Sep 29, 2007

The Skinny On Things: Weight and Income and Portion Sizes

Well, here we go again. Miss Xa Xa from Amuse Biatch, sent this article about an Anti-Anorexia campaign starting in fashion week in Milan. Click here at your own risk, for the photo of the anorexic model is not pleasant to view. And Big Fella sent this spoof of America's Next Top Model made by the British comedy team, French and Saunders. Incredibly, Dawn French, who plays Tyra, is a big, hefty woman. I am certain this casting would not have occurred before Tyra's very public issues with weight.

Which brings me to this week's weight rant: Weight as a class issue. This has been the case since time began.

In the days of yore when the middle and lower classes literally worked their butts off morning, noon, and night, and when everyone walked everywhere, and hauled stuff with their hands or on their backs (including the kitchen sink) people were hard pressed to keep any weight on their bodies. Only the rich (and those with metabolic diseases) had problems with obesity. In fact, due to an inordinate consumption of fatty proteins the upper classes frequently suffered from gout. They also had bad teeth, thanks to a high intake of sugary sweets.

The working class stiff had to make do with soups and stews made from potatoes, leeks, and bits and pieces of cast off-meats like offal and pig’s jowls. Thus, in previous eras, a deliciously plump and well-fed woman was the envy of all, and men regarded her as an object of desire. In fact, some primitive cultures today still revere obesity as a sign of wealth, health, and fecundity. There’s nothing better than a few layers of fat to stave off times of hardship and famine!

The Industrial Revolution changed this unnatural order of things, and the middle class began earning enough money to provide comfortably for their families and live sedentary lives. Obesity was no longer the sole province of the rich. In addition, photography was invented, and everything went to hell in a handbasket for those who had reached Rubenesque proportions. Much to the ordinary woman’s dismay, photos made plumb cheeks look plumber and round limbs look chunkier. The same lens that made dumplings of ordinary women, caressed every bony angle of a long, attenuated body and high-cheekboned face. In front of a lens, skinny women like socialite Babe Paley looked elegant and the normal-sized woman looked ordinary. Never mind that Babe's lungs must have been black as coal; and that she died of cancer. When it comes to issues of looks and weight (notice I am not speaking of health) it's the external package that counts, not the internal life.

So with the populace eating white refined flour and sugar, and living lives of comfort, and riding everywhere in autos and buses and trains, folks in general began to chunk up. Aside from designer clothes and fabulous jewels, how were the rich to physically distinguish themselves from these bourgeois upstarts? Through diet and exercise, of course. Whilst the middle classes were busy working, sometimes two shifts a day, and mothers began to join the work force in droves, the upper echelons, especially the trophy wives, began to skinny down drastically. During the 70’s bony society gals were known as X-Ray wives. Today we call them normal.

One can imagine the sheer effort of will it took to reach a size 0 in an era when size 10’s were common, or ordering the most expensive foods at the most exclusive restaurants and leaving your plate half full. Such profligate waste is generally unheard of among the lower and middle classes, who invented the doggie bag out of sheer necessity. Below is an image of Helen Gurley Brown, an x-ray woman and promoter of 'thin is in'. As long time editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, she helped to force feed the skinny body/big boobs woman as the new feminine ideal. The best adjective I can come up with to describe Helen's past and current weight is 'skeletal'. She might be wearing Pucci, but I think the total look is highly unattractive.

Back to the topic. Along with lack of movement and exercise, the giantification of food and portion sizes in grocery stores and restaurants has contributed to our collective weight problems: huge lunch and dinner buffets; platters that groan with fattening foods; supersized portions of french fries and half pound or quarter pound burgers; and giant sized candy bars are common fare for the average Joe. Couple these inexpensive but huge portions with the affordable meals one can purchase in grocery stores, like mac and cheese, or pizza, or spaghetti, and the lower classes are on a constant CARB and sugar high.

But good food is expensive, and often not available in small food markets in inner cities. Whenever I go on a diet, I know my food bill will double. Fresh produce and lean cuts of meat are costly, and creating healthy meals from scratch is time consuming. For a family with two working parents (some of whom work double shifts), or a single parent who works in a low wage position, preparing and eating a nutritious meal is an impossibility.

So I posit, and I think many nutritionists would agree, that obesity and poor diet, poor literacy skills, and poverty are intricately linked. I cannot imagine a poor parent coming home from a double shift telling the family that they're going to the gym to work out for an hour. I cannot imagine that after a long work shift, a parent has the time to take the bus to a grocery store in the suburbs in order to find the quantity and quality of fresh produce required to feed the family a healthy and nutritious meal. I cannot imagine that this family could afford such food even if it was available in a neighborhood market.

So while Paris and Nicky and their ilk nibble on fresh asparagus and work out in their privileged clubs on the latest elliptical machines, their maids are clipping coupons for foods that can be stretched with cheap carbohydrates, like rice, pasta, and potatoes.

Sadly, we also live in a society that promotes 'obesity hate'. Fat is the one vice that is visible; smokers, gamblers, and alcoholics can generally 'hide' their vices from view; but over eaters cannot hide their weight gain. I am amazed that a complete moron (like Sally Ann Voak) is allowed to write that fat people are lazy or unhappy. One assumes that a person who makes such a statement sees only the external package, and that for them the internal life (goodness, kindness, compassion, and pursuing one's dreams and talents) has little meaning.

Now, that's a sad indictment of our society if ever there was one.

Disclaimer: I am no nutritionist or historian, so please don't read my statements as fact. This is just my personal take on a subject that interests me.


charmingdinnerguest said...

I don't think that poor people are doomed to eat cheap carbs and be fat. I think it's a matter of family and culture.

I was at the checkout line behind a man and woman and I was looking at their groceries wondering what was so different.

The difference was that they had purchased only fruits and vegetables. They may have had packaged items but I don't remember seeing any. (Maybe a package of tofu but nothing more.)

I remember thinking that they must be new to this country and thought their shopping was a good way to do it. Unfortunately, it didn't rub off on me.
I wonder if they still hold on to those shopping habits.

Ms. Place said...

I must admit my bias is showing in this post, which is all over the place. I work with clients who lack transportation, simple nutritional knowledge, and food store chains in their neighborhoods. Many barely have money left over after paying housing costs. It's a fact of life in most inner cities that people are stuck purchasing food from tiny stores that lack a variety of fresh produce.

But you are right; family and culture play a big role in what you choose to eat and how you prepare food.

Linda Merrill said...

I agree with your assessment that a nutritious diet is more expensive - and time consuming. I did Atkins a few years ago - and definitely doubled my shopping bills. Bread and starches are cheap.

HGB looked ridiculous in that photo. A cadaver trying to look like a teeny bopper.

I think the thin obsession is another way of keeping women down. Hollywood stars are forced to lose weight to the point of being skeletal - or risk losing a part. Even the ones who claim to fight the "thin" regime still end up pretty slim - am thinking of Kate Winslet and Jeanine Garofolo. And the minute they get too thin - everyone jumps on them. I ran across some snarky celeb website today and there were images of Kate Hudson the other day walking down the street. She is a naturally slim girl with a very flat chest. Very ballet like. And all the comments were about her looking like a boy and needing to buy boobs. Yet, when she gave birth - everyone commented on how long it would take to lose the weight.

So, in addition to your comment about fat was once a sign of wealth (having plenty of food and not having to labor for it)and now thin is a sign of wealth (time to work out and eat only the best foods) I also think that the more successful/wealthy/famous the woman - the thinner she's expected to be or she'll suffer the consequences.

Women can't win. Men have more leeway - just look at television. Jim Belushi and that schmoe on "King of Queens" both of whom have less than good looks and physiques and yet their tv wives are slim and beautiful. Neither actress would have a job if they gained too much weight - but the guys are raking it in.

Sorry to rant - very personal subject for me!

oldbear said...

Hi Ms Palce, it is sad teh way lrge parts of our society treat those of us who are hefty..errgghh fat.

It is also true its much harder on women than men to be fat.

A lot of it is the fault of those of us who are fat, but anyone who would make comments to or form judgements about, someone they dont knwo welll would be an ignorant and inconisderate fool for doing so.

Thanks for expressing a more progressive and empathetic view of the overweight! :-)

cb said...

this is an issue that - well, it goes deep with me. i have loads of food and body image issues, all of which i'm working on. but the way women are held to a standard that my body type can NEVER be (i will never be tall and boyishly slim; I will always be short, with hips, boobs and ass, no matter how much I weigh) - it really gets me down. the cruelty people feel comfortable with in commenting on overweight and obese people really hurts. a lot.

i used to live in DC, and worked with a number of black women who lived in very bad neighborhoods (anacostia). we worked in georgetown, and they would take the bus up to the Whole Foods store to buy produce; the markets in their part of town sold old, bad produce. i learned this myself; my former supermarket was also the one near a very bad part of my current city. i ran in one day to pick up some staples, and all i found were blackening onions, limp greens and mushy potatoes.

it is definitely related to money.

i wish people would stop seeing weight as a character flaw. i'm a pudgy girl, but i'm also smart, kind, funny, interesting, generally fabulous. and because of my own problems, which are also society's problems, i am convinced that no one will ever look past the pudge to see those things.

it's dismal but true.

this is partly why i loved Tim Gunn's show so much - he really did seem to want to bring out the inner beauty and have THAT reflected in the wearer's fashion (and not have fashion be the substance of the woman's persona).

Doralong said...

I agree that it is in large part (no pun intended) a class issue. A working parent at the poverty level and using food stamps is not likely to be shopping at the produce department at Whole Foods.. And agreed, most inner city markets in poor neighborhoods look quite different that the shops you see in the suburbs. And I'm not talking architecture.

Cat =^,^= said...

Excellent post - I think the major point I do get out of it is -- let's all watch out for judgment - don't be judgmental - you don't always have all the facts.

Cat =^,^= said...

I posted my thanks here but - could you send me the name / email of the person who sent to me - her envelope was misplaced as soon as they arrived... I am assuming you can get / have my email address... Thank you!