Yes, There Were Fat People in the Olden Days Too

I will soon get back into "false-equivalence" coverage of the filibuster and similar depressing themes (on which there is a very good update at 'Poison Your Mind,' including a link to this incredible piece). So let's forestall that with something different: updates on "adjusting our eyes."

One reader says:

image001.gifI share your surprise at how we've re-calibrated the size of Jackie Gleason and Raymond Burr. But one actor of the period, who seemed fat even on the radio, was J. Scott Smart who played "The Fat Man," a radio detective series (late 40s) that produced one movie (1951), and he played the title role in both.
Here's a picture of him on the scale, a weigh-in that preceded each episode and that was carried over to the film. He's not in Henry's class, but he qualifies for the title of the series.

A little while later this reader wrote back:
But wait! I just listened to an old episode, and at the opening weigh-in he the Fat Man tips the scale at [only] 239 pounds. Not extraordinary today. And now I'm heading to the gym.
Another offers the counterexample of Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame, shown here in a shot apparently from the 1930s:


And about Jackie Gleason himself, whose relative svelteness even as the "fat guy" on The Honeymooners I had mentioned:

jackie-gleason-steve-mcqueen-between-scenes-of-soldier-in-the-rain.jpgYour point about our evolving sense of what obesity looks like is well taken. But your reference to Jackie Gleason reminded me of the movie "Soldier in the rain" made in 1963, which really illustrates the dangers of being overweight. There's a fight scene where one is sure that Gleason will collapse from heart failure before it's over - it's difficult to watch. This link  features pictures of Gleason with Steve McQueen [including the one at right, as they sat between takes].

The weight contrast is clear.

Many people of the Boomer era wrote in to mention an early soft-drink ad. As one put it:

When I was young in the 50's the standard Coca Cola bottle was 6.5 oz. Pepsi Cola had a jingle, "12 full ounces -- that's a lot!"

Finally, about adjustment in the other direction, an American who has lived for a long time in China writes:

I work around a lot of fashion models over here, and it occurs to me that our eyes have adjusted to thin as well as fat.  That is, if you pull out a picture of a fashion model from the 40s, 50s and 60s, many of them look positively plump compared to a contemporary fashion model.  They would never get work today.  It's funny how our eyes can adjust to two contrary trends, one in real life and one in photos.  Maybe we're getting used to extremes?

And, fittingly:

"Our eyes have adjusted" is clearly the nutritional equivalent of the boil-the-frog idea. Except this time it's our children  who are in hot water and don't know how to get out before it's too late.
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.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


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.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In