Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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In Charles Dickens day, thin people were poor people. The rich were plump, hearty and healthy. To be fat was to be elite. Those who could afford to eat well, were well. The rest, especially the children, were scrawny, underfed, and susceptible to disease.

In the 1951 movie of A Christmas Carol, the Spirit of Christmas Present draws back his voluminous robes to show Ebenezer Scrooge two skinny, scared and ragged waifs huddled beneath. They were the picture of wretched need. “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,” the spirit warns.

While Dickens was indulging in a metaphor about the squalid conditions the poor lived under in Victorian London, his depiction of poor children, indeed, poor people in general was accurate. Only rich people could afford to be fat.

Today, the tables are turned. The poor are the fat ones. They are the class of people who cannot afford to be thin. Obviously, all obese people aren’t poor. But in societies in which thin matters, the rich have the means and the opportunity to be so.

Take a walk down Fifth Avenue in New York; Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles; the Champs Elysee in Paris – those women who matter to those cities are, for the most part, normal if not obscenely thin. It’s a cruel lesson in what money will really buy — the best of food, the best of service and if needs be, the best of help should one of the “ladies who lunch” actually eat lunch and gain weight. No discrimination is more pointed than that leveled at the fat woman in cities where such things matter. It only takes one snippy sales clerk announcing, in an aggrieved voice: “Oh, my dear, we have nothing in YOUR size.” I could cheerfully have shot her on the spot. Instead I remembered the scene in Pretty Woman when the hooker played by Julia Roberts cleans up and spends an obscene amount of money in other stores, only to return to the first shop carrying large bags filled with designer clothes. She says in a satisfied voice to the clerk who snubbed her and who works on commission: “Big mistake. Huge.”

The stigma – the modern version of the discrimination meted out to the poor and needy in Victorian England — is the same. To be fat, particularly in the United States, is to be thought of as Dickens’ twins were: ignorant and wanting. This, of course, matter little in the fast food courts in the malls of America, or the restaurants where it isn’t the quality of the meal that matters, but the sheer bulk. It’s not for nothing that “all you can eat” buffets are so popular. One would think the fear of public opprobrium would convince many people to get and stay thin.

Certainly, it was a curious kind of fear that moved me to lose 50 pounds when my sister announced she was getting married 38 years ago. I had about six months from the telephone call announcing her engagement to the July wedding. I think I stopped eating the same time I hung up the telephone. The fear was simple: I am Susan’s only sister, prime candidate for maid of honour status.

I’m not certain she ever believed why I lost all that weight, but the reason was simple: All I could see in my mind’s eye was her wedding photos with this glum maid of honour with a double chin smiling out of fat cheeks at generations yet to come. I couldn’t bear to face the pity down through the years, so I set about to lose as much weight as I could in six months. I succeeded spectacularly, so much so that when I arrived back in Red Deer from Toronto for the wedding, Mother had to quickly alter the bridesmaid’s dress she had made.

Terror and the wedding over, guess what happened? It started with a ham sandwich after which I happily ate my way back up and then some. Fear only goes so far.

That could explain why the percentage of obese people keeps rising, particularly in places where the average income is lower. “While the data shows an unequivocal gain in excess poundage throughout the country,” writes Neil Osterweil on the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic site, there is a “surprising inverse relationship between income and waistline. In other words, the more income grows, the lower obesity goes.”

Adam Drenowski director of the centre for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle ranks Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and West Virginia as those with the highest percentage of obesity. “Conversely, Connecticut and Massachusetts which are among the wealthiest states have among the lowest obesity rates.”

Data for Canada are limited. But a look at our poorest communities — First Nations and northern aboriginal settlements — would bear out the assumption that poor equals fat.

All of this is not overt. Nobody goes up to the obese in the mall and quotes Dickens. But the reality is that the same prejudice afforded smokers — they must be on a lower socio-economic level, have a sub-standard education and profession, not quite bright enough to quit – all of this is leveled at the fat, regardless If none of the above is true.

And having been a chain smoker for about 33 years before quitting 18 years ago, I know that one doesn’t have to be ignorant to be gullible, or desperate to be addicted.

It’s expensive to be thin. Buying fresh vegetables and fruit, meat and eggs costs a lot more than a Big Mac and a fries and once the groceries are paid for, there’s the cooking yet to be faced.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of grabbing a bite on the way home. Bu it’s not jus stopping for dinner instead of cooking that puts on the flabby pounds: It’s the money and, to a lesser extent, the time. Fast food is fat food. And fast food is cheap food. Sadly, fast food is delicious and seductive. Food experts talk about “mouth feel.” Real people just respond to the taste, designed to convince your brain that this kind of food is good. This isn’t news. Anyone with access to the Internet can read thousands of sites and probably million of words from experts around the world that will explain exactly why people get fat and what to do about it. There’s a mountain of information about cheap sugars and fats added to food to make them alluring.

One site proposes a “fan tax” on sports fans who buy what are called all-you-can-eat tickets. Football, basketball, hockey and stock car racing associations are promoting such tickets to games in the United States. Robert Schmuhl writes in PoiticsDaily that such specially priced tickets promise unlimited hot dogs, bratwurst, nachos with cheese, chips, popcorn and soft drinks for the fans in the stands. It is, writes Schmuhl, a “mushrooming and profitable sector in professional sports attendance.” It’s easy to laugh at such gluttony. “Instead of seeking a so-called “fat tax” on high-caloric fast food and sugary beverages, what about instituting a “fan tax at spectator contests where gluttony itself is becoming a spectator sport.”

Bread and circuses, indeed.

NEXT: Are all addictions – food, drugs, cigarettes, even exercise — the same?


Written by Catherine Ford

November 2, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Hello, I encountered your internet web page in a newfound listing of blogs. I dont know how your blog showed up, must have been a typo, anyhowYour statements above looks reputable. Have a good day.

    Myung Varel

    February 21, 2010 at 10:05 pm

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