The obesity / class / region express rolls on

In response to a reader's comment that a pack of buffed-up CPAs "built like lumberjacks" took on construction workers and held their own, plus another about slimmed-down med students, this reponse:

"I agree with many of the observations from your med student correspondent. I work for a mid-sized management consulting firm comprised almost entirely of former Big Four consultants. We employee many CPAs and MBAs. Other people have different higher degrees. Though we have offices all over the Midwest as a group the employees are not merely trim but fit. Just in my office in Kansas City (traditionally considered one of the fattest cities around) we have several triatheletes, lots of marathon runners and long-distance cyclists. Having a personal trainer is not consider out of the ordinary.

"It is assumed that everyone has an athletic hobby. To be unfit would be a career-limiting trait. To be obsese would be career suicide. No one munches chips at their desks.

"Management consulting can be a bit of a macho world. Some guys compete, even place bets, when they participate in local charity runs. To lose is to invite gentle (or not so gentle) ribbing from other males. Our firm regularly competes in Corporate Challenge, which is taken quite seriously by the leadership. To win an event merits a mention at office-wide meetings.

"I think fitness is seen by the leadership as a proxy for discipline, self-control, and health. We are forbidden by HR from asking certain questions during interviews so questions about excercise and visual inspection of candidates can be used to gather important data about perspective hires. All things being equal, a big fat guy would not be hired.

"Most of us have to visit clients and it is believed that the appearence of fitness and vitality gives clients confidence in our skills, our ability to work long hours, our discipline.

"Not all of this is class. Many of the partners and employees, including myself, come from working class, rural or near-rural childhoods in small towns thoughout the Midwest or South. Some come from extremely small towns in western Kansas. A few were overweight or obese earlier in life and have worked hard to overcome that. I guess a lot of this is self-selection but I think most is a by-product of ambition and peer pressure. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the idea that to rise in the corporate world you had to have a certain look. This look includes being trim, having no facial hair, having enough muscle to fill out a suit but not so much you're conspicuous, and having nice teeth."

After the jump, a report based on compare-and-contrast observations in Kansas City and Chicago.

A reader in the Midwest writes:

"A few years ago my job, a white-collar desk job, transferred me from living and working in Chicago to the outer fringes of suburban Kansas City.  One of my first observations in the Kansas City office was how many obese people there were in the workplace and how many could be found standing outside in all kinds of weather on smoke breaks.  In the sea of humanity that is downtown Chicago on a workday I noticed very little obesity. 

"The only conclusion I could come up with is if one is going to work in downtown Chicago most likely they will be taking a bus or train to and from it and have to powerwalk..and I say powerwalk because the freezing cold and damp winters do not encourage a leisurely stroll..several blocks to burn off those deep-dish pizza calories from lunch or the night before.  In Kansas City mass-transit (bus only) is minimal and in the suburbs almost non-existenet.  Meanwhile, Kansas City loves its barbecue and pork tenderloin, and has plenty of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, but if the most walking you do is from a parking lot to the door then the pounds will start adding on.

"Afterhours activites may account for the difference too in the two Midwestern cities.  Chicago..similar to Denver, NYC, DC, SF, LA, etc. is a magnet for the ambitious, free-thinking, and energetic.  Friends and coworkers seemed to marry and have children, if they do, later in life; and spend the lengthy single years developing other interests which often included working-out and participant sports.  To me, few things were more enjoyable than bicycling along th e Chicago Lakefront on a summer day.  The suburban Kansas City coworkers usually get hitched by their mid-twenties, quite often to the same love-interest from high school or college, quickly have children, and their  lives then revolve around the spouse, children, and spectator sports.  Also, the stifling hot breath of a typical Missouri summer does a good job of discouraging outdoor activity unless it is necessary.

"Finally, I make trips back to Chicago and Northern Indiana several times a year.  The differences in obesity between Chicago and Kansas City to my eyes are still holding true.  However, I do notice it more when visiting family in Indiana which I find is much more like Kansas City in the above comparisons save for the oppresive summers."
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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.


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