Our Eyes Have Adjusted ...

By James Fallows

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.

RoadRace.jpg

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.)

HawaiianAesthetic.png 


More in the queue.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/our-eyes-have-adjusted/258374/