The Body Politic

When scholars come to write the history of the obesity epidemic of the early 21st century, they might well single out as a turning point a meeting held in the spring of 2002.

Fewer than 10 people were in attendance. Among them was John F. Banzhaf III, the George Washington University law professor who began suing the tobacco companies in the 1960s, when the idea of holding them responsible for smoking’s health effects was considered laughable. Also on hand was Richard Daynard, another longtime anti-tobacco litigant. A third participant was the dean of the “food police,” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition-advocacy organization and the bête noire of the food industry.

They had gathered to discuss whether the obesity crisis, declared by the U.S. surgeon general in 2001 to be public-health threat No. 1, had legs. Could Big Food be sued on the same legal grounds that brought down Big Tobacco? Could the marketers of supersize fries and 44-ounce vats of soft drink be made to pay for the costs of Americans’ burgeoning waistlines? Would charges such as failure to disclose, peddling addiction and marketing to children stick to the purveyors of double cheeseburgers and snack foods greasy with trans fats? “Many of the nonlawyers in the room were dubious,” recalls Banzhaf. But by the meeting’s end, “we decided, yes, this was a real movement, and we would encourage it.”

Or perhaps the key moment happened in a mall in 2001, when Torrid, a clothing store that sells hip fashions to teenage girls up to size 26, opened its doors. The chain has prospered on the proposition that a little belly—or even a big one—should not prevent one from wearing low-rise jeans. Fourteen percent of teens are overweight, three times the percentage of 20 years ago, and, according to Torrid president and CEO Betsy McLaughlin, they are just as eager to be fashionable as their thinner peers. Fat kids have come out of the closet, and they’re wearing halter tops and miniskirts.

Both of these events are emblematic of a society that author Greg Critser has dubbed “Fat Land.” In Fat Land, 61 percent of adult Americans are overweight, and those extra pounds cost an estimated $117 billion in related health costs each year.

On the one hand, the obesity crisis has spawned a legal and legislative assault on the food industry that is already being felt at companies such as Kraft, PepsiCo and McDonald’s. Among consumers, it has sparked growing concern over the healthiness of the burgers and fries they grew up on and feed their children, and made Eric Schlosser’s food-industry exposé, Fast Food Nation, a New York Times best-selling paperback for 72 weeks and counting.

Yet at the very moment that food-industry practices are coming under scrutiny for their role in making people fat, being fat is becoming more socially acceptable. The same magazines whose stick-thin models have triggered untold cases of anorexia and bulimia now declare that it’s OK to have “curves.” Ready-to-wear designers from Liz Claiborne to Dana Buchman are eager to dress the millions of American women on the far side of size 14.

In other categories, too, such as fitness and even travel (“Live large, live free!” urges the “size-friendly” Freedom Paradise resort in Mexico), obesity is not a crisis but an opportunity. “This is a capitalist society, God bless it,” says Candace Corlett, a partner at consultancy WSL Strategic Retail in New York. “You ferret out an opportunity and market to it, and that’s how the economy grows.” The customer is still always right, even if he’s fat.

In Fat Land, consumers want contradictory things. They are demanding more information about the food they eat and “healthier choices” at the fast-food counter and on the grocery shelf. But they don’t want to be penalized if they decline to make those choices. As the obesity crisis deepens, the challenge for marketers is to champion consumers in their desire not to be fat—and champion them again when they get fat anyway.

When it comes to eating habits, Americans claim to believe in personal responsibility. In a recent survey by the American Council on Fitness and Nutrition, a food-industry group formed in January to mount a public relations offensive in the obesity wars, 96 percent of respondents agreed that “parents are responsible for ensuring their children have a healthy body weight.” Likewise, 94 percent believe “each adult is solely responsible for his/her weight.” A lawsuit on behalf of obese teens brought last summer in New York against McDonald’s inspired arias of ridicule on op-ed pages, while callers light up the talk-show switchboards to mock proposed fat taxes.

Yet 88 percent of respondents to the same survey believe that fast-food restaurants facilitate overeating with supersizing, and 83 percent agree that too much food advertising is aimed at children. Moreover, a significant number—40 percent—expect the food industry to do something about it.

Some companies are already responding. Kraft Foods this month announced a set of initiatives, including reformulating recipes, slimming down portion sizes, expanding the information on nutrition labels and extending labeling to countries where it is not required. At the same time, it is discontinuing marketing in schools and reviewing the product lines it sells in school vending machines. Finally, Kraft will also make sure there are no more ads like the one for Double Stuf Oreos that was pulled last January for showing sedentary kids.

“You can’t have every commercial begin with kids running in off the soccer field,” says Kraft spokesman Michael Mudd. “But when it’s appropriate, we’d like our ads to model positive behavior.”

Philip Morris’ corporate sibling is not alone. Frito-Lay is taking the trans fats out of its popular brands of couch-potato feed (Doritos, Tostitos, Cheetos), while parent PepsiCo has pledged that 50 percent of its product line will be health- and nutrition-conscious. McDonald’s, the obesity-lawsuit magnet, has introduced a new line of salads, is refitting its Happy Meals with fresh fruit and has added to its staff a vice president for healthy lifestyles.

Meanwhile, virtually all the food companies have become born-again exercise evangelists. For example, the foundation arm of General Mills, purveyor of cereals including the sugar-crusted Trix and Lucky Charms, is promoting youth fitness in its Minneapolis backyard. And Kraft is considering indicating on its nutrition labels the amount of exercise necessary to burn off a serving portion.

Critics claim such gestures are cynical moves, motivated only by an interest in staying a step ahead of the lawsuits. Mudd admits that Kraft “hopes that by doing the right thing, we will avoid unwanted litigation and legislation,” but he says the company is also responding to demand. “The more that people are aware of the importance of healthier lifestyles, the more they are going to look for products and portions that meet those goals,” he says.

“It’s not a revolution. But there is a real and growing trend toward more health and weight consciousness,” says Bob Goldin, evp at Technomics, a food-industry consulting and research company in Chicago. “It already has impacted the performance of the burger players, the chicken players, the pizza players. People feel the food is just not healthy. They’re more sensitive to it.”

Even more than the food manufacturers, the fast-food chains are now in the sights of Banzhaf and his fellow public-interest lawyers. Banzhaf’s students at George Washington went after McDonald’s for not disclosing that its french fries were cooked in beef tallow—and won a $12.5 million settlement and an apology to Hindus and vegetarians. While this was not an obesity issue per se, the suit did put the fast-food industry on notice that it could be held liable for nondisclosure. Says Banzhaf, “The No. 1 issue is that the fast-food companies do not make clear, conspicuous disclosure of fat and calories at the point of sale.”

Steven Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association, counters that labeling restaurant foods would be a logistical nightmare. “Look at Subway,” he says. “People have a choice of 15 different items—types of bread, types of meat, cheese and condiments. Altogether you have 1.3 trillion combinations. With that kind of customization, it’s virtually impossible to determine nutritional values.”

On the other hand, nutritional information about menu items is already available on most fast-food-chain Web sites, so why not make it available in the stores? Moreover, the food manufacturers complained just as bitterly about the impracticality and cost of labeling store products, and yet today such labels have helped protect them from certain kinds of lawsuits, much as warnings on cigarettes once shielded the tobacco companies.

Goldin believes menu labeling is inevitable. The food-service lobby “will tell you that [the obesity war is] about choice,” he says. “But it’s not all about choice, because the consumer does not know what he is choosing. He may not want to know. But he doesn’t know. People say that if you go to Krispy Kreme, you know that you are eating something that’s bad for you. But you don’t know how bad.”

Even consumers who think they are making healthier choices often are not. McDonald’s salads have been a hit, but the crispy-chicken versions featured in the ads, with full-fat Newman’s Own dressing, have close to 500 calories—more than a cheeseburger. And the Tuscan Chicken sandwich at Panera Bread Co. is wholesome-sounding, but fat- and calorie-wise, you are much better off eating a Big Mac.

Still, there are voices calling for fat people themselves to pay the price for their excess avoirdupois. Law professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago has proposed legalizing discrimination against the obese at school, at work and among insurers. Health and human services secretary Tommy Thompson has also suggested insurers consider raising rates for those who cannot keep their body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) under 30, the current measure for obesity, on the grounds that the obese raise the health costs for everybody else.

And in between harrying corporations and school boards, Banzhaf successfully lobbied the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to support the industry practice of charging the obese more, just as some smokers are charged more. Such policies, proponents say, would strike a blow for personal responsibility and provide an incentive for the overweight to shape up and slim down.

But one person’s incentive is another’s discriminatory practice. Just ask Southwest Airlines, which tried in June 2002 to enforce a long-standing rule requiring wide-bodied passengers to buy an extra seat. Within a month, two obese customers threatened to sue, the outraged fat-acceptance lobby took its case to the media, and Southwest backed down.

Complicating the fat-acceptance issue is what might be called the Barbie Legacy—the impossible feminine ideal of big boobs, tiny waist, narrow hips and legs up to here. The tyranny of the thin body type has become a feminist issue over the years, a punishing ideal that has pushed thousands of young women into anorexia and bulimia.

Against that background, it is liberating to see big girls get their due in the media. The bony décolletage of Will and Grace’s Debra Messing is out; the zaftig shape of Kelly Osbourne and J. Lo’s much-celebrated culo are in. Kate Winslet won cheers for objecting when the U.K. version of GQ slimmed down her womanly thighs in Photoshop for its cover. As Stefano Tonchi, fashion creative director of Esquire, told The New York Times, “That skinny, skinny look of Sex and the City is really over.”

Accepting women as they are has been key to the success of Curves International, a 5,400-outlet fitness chain that ranks as one of the fastest-growing franchises in the country. Its ads, from Publicis in Mid America in Dallas, feature real women with bat-wing arms and stomach rolls. Says Mike Raymond, the company’s director of marketing, “Our competition does nothing but show tight buns and hard abs. But for many people, that aspiration is unattainable. What we do is show the world as it really is.”

While women’s-health advocates rightly deplore 15-year-olds vomiting up their lunches so they can look like the Sex and the City girls, millions more teens are headed for a lifetime of fat-related health problems. Yet extra pounds are evolving into a badge, as fat becomes a form of self-expression, a sign of authenticity, a hallmark of individuality. Is American Idol’s Ruben Studdard alarmed to find himself pushing 350 pounds at age 25? Hardly. “I’m cool,” he told USA Today. “I’ve always believed in being true to myself.”

In the same spirit, Queen Latifah, spokeswoman for VF Corp.’s new plus-size lingerie line Curvation, counsels her fans, “Don’t be afraid of the curves! I am proud to be a curvaceous woman.” (This pride, however, did not deter her from shedding 40 pounds and undergoing a breast reduction recently.)

Advocates for more diverse body shapes like to point out that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14. But “size inflation has been going on since the 1950s,” says WSL’s Corlett, making Marilyn’s dress size roughly equivalent to today’s size 10. Nor is this the only way apparel makers protect consumers from their growing dimensions. In Fat Land, published in January, Critser cites research that suggests people who wear belts stop eating sooner than those who don’t. But thanks to elastic waistbands, consumers no longer need to feel that kind of discomfort at the dinner table. In the same way, says Corlett, “polyester stretch fabrics have been a disaster” for weight control.

Our language, too, is filled with fat-enabling euphemisms: “full figured” instead of “fat,” “shaper” and “tummy smoother” instead of “girdle,” and the sexy-sounding “curvaceous” instead of just plain “overweight.”

Even as consumers are encouraged to love their curves, corporations remain under fire for contributing to them. In the past few weeks, John Banzhaf presented the National Restaurant Association’s Anderson with a letter that claims fast food is addictive, citing studies in a British pop-science magazine. The letter, Banzhaf said, creates a paper trail for a possible future lawsuit that would hold fast-food chains responsible for hooking consumers on their products. He also announced his intention to sue the Seattle school board for allowing junk food in its vending machines. He even suggested that individual members of the board might face suits.

All Banzhaf is proving is that “rats like cheese,” sneers a statement from the NRA. Nevertheless, the pressure is building. Little more than a week after Kraft said it would list trans fatty acids on nutrition labels, Tommy Thompson announced that such labels would become mandatory by 2006.

Will these moves slow the rate of obesity’s increase? Nutrition labels have been on packaged foods for 13 years. “Healthy eating” has been in fashion even longer. This hasn’t stopped Americans from putting on extra pounds at an alarming rate. And as long as consumers continue to get fatter, the trend we see today should hold: greater demands on the companies that supply our food and more accommodation for the consumers who eat it.

Consider that petri dish of social trends: California. In the past two years, the state has proposed taxing soft-drink sales, banning the sale of soda in schools and requiring chains to supply nutrition information on all their offerings. It was also in California that an enterprising lawyer sued in May to ban Nabisco’s Oreo cookies with their harmful trans fats. (The suit was withdrawn three days later.)

And yet Californians are also on the cutting edge of fat acceptance. When a 240-pound San Francisco aerobics instructor was rejected last fall by Jazzercize because of her appearance, she called the city’s Human Rights Commission. Jazzercize soon said body size would no longer be a criterion for instructors. The news was celebrated in the streets on the 10th International No Diet Day.

File it under the cultural contradictions of capitalism.