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.