It's official: after running rampant for more than a quarter of a century, American obesity levels have plateaued for women and perhaps also for men. Although these recent findings have made federal health officials optimistic—as Cynthia Ogden of the National Center for Health Statistics puts it, "Maybe we've gotten as heavy as we can"—many are casting a cautious eye toward the future. As today's obese children grow up, rates may rise again.
Despite today's obesity epidemic, America's preoccupation with fat is not new—it stretches back over a century, during which time it has evolved in tandem with political and popular culture. A trip back through the Atlantic archives offers some revealing insights into American body politics.
America's weight consciousness probably emerged in the 1890s, when the excesses of the Gilded Age spawned consumer guilt, causing conspicuous gluttony to go out of style. Scholars have traced to this time the first known pairing of the words "fat" and "slob." Thinness became not only a fashion statement, but also a sign of virtue.
Those who could not lose that well-fed look eventually grew tired of hiding under tight vests and corsets, and clothing manufacturers recognized a new niche. In 1919 an anonymous Atlantic writer was astounded to come across a ladies' dress advertisement celebrating "Stylish Stouts"—an early example of plus-size fashions. It was only an ad, but the jubilant writer saw in it the dawn of a new era, "an epochal adjustment of fashion to fact." He declared, "The anti-fat nostrum, the recipes for rolling, the panting mountain climb, all the many-doctored advice, all the beauty-parlor pummeling—all this is obsolete, for obesity has come into its own.
On further contemplation, the writer noticed more evidence of feminine stoutness coming into vogue. Novelists were beginning to introduce plump heroines, for example. This he took to be a sign that Westerners were finally catching up to "the Orientals," who had long held that the obese make for more pleasant company. "Knowing that fat women are good to live with," he claimed, "the harem husband long ago persuaded himself and the ladies that they are equally good to look at."
But the writer complained of an unfortunate double standard: portly men still were not getting their share of respect. He speculated that this was a particularly American hang-up. "This ideal of masculine slimness," he wrote, "is explained by our fondness for thinking of our men as lean wrestlers with frontier conditions, for the fact of the frontier is still a pleasant figment of our fancy." He was optimistic nevertheless that "in due time the fat man, like the fat woman, [will] be made heroic in fiction and fashion-plate."
Fat turned out to be more than a fashion issue, however. By mid-century, the health risks of obesity were well publicized. In the prosperous years after World War Two, when fast food appeared and the only frontiersmen left in America were the ones riding their Buicks along the interstate to pioneer suburbia, obesity began to reach epidemic proportions. In his first year in the White House, John F. Kennedy was so concerned about the flabby state of the nation that he formed the President's Council on Physical Fitness and appealed to Americans to get in shape as a matter of patriotic duty. In 1961, Frank R. Neu, public relations director for the American Dairy Association, joined in the campaign with a public interest announcement alarmingly titled, "WE MAY BE SITTING OURSELVES TO DEATH."
Neu's message was couched in Cold War rhetoric:
There is a note of urgency behind this latest call of action to build physical fitness. At a time when the nation faces a growing need for strength in its people as well as in its machines, the record for physical fitness is not one to be proud of.
One of every two Americans called for Army duty was being rejected due to "physical, mental or moral unfitness," Neu pointed out.
Neu proceeded with a scathing description of a day in the life "Mr. Joe Citizen, middle class suburban dweller." Driving, sitting behind a desk, overeating, and TV-watching were the primary activities of the slothful Joe. His most strenuous exercise consisted of the occasional game of golf, assisted by an electric cart.
Neu admonished Americans of all ages to eat nutritionally, exercise daily, and drink lots of milk, not merely in order that they might "stand around on the beach in very brief leopard skins to be admired by one and all," but because "all of us certainly owe it to our communities and to our nation's future to give much more than lip service to President Kennedy and those he has designated to develop better and sensible physical fitness programs."
Was slimming down through exercise and diet really the best Cold War strategy for U.S. citizens? At least one American thought not. In 1962, a young writer named John Crawford submitted to The Atlantic "A Plea for Physical Fatness," in which he made the case that the best way to beat the Russians was to... outweigh them. Crawford's argument was pure logic: in order to win the hearts and minds of the people of the world away from communism, Americans would have to show them how good life was under capitalism.
How can we expect the world's starving masses to believe that a nation of emaciated people is as well off as it pretends to be? We seem to have forgotten that while obesity is the bane of modern America, it remains the ultimate symbol of happiness and security to that portion of mankind which goes to bed hungry every night.
The Russians were clearly in on this secret, Crawford inferred from the appearance of their public officials. "A look at the entire galaxy of Russian VIPs, in fact, presents us with an unavoidable truth —namely, that the Soviets have chosen their leaders with an eye to the propaganda value of obesity." Moreover, Crawford had heard rumors that Russian citizens of all ages were dutifully putting on pounds, and this struck him as a grave threat to the free world: "The psychological impact of such a thoroughly fat nation upon much of the world would be sufficient to entice it into the Communist camp."
Boldly defying his own "svelte" President, Crawford called upon his nation to enter the fat race, concluding with a rousing echo of Churchill:
We shall match the Russians potato for potato, calorie for calorie. We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the picnic grounds; we shall fight in the all-night hamburger stands. We shall never surrender! And if the American nation should last a thousand years, history will say, "This was their fattest hour!"
By the late 1980s, we had a new rival to contend with. Japan's rise to superpowerdom seemed like an economic David and Goliath story, with America playing the humiliated giant. In "No-Fat City" (1986), James Fallows, an Atlantic correspondent living in Tokyo with his family, grappled with a particular aspect of the Asian miracle: How did the Japanese stay so much slimmer and live so much longer than Americans without doing any exercise?
Due partly to a lack of space, and partly to workaholism, recreational sports were not big in Japan. After a long day at the office, Japanese businessmen headed for restaurants and bars, not gyms. Among teenagers, Fallows noted that it was fashionable to carry sports equipment as an accessory, but not to use it. Yet not only were they far thinner and healthier than the gym-obsessed Americans, they tended to look ten years younger. The answer, Fallows believed, was a frugal diet. Even as they went wild for McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and though they had some equally greasy delicacies of their own, the Japanese had a national trait that Americans notoriously lacked: self-restraint. According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, the average American consumed over 30 percent more calories per day than a Japanese.
Fallows noted that the symbolism of the two nations' body types had changed along with their relative status since World War Two:
Forty years ago the physical contrast between Americans and Japanese was between the tall, strong victors and the short, weak vanquished. Now, it looks to me like a contrast between a soft culture and a hard one—between people who eat to satiation and those whose portions are small.
Rumor had it, however, that overeating was becoming a problem among Japanese youth as well and that obesity was on the rise. Fallows was skeptical, but he concluded on a note of jealous hope: "When Jane Fonda's Workout Book becomes a best seller in Japan, we'll know that our industries have a chance."
By the late 1990s, the U.S.A. was back on top and bigger than ever. As global trade spread Western wealth to developing countries, processed junk foods spread along with it. As a result, in the twenty-first century, obesity is no longer just a First World disease.
In 2001, Ellen Ruppel Shell investigated a horrifying example of a medical crisis known as "New World Syndrome." On the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, rapid Westernization has brought a scourge of illnesses associated with bad diet, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, bringing average life-spans down to the late-fifties.
The Kosraeans' trouble began with a 1986 trade compact between the Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. that included $100 million per year in aid. The money formed the bulk of the FSM's revenue, and transformed the Kosraeans almost overnight from farmers and fishermen into desk-bound bureaucrats. Proud of their newfound wealth, the Kosraeans took to traveling even short distances by car. Homegrown produce was replaced by imported junk food—Shell found grocery stores packed with tinned meats, cake mixes, and potato chips, with hardly any fresh fruits or vegetables to be found. This drastic lifestyle change, combined with an apparent genetic tendency toward obesity, had catastrophic results. In 1994, Micronesian health officials declared that 85 percent of Kosraeans between the ages of forty-five and sixty-four were obese.
Kosrae is but one example—New World Syndrome, Shell discovered, is rampant throughout the South Pacific and beyond. According to the World Health Organization, overeating is "the fastest growing form of malnourishment" in the world. Unlike America's health-conscious leaders, however, Shell found Micronesian officials averse to the notion of intervening to help stop the spread of the disease:
I heard repeatedly that health was a matter of willpower and individual effort, and that government could do nothing to curb the public taste for imports. The fact that many state legislators in Micronesia are also food importers was never mentioned—nor were the particulars of auto importation in a tiny country already overrun with cars.
On a brighter note, Shell remarked, some healthful American imports were showing up in Kosrae as well—basketball and baseball were gaining popularity. Then again, so was television. Soon, she concluded wistfully,
Kosraeans will be able to come home, open a few cans of Spam, switch on the tube, and kick back for the evening. It is then that they will truly be able to live—and die—in the manner of their Western benefactors.
Without a doubt, the problem of American obesity has grown weightier over the past century. No longer merely a matter of vanity, of personal health or of patriotism, today it is a burden on a global scale.
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