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Underwhelmed

Big Issues

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 2/23/2000

When you live in Manhattan, as I used to, you can end up with a very warped sense of class structure. Generally, people there are very wealthy (stockbrokers, famous actors and singers, Yankee blue bloods, etc.); or they're upwardly mobile and part of a cultural elite, even if they have to to struggle to pay their exorbitant rent (magazine writers, architects, TV-commercial directors, etc.); or they are truly destitute (the homeless, or the might-as-well-be-homeless residents of public housing). Sure, the borough has its firefighters, cops, teachers, secretaries, and bus drivers, but given the cost of housing, these folks often live far away from where they work. So they are relatively inconspicuous compared to the beautiful people. You have to leave Manhattan and go to the Bronx or Brooklyn to meet large populations of working- and middle-class people.

Coincident with their general upper-crustiness, wealthy Manhattan people also tend to be very thin. Male and female, old and young, regardless of race or national origin—the people who attend foreign films or frequent jazz brunches or throw their weddings at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Grill are, for the most part, slender, fit, and dressed in clingy or closely tailored clothing. Once again, you'd have to visit Spanish Harlem or Alphabet City or get out of town entirely to see what the rest of the country actually looks like.

Moving to Maryland was a kind of virtual crash diet for me. Whereas in my New York social circles I had been, at 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds, rather on the high side of acceptably average, in Maryland I felt suddenly skinny. I remember the first time I went to a movie here at one of the big suburban multiplexes and stood in line at the ladies room behind six women—none of them over 40, I'd guess—who each looked to be about 250 pounds.

Maybe I was just projecting, as a therapist might say, but the sight of those women made me unbearably sad. I remembered my own youthful struggles with weight—in the beer-soaked, pizza-fed, no-exercise chaos of my life right after college, I'd blown up to about 190 pounds—and I remembered how much of that struggle had to do with the deep unhappiness and poor sense of self-worth I was harboring at the time. I suddenly felt awash in a sea of collective female self-loathing.

But in a way that I didn't understand then, my response was colored by class considerations. In my private high school, literally 10 percent of my female classmates suffered from anorexia or bulimia. In college, I'd heard the feminist analysis of these afflictions—that they were an exaggerated response to the pressures on young women to be thin and beautiful. The counterpoint to this analysis was the notion that being labeled "fat" was part of the larger patriarchal conspiracy to keep women imprisoned in unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. I never read the Susie Orbach book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, but I was casually familiar with its thesis: Obesity, like anorexia, is a response to sexual inequality. I became aware of the fat-acceptance movement, and although I always had mixed feelings about its aims—it seems to me that there's a fine line between a healthy self-acceptance of your weight and an almost suicidal unwillingness to change it—I certainly understood its adherents' desire to fight the stigma and ridicule fat people face, especially fat women.

Among the educated, the politically aware, and the wealthy, the pressure to be thin clearly does play a large role in women's lives. But that's hardly the whole story. In "Let Them Eat Fat," a scary but insightful article in this month's Harper's, writer Greg Critser argues that our current American epidemic of obesity "is preeminently an issue of class, not of ethnicity, and certainly not of gender." [Editor's note: Critser was the author of the Aug. 26, 1998, City Paper cover story, "The Fat Man Sings."]

Critser rehearses some of the statistics we've been hearing, although not heeding, for years now: Twenty percent of all Americans are obese by current medical standards; at least 25 percent of all children under 19 are overweight or obese. But it's poor and minority children who disproportionately tip the scale. The shocking obesity rate for Mexican-American children, for example, is 27 percent for girls ages 5 to 11, 23 percent for boys. In a recent study of poor rural whites in an eastern-Kentucky town, 33 percent of the children were overweight, and 13 percent were obese. Wearing today's hip-hop clothing, the baggy jeans and oversized shirts, these kids may look absolutely fabulous, but chances are they are suffering from any of a half-dozen dangerous disorders, including sleep apnea, deformed bones, gallstones, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

In the article, Crister says that there's another major problem with allowing the feminist analysis of fat to eclipse the class issue. A nationwide study found that 44 percent of African-American women weigh more than 120 percent of their recommended body weight, yet are far less likely than whites to perceive themselves as overweight. Results like these are often reported in the press with a positive spin: Isn't it great that black women don't suffer from the self-hatred and bad body images that torment white women? But what sounds like a positive message to the elite is ultimately a deadly message to the less powerful. As physician Dr. Judith Stern puts it in the article, "[F]or every one affluent white anorexic you create by 'overemphasizing' obesity, you foster 10 obese poor girls by downplaying the severity of the issue." Sounds like a wake-up call, to both political/cultural critics and epidemiologists everywhere.

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