If Jonathan Swift traveled to the United States today, he would surely ditch the little guys, the big guys and the horses and just feature Gulliver being squashed flat by enormously fat people.
I drive across the US every year and I can report that there’s been a significant upswing in the blubbergraph. In early October (in a 1990 Dodge 250 with five-speed and a Cummins engine) I drove east to west across America along Interstate 40 — much of the western portion is the old Route 66, famed in song and story — which runs from Asheville, NC, to Nashville, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque and on through Arizona into California.
Every truck stop, every diner, every mall offered its tumid diorama of human hippos. We’re talking every age group here — starting with humpty-dumpty adolescents and ascending through the decades to 50-year olds, gigantic, stertorous and gray of countenance. My friend Wilbur who runs a trailer park in South Carolina told me there’s a woman in one of his double-wides who’s up around 400 pounds and can’t get through the door even if she wanted to. She sits and watches tv all day and when she passes, Wilbur will have to get a giant can opener to rip open the side of the trailer to winch out her remains.
In Eureka, my local town here in northern California, a couple of years ago they had to get new scales in the clinics and bigger MRI tubes. The Pentagon could probably make a buck or two for the taxpayer, selling torpedo launchers from decommissioned submarines for MRI conversion. It’s not quite what the swords-into-plowshares movement had in mind, but that’s America for you.
And it is America. I was just in Paris and in the course of a week Alya I saw precisely one person — a young woman — who could be classed by a European as very plump. In America she’d be still dreaming of going to ballet school.
Of course there’s a lobby that says it’s all prejudice by the slim crowd, and fat people are perfectly normal — just a bit heftier. Websites devoted to this posture prate on unpersuasively about natural heftiness and the vile slurs of the diet industry. You read a lot about fat women being sexy, though not much about the kindred allurements of fat men — a discrimination Titian and Rubens divined centuries ago. I remember picking up a magazine in the lefty book store in Pike Place, Seattle, a few years back called Fat Dykes and the Women Who Love Them and it’s true, on my observation, that a very fat Lesbian will not pine away for lack of slim young baby-dyke admirers of her inviting corpulence.
In this lobby’s tactful thesaurus, “fat” is the unusable f-word, and the last-resort term, “heavy.” But the fat people I see across America don’t seem happy. Mostly they look beleaguered and sad as they chug on their carts down supermarket aisles pulling fat-enhancers off the shelves. An 18-year old young woman waddling along, soda in one hand and a bag of cheetos in the other, would be cheerier if she was downsized by 50%. The diabetics on their go-karts look absolutely wretched.
How did it happen?
Blame the obvious suspects: the fast food chains and the food industry whose chemists figure out the precise mixes of sugar and salt which will addict their customers.
Blame the decline of physical education in schools. Blame couches and tv sets. Blame the shriveled vistas of opportunity, the shrunken possibilities of political change, well understood by poor people, particularly the young.
Blame restaurants for serving monster portions. In Seligman, Arizona, I had breakfast in Westside Lilo’s Café and the huge elk-hunter draped in camo next to me at the counter devoured a breakfast that entirely covered a large dinner plate to a height of about four inches. Outside was his mighty one-ton truck with chromed shock absorbers gleaming in the morning sun, in which he would spend the next eight hours wolfing down chips and swigging diet Cokes.
Ten years ago you could go to a national park and encounter plenty of people hiking in the more remote portions. These days you’ll see no one off the major trails and most of the visitors having a brief amble near the parking lots. The black bears in Yosemite recently voted — we’re talking statistical levels of bear-break-ins here — the minivan their car of the year to break into because it’s what many Americans haul their kids around in, and the vehicles are full of potato chips and kindred snacks the bears have learned to enjoy.
The Pentagon is getting alarmed. The good news for the Armed Forces has been the surge in unemployment. In her piece on CounterPunch.org last week, Susan Galleymore quoted Curtis Gilroy, a senior Pentagon official, as saying recently that a 10% increase in the national unemployment rate generally translates into a 4-6% “improvement in high-quality Army enlistments.” For the first time since the creation of all-volunteer armed forces in 1973, according to Bill Carr, Deputy Undersecretary for Defense for Military Personnel Policy, “all of the military components, active and reserve, met their number as well as their quality goals.”
In other words, the lack of jobs in the civilian sector, means no option for many young Americans other than enlistment.
The bad news for the Pentagon is that many would be enlistees are not “high quality” and have to be turned down because they are too fat.
The Army Times ran an article last week by William McMichael citing the latest government stats on America’s fat crisis. One third of the 31 million Americans between 17 and 24 are unqualified for military service because of “physical and medical issues.” Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon’s director of accessions, told the Army Times that “the major component of this is obesity. We have an obesity crisis in the country. There’s no question about it.”
The Pentagon gets its data from the US government’s Centers for Disease Control. The CDC says that 22 years ago 6% of all 18-34 year olds were obese. By 2008 that number had swelled to 23% — one out of four.
In 1987, according to the CDC, about 1 out of 20 18-to 34-year-olds, were obese. In 2008, 22 years later, almost 1 out of 4 was considered to be obese.
“Kids are just not able to do push-ups,” says Gilroy. “And they can’t do pull-ups. And they can’t run.”
Increasingly, young Americans are getting too fat to fight, which is just as well — because the antiwar movement is in terrible shape, probably because yesterday’s peace marchers are all too busy on weekends jogging, careening along on their bikes or going to yoga classes.
The Pentagon now issues waivers for at least the semi-obese, no doubt reckoning that Spartan training will slim them down enough to be capable of some sort of useful military activity, though not running up and down mountains in the Hindu Kush.
Michele and Barack Obama have been making rather sotto voce remarks about America’s appalling diet and ensuing weight problems, albeit tactfully since the Fat Vote is in the millions and the Food Industry’s political purse is bulky too.
But how does Michele’s organic vegetable garden weigh against Obama’s pick as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack — a wholly-owned property of the food corporations?
Hence we get the tragic-comic spectacle of a political battle over a health “reform” bill which may make it easier for poor Americans to cover the costs of treatment for Type 2 diabetes and the health consequences of consuming prodigious amounts of high-fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile there is no effective political opposition to federal subsidies for the farm policies which have fattened America into macabre absurdity. Cigarettes and booze — both the targets of ferocious public service campaigns — lag far behind obesity in economic consequence: Roland Storm in one study reported that obesity is “associated with 36% increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 77% increase in medications, compared with a 21% increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 28% increase in medications for current smokers and smaller effects for problem drinkers.
Though the theory has been downgraded, we used to learn in school that the Roman Empire collapsed because of lead pipes. (Actually the lead-pipe menace was well known by the time of Augustus, though lead lined cook pots probably did wreak a dire toll.) Half a millennium after the final overthrow of the Roman Empire by the diet-conscious Ottomans, the American Empire is distended in a vast acreage of fatty tissue, its recruits too vast to fit into the most forgiving uniforms, the job of fighting given perforce to drones dispatched by chair-bound warriors 7,000 miles from the battlefield, but half a block from McDonalds, Carl’s Jr and the other Enemies Within.
Footnote:. From the UK, Peter Simmons comments: “But it's really not such a recent development; in the 60s I bought a consignment of used denim jeans from the US, planning to repair and recycle them (this was before the days when jeans came pre-stressed and pre-faded) but when I investigated I found that they were all massive, typically, two Brits could get into one pair of American jeans, some were so large we thought they had to be joke clothing for a circus or something. We used the massive expanses of denim to make lots of different items; bags, floor cushions, sofa covers… I guess what's new is that it's spread to the majority of the population now. Cheech and Chong had a word for them, lardasses.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.