Our Eyes Have Adjusted ...

Hundreds of messages and photos have arrived, in response to two previous items (one, two) about the transformation in the physical types Americans have gotten used to seeing in daily life. I will start with these two.

First, a reader who was raised in America but now lives in Australia (and has changed citizenship) sends this image from a record jacket. It's a scene from pre-WW II America:

An image from the Library of Congress, 'Race, 4th of July, 1941, Vale, Oregon' (the last stop on the Oregon Trail).  Note uniformity of physiques of children.


The people in this photo, if they're still alive, would now be in their 80s. Apart from the racial diversity, I wonder how photos of their grandchildrens' (or great-grandchildrens') school races would compare.

For what it's worth, Australia has its version of the same problem. The urban(e) young population of Sydney tends to be super-fit; Australians as a whole are getting very heavy.

2) A reader who is very familiar with Hawaii sends this cautionary tale:

In my youth [Baby Boomer era], poor people were skinny because they couldn't afford enough to eat.  That's part of how we recognized them.  Not so today.  If you see a skinny poor person today, you may think - as I initially do, fairly or not - that drugs are the explanation, not hunger... Obesity has become a matter of economic class - but with rich and poor having switched positions at the over-weight vs. under-weight poles.
A book published in 1971, by a Japanese-American living in Hawaii, tries to explain why Japanese-Americans have done so much better fitting in (and even dominating) Hawaiian society than on the Mainland.  One of his arguments is that Japanese people tend to have body types that approximate the Hawaiian ideal - which he illustrates, with a slender muscular man and a curvaceous but by no means Rubenesque beauty.  This was in 1971! 

Today it is an article of faith that Native Hawaiians are just naturally "heavy."  [JF note: the same assumption obviously is now made for Pacific Islanders as a whole.] This always amazes me.  The traditional Hawaiian queens were heavy, because they were not allowed to walk and they were fed all day.  But apart from that one exception, every Captain Cook-era engraving, every 19th Century photograph, and every 20th Century photograph up until the 1980s or even the 1990s shows the Hawaiians as slender, well-built people.  Obesity in Hawaii is an overnight phenomenon, something that has occurred within a few decades - surely someone has written about it; it is just so appalling that the mythology can so quickly spring up and condition people to believing the opposite.

As it happens, I know the book being referred to here. It is Jan Ken Po, by Dennis Ogawa. And the reader's recollection of an image in that book from 40-plus years ago is correct. Here is how the "local image of what is beautiful"  -- with the "slender, muscular man and the curvaceous but by no means Rubenesque beauty" -- was conveyed at that time. (Via a photo I took of a page in the book just now.)


More in the queue.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Ballpoint Pen Art: An Experimental Animation

"The film is a cycle of twenty drawings. The same paper is filmed, pages one through twenty, over and over again."


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In