down for those who didn't pass 8th grade biology. We saw the same collective, irrational hatred towards gays supported by the medical community. Now, it's bashing the fatties. We feel justified with our knee-jerk, hate-filled response to the sight of said fatties (in previous times, insert "darkies" or "faggots") because we cling to the industry of science as a rational justification (because freaking out on people based on their appearance is ok if the justification sounds right, right?).

If you're spouting "health care" costs, you're ignorant of the reality of the health care industry. If you're spouting "health crisis" you've never cracked an actual medical journal or done any scientific research yourself. If you're not examining the odd offense you feel at the sight of fat folks, you should join the Klan. Seriously. They love the cognitive distortions that support collective hate.

Why, why, WHY is it that people completely shut off their brains when it comes to this issue? Normally intelligent, enlightened individuals become utter morons in the face of fat. It's insane. The misrepresentation of research, the circular logic, the intense corporate influence, the irrational hate and loathing. My god. It's just so obvious. Critical thinking isn't a skill you should shut off at any point in time. For the love of god, think, think, THINK.

3:34 PM  

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